Pierre Bayle, a 17th-century philosopher and theologian, wrote one of the first works on religious toleration of the western tradition. He argued that Christians should not use force to convert those of other faiths to their own beliefs. Rather, through discussion and education, the adherent of one faith can try to use shared principles to convince the follower of different beliefs to change her ways. Bayle was a Frenchman.
In France a parliamentary debate is taking place about a ban of the full-face veil. A ban backed by police and court enforcement would be tantamount to using force to change people’s attitudes and practices. The French Parliament should reject this option.
A 200-page French parliamentary report published in January claimed that the full-face veil “is a challenge to our republic” and parliament adopted a resolution in May calling the full-face veil “an affront to the nation’s values of dignity and equality.” Arguments have tended to focus on the niqab and burqa as symbols of repression and their denying women equal rights with men. However, as Speaker Bernard Accoyer put it before the French National Assembly in January, the full-face veil is also a “symbol of … extremist fundamentalism.”
And, of course, the background to the whole debate is provided by France’s peculiarly virulent strain of secularism, which has already led in 2004 to a ban of headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools.
During the current debate, two questions should be on the mind of the French Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, and his colleagues. Is the wearing of the full-face veil degrading, “a sign of debasement,” as President Sarkozy has claimed? And, if it is degrading, what should be done? The current answer is that it is degrading – for a muddle of loosely-connected reasons concerning women’s rights, French secularism, and the threat of extremism. The solution? A ban and a €150 fine.
Those answers are wrong. There are absolutely no grounds for saying that the full-face veil is considered universally degrading. This may be the view of the members of the small, homogeneous French ruling elite. But is this view shared by each of the estimated 2,000 women in France who wear the full-face veil, not to mention countless others?
It is commonplace to observe that wearing the niqab is no more degrading or harmful to the dignity of women than other practices which are legal, for example stripping.
It is more interesting to ask what accounts for this inconsistency in the government’s approach to these two issues.
The question of choice is a red-herring: in both cases, wearing the niqab and stripping, there is a mix of free choice and constraint – religious and cultural pressure on the one hand, and economic on the other. Indeed, a French interior ministry study has even admitted that many niqab- and burqa-wearers in France wear the full-face veil out of choice.
And what about the fact that full-face veils are worn publicly? Does this make the practice more degrading for women than other degrading activities which take place in private? There seems no good reason why it should. The rights of women, and particularly their right to equality with men, are universal rights, holding in both private and public. A woman’s right not to be beaten by her husband holds equally in the street and in the home. The public aspect of the practice of wearing the full-face veil should make no difference.
The notion of a clash of values emerges again and again in French politicians’ comments. Sometimes this is articulated explicitly, as when Sarkozy complained of "this feeling of sharing less and less a common culture, a common imagination and a common morality." And sometimes it is evident simply from the tone of people’s comments, as when André Gerin, the mayor of Venissieux, where the current initiative to ban the burqa began, said, “I call them walking prisons, phantoms that go past us, it’s that visual aspect that’s an issue.”
But the French legislators, in their ardour to defend French values in this “clash” – or perhaps heady with memories of the once-great mission civilisatrice – have forgotten one of the central values of a liberal secular society: the virtue of toleration espoused by their forebear, Bayle.
It is always the case that what I tolerate are attitudes and practices that I disagree with. It makes no sense for me to claim I am tolerating what I agree with. And the reason I, or anyone, tolerate practices I disagree with is not for toleration’s sake. Rather it is due to my valuing the autonomy and free choice of others.
I find some of the views of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, racist, parochial, and offensive. In my ideal society no one would hold such views. But I tolerate his expression of such views because I value his freedom of choice and autonomy.
And so too, if I think that wearing the niqab and burqa is contrary to my values – or even to the values of my country – I should still tolerate the practice. This does not mean that I should not try to do anything about it. But it means that my response should not be outright intolerant. Imposing a ban enshrined in law is an intolerant response.
So what should be done? Consider the practice of female genital mutilation. This practice, also called “female circumcision,” is widespread in parts of Africa, including Egypt. The practice shares some features with the wearing of the full-face veil: it is the product to some extent of the pressure of social conformity and it is connected with the moderating of female sexuality. But it is clearly a far more abhorrent practice than wearing a niqab. It is painful and irreversible. It is performed on girls before they are able to consent, some time between infancy and 15 years old, according to the World Health Organization. It has no known health benefits, and carries health risks.
Yet the WHO, in its latest statement on eliminating the practice, has emphasized that legislation – or legislation alone, at any rate – is not the answer. Rather community-led education programs, helped by charities such as the brilliant Tostan, have had the greatest success. In this way attitudes are being changed from within, and the prevalence of the practice is decreasing rapidly.
This is the right way to approach such problems, and it is what Bayle recommended in the 17th century: not coercion, but education and discussion starting from shared principles.
So, if France’s ruling elite really think wearing the full-face veil is degrading – a claim which itself stands on shaky ground – then the solution is not legislation. Rather it is a gradual process of education and cultural assimilation.
A strong secular and pluralist society should have confidence in its education system, in its provision of equal opportunities for all, in the appeal of its culture, in the fairness of its police and courts. All these elements over time will work to change attitudes – if they need to be changed.
But perhaps it is because France’s Muslim minority – the largest of any country in Europe – has for years been systematically denied regular access to these basic elements of a liberal society that France has a problem far larger than 2,000 women wearing the full-face veil. It is this that the French politicians should be discussing.
Scott Liddle is pursuing an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.