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Recently, France has escalated its ongoing assault on religious displays and symbols, most recently manifested in the official denunciation of the burqa worn by some muslim women. The French government is winning the war of forced secularization, outward signs of religion–the crucifix, turbans, the burqa and more–are quickly becoming anathema in French culture.
Recently the French government has decided not to award citizenship to a Moroccan man whose wife wears a burqa. Regarding the decision, Immigration Minister Eric Besson offered this explanation:
This individual imposes the full veil upon his wife, does not allow her the freedom to go and come as she pleases and bans her from going out with her face unveiled, and rejects the principles of secularism and equality between man and woman.
This is only the latest outbreak in this contentious issue. Several months ago French President Nicolas Sarkozy floated the issue of banning the burqa from all areas of public French society. France has a long and shameful history of religious discrimination and inequality, but this latest push for secularism has manifested itself into an assault on religious expression.
Why does it matter to the United States that France has its collective tête jammed at least ten centimetres up its own Citroën with regard to religious freedom? It is certainly important as a cautionary example. Despite the long-held mantra that “It Can’t Happen Here,” recent anti-religious trends should give Americans pause.
Unlike France, which is an explicitly secular nation, the United States is not. The First Amendment precludes the government from establishing a religion or favoring one religion over another. This is not a rejection of religion or religiosity. In fact, by preventing the government from interfering with the free worship of its citizens, the Bill of Rights affirms the importance of religion in many people’s lives. The United States may no longer be a specifically judeo-christian nation, but it is a religious one.
There is the temptation to regard this religiosity as a flaw or weakness in our national character, an adherence to superstition over science that paralyzes our intellectual development. While not without some merit, this characterization is simplistic and, I believe, largely mistaken. Our national religiosity is one of the primary reasons why the US doesn’t suffer the religious ghettoization and integration woes currently plaguing Western Europe. It is our long-standing and varied religious traditions–and the necessary tolerance which accompanies those variegated beliefs–that allow our citizenry to proudly display their religious affiliation, be it a cross, yarmulke, veil or platter of spaghetti.
This tolerance doesn’t manifest itself in such a way that a spaghetti adherent must believe what a Jewish person believes, nor does it mandate that members of differing religious groups even like one another. Our creed demands only mutual respect, in that ideally, Americans of all faiths recognize the right of peoples of different faith to practice and express their respective religions, no matter how ridiculous or bizarre. This delicate balance puts American culture somewhere between the European extremes: France, striving to gut religious expression entirely; and the United Kingdom, which has resurrected its long-dead policy of appeasement in dealing with its growing Muslim population.
It is always naïve at best and foolish at worst to say that anything “Can’t Happen Here.” Nonetheless, our democratic traditions of religious liberty are long-standing and deeply ingrained. Can it happen here? Sure. Will it? I don’t believe so.
I was discussing this issue not long ago with a friend, who said to me, “Don’t you think the burqa represents repression against women, and only encourages a subordinate role? I’m all for liberté but not at liberté of treating someone in a sub-human fashion.”
The beauty of living in a country where every man, woman and child is free to express his or her religious beliefs, is that it doesn’t matter at all what I think.