On July 13 the lower house of the French parliament banned all forms of headgear that hide the face, with the rationale that such garments are “contrary to the values of the French Republic”. One politician put it more poetically: “The Republic has an open face”. It was probably not an accident that this law was passed on the eve of July 14—le quatorze juillet—the holiday which most explicitly celebrates the Republic, when the stirring notes of the Marseillaise blare forth across every public square in France. The law must still be ratified by the upper house, probably in September (France famously shuts down completely in August, when tourists can admire the scenery and the architecture without the distraction of actual French citizens, with the exception of taxi drivers and hotel clerks). Polls show that 82% of the French public approved the ban.
The law prohibits the strictest forms of Islamic headgear for women (men are not affected, except for the unlikely case that they allow their religiously motivated beards to expand so as to cover their foreheads). Specifically, two garments are banned: the burqa, which covers the entire face and even hides the eyes behind a mesh, and the niqab, sort of a burqa minus the mesh—the eyes are left uncovered. Unaffected are the chador, which covers the entire body but leaves the face uncovered, and the hijab, a kerchief which simply covers the hair. (And even the hijab was banned a few years ago from schools and other public buildings in France, triggering widespread debate and protests.) These various styles are very differently displayed in different parts of the Muslim world. The strictest forms are relatively rare in Europe, where the hijab is the most common. And there are many Muslim women, in the Middle East as well as in the Western diaspora, who assert that their faith does not prescribe any particular female garment beyond a general requirement of “Islamic modesty” (which, by the way, is a very interesting concept that would merit critical exploration, especially by Western feminists).
The recent French law is not an isolated event. As the Muslim presence in Europe grows (now estimated as comprising fifteen million in the EU), anxiety about it has been growing concomitantly. In November 2009 a Swiss referendum (which was opposed by most of the political and cultural establishment) banned all new minarets throughout the country. Just a few days ago, on August 2, the PVV, an anti-immigrant party in the Netherlands which received a surprisingly high number of votes in the June elections, agreed to back a newly formed center-right coalition government. Its leader, Geert Wilders, has, among other measures, advocated stopping the building of new mosques and banning of the Koran. Here, as in Switzerland, popular opinion prevailed against that of the progressive elite. It is noteworthy that Switzerland and the Netherlands have long traditions of religious tolerance. In the latter country the murder of Theo van Gogh (the author of an avowedly anti-Islamic film) by a Muslim extremist in November 2004 led to a sharp reversal of public opinion, turning against immigration in general and Muslim immigration in particular.
The French ban on the burqa and its slightly more moderate cousin, as in the antecedent developments, led to vociferous protests throughout the Muslim world and by Western human rights groups (including Amnesty International). Of course the protests were in the name of religious freedom. But a recurring phrase was “Islamophobia”—literally, “fear of Islam”—deemed to be an irrational and morally reprehensible prejudice. Is there such a thing? And does it apply here?
Of course there are irrational and morally reprehensible prejudices against religious groups. If that is what the term means, then Wilders can clearly be described and censured as an Islamophobe. In the wake of September 11 and other incidents of lesser magnitude (such as the murder of van Gogh), not all anxieties about Islam can be considered irrational and reprehensible. As an Egyptian commentator (quite courageously) pointed out, most Muslims are not terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims. But I, for one, am not deterred by this fact from a deep respect for Islam, indeed from a certain affinity with it. (Many years ago my older son, who must have been around twelve then, asked me, “If you were not a Christian, what would you rather be?” I think he expected me to say something like “a Buddhist”. He was surprised when I said, “a Muslim”.) But does the pejorative meaning of “Islamophobia” apply to l’affaire burqa? I tend to think no, though I would not preclude the likelihood that some of those supporting the ban are motivated by racist prejudices.
It seems to me that the underlying question here is not one of religious freedom, rather one of public decency. An analogy may be useful here. (Let me remind you of the Chinese sage I quoted some time ago on this blog—to the effect that wisdom consists of thinking together what is usually thought of separately.)
Suppose that I am a nudist. I believe that I should have the right to be naked in public. If I am arrested on a charge of public indecency, I will protest on the grounds of freedom of expression. If the incident occurred in the United States, my appeal will presumably be based on the first amendment. The court which will (probably) reject my appeal, is likely to do so by resorting to the well-established concept of reasonable community standards, which a local or state ordinance may legitimately enforce. So far, so good. But the first amendment also enshrines the principle of religious freedom. Well, it so happens that I am an adherent of Jainism. This ancient Indian religion is divided into a number of sects. One of them has an order of monks called Digambar—a Sanskrit word translated as “sky-clad”—a quite poetic synonym for nakedness. I am, or claim to be a Digambar monk, with a first-amendment right to march around in a “sky-clad” condition. Will the court accept my claim? One never knows with judges, but probably not. The court will probably say that I am free to be naked at home, in a nudist camp, or a Digambar monastery—but not on Main Street. A French court, applying different precedents, will probably come out the same way—and without necessarily invoking “Republican values”.
The Islamic presence is of existential importance for Europe. Given its negative demographic trajectory, there are only two possibilities: either indigenous European women will have more children, or there will be continued large-scale immigration, much of it Muslim. Persuading European women to have more children does not seem to be a promising project. Without being “phobic” about it, European democracies will have to devote very serious thinking to the question of Muslim integration—its necessity, its legitimation, but also its limits. I am rather optimistic about this. Serious thinking is going on, there are significant steps toward a distinctly European Islam, and we know from survey data that most Muslims want to be integrated into their host societies.