Enslavement in the name of liberty

Christopher Hook

Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners, is sweeping through Europe. Last year, Swiss voters widely approved a ban on the building of minarets, the large steeples common to mosques. Countries like Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium (among others) have radical right-wing fringes known for making anti-Semitic comments and calling for a complete halt to immigration; these parties are becoming less peripheral and more powerful in wielding government authority.

In the latest, last Tuesday an advisory panel of top French legislators submitted a report recommending that the French government, led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, should ban the wearing of burqas, a garment worn by devout Muslim women that covers the woman’s entire body, including her eyes. The ban would extend only to being in public, not to the privacy of one’s home. To these French “représentatifs d’état,” the burqa represents extremist (see “dangerous”) Islam, the repression of women and a threat to the state doctrine of “laïcité,” or the strict separation of church and state.

But I think the French are wrong (I know, again?). While the veil is donned by those more fundamental adherents, it is in no way representative of a dangerous Islam, the kind practiced by al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden. Women have been wearing the burqa for years in France. It is only because there are such heightened fears about “Islamofacism” brought on by 9/11 and other attacks that this kind of attitude is taken. In addition, international law only allows the repression of religious practice if the practice creates an unsafe situation in the country. I hardly believe that simply wearing a burqa is a security threat.

Moreover, the West needs to concern itself with the effect its policies on Islam have in its attempt to root out and destroy global terrorism. To win the “hearts and minds” of those in the Muslim world, the West needs to state clearly that it is not “at war” with Islam, just those who would use Islam to take innocent lives. Unfortunately, banning the veil sends the message that the Western lifestyle is incompatible with a fundamental Islamic one.

And the attempt to defend women against the horrors of their own religion is merely a misguided values judgment about one of the core methods of practice for devout Muslim women. True, these women, just by nature of their religion, do not enjoy the same freedoms as their counterparts in the West. This would be an issue if the government itself promoted such inequality. But in making such a claim about a non-state entity — a religion — France is blatantly disregarding its constitutional creed to separate church and state, and rather thrusting itself into the role as the principal authority on what constitutes legitimate religious practice.

The French Parliament and Sarkozy will decide whether to adopt the recommendation, which enjoys strong support by the French populace, in the months to come. Unfortunately, “le gouvernement français,” bowing to popular pressure, seems headed toward making the proposed ban a reality.

But instead of freeing Muslim women from the chains of their repression, this ban will prohibit a vital ritual of the most important aspect of these women’s lives: their religion. Instead of gaining liberty, Muslim women in France will become slaves to an immoral law and an ugly society that rejects them for their beliefs.

Christopher Hook is a junior international relations and French major. Contact him at [email protected].