The French Ban of Burqa and the Age of Reason

On Jan. 26, a French Parliamentary report recommended a ban on burqas (the full body covering for Islamic women) in certain public buildings. The move came as no surprise for those familiar with the religious and political climate inside France. Following the event, even a French Imam expressed support for the ban. And, as expected, such restrictions on clothing and other forms of religious display led some to immediately criticize the action as an unacceptable limitation on the French Muslims' freedom of expression. But one does not have to support such a ban to observe that the negative reaction is based on three false assumptions.

The first assumption is that if there is a limitation on full-body burqas, it must have something to do with intolerance toward Muslims. But there can be other legitimate reasons for such a ban. It is important to note that the recommendation for the ban was specifically for public buildings. In such places, burqas can be a major security hazard. The full-body garment can allow men to pose as women without the ability of officials to identify the individuals entering the facilities. It also allows individuals to carry guns, weapons and ammunition into a building. Some may think that there is a double standard, as this reality applies to other forms of clothing and handbags as well. But the difference is that, unlike the people who use the latter, women who wear burqas often insist on not being searched. In such circumstances, officials are often left with few choices.

The second assumption is that the freedom of expression is absolute. But no right is absolute if its exercise will deprive others of any of their rights. When Muslim women insist on wearing burqas and not being searched, it infringes upon other citizens' right to security. When rights conflict, lawmakers must intervene to strike a balance.

It is also important to note that it is the recognition of this fact that has led us in the United States to have both the First Amendment and laws against what can be considered hate crimes. In the context of head-to-toe burqas, it is important to see it not just as an innocent expression of religion, but as the extreme of an ideology that promotes the mistreatment and reduction of all women. When we brand certain expressions as hate speech because of their incompatibility with the rights we recognize for our citizens, shouldn't France also be allowed to put restrictions on an iconic symbol of women's oppression, objectification and enslavement at a time when Western Europe is leading the way toward a level of equality among men and women that has never existed in the history of humanity?

The third and most deeply and widely believed assumption is that the right to religion is absolute. This is part of a larger belief that respecting others' traditional and religious beliefs -- regardless of their contents -- is the right thing to do. One can present the most backward ideology as "religion," and we are indoctrinated to automatically respect it at face value in the name of political correctness. Employers are told not to discriminate on the basis of religion, even if the religion itself discriminates against whole categories of people (such as women, gays and those belonging to other religions). Here in the U.S., we have created a whole tax-exempt industry that discriminates against anyone without any consequences.

It is this kind of blind deference in the name of political correctness that allows antiquated traditions and practices that are not compatible with the progressive needs and realities of the modern society to survive for as long as they have. We cannot go on forever pretending that we can reconcile the archaic teachings of millennia-old tales that countries and groups continue to use to initiate conflict and justify horrific human rights violations with the needs and standards of a modern progressive society.

This by no means applies to Islam alone. When it comes to organized religion, none has a monopoly on antiquity. Christianity and Judaism contain their own set of backward beliefs, such as their wide and implicit acceptance of slavery or selling of daughters by heir fathers. It is also not to say that there have not been extreme legislative reactions against Islam in Europe. Switzerland's recent law against minarets comes to mind. Nonetheless, it is time for atheists and agnostics to stop apologizing for allowing reason, and reason alone, to be their moral compass.

But when people talk about the French ban on burqas as a sign of France's failure to integrate Muslims into its society, they assume that such an integration is possible without the Muslims' willingness to compromise and show the same tolerance and acceptance toward the values of modern France that they expect from the French.

In thinking about Muslim integration in Europe, we must understand that one of the main reasons why Europe is so much more socially progressive than anywhere in the Middle East is neither accidental, nor due to some genetic superiority on the part of Europeans. But it is rather precisely because, unlike many parts of the Middle East, Europe has not been so heavily under the influence of a religion that is so fundamentally opposed to such progress and equalities.

In that context, one cannot have a justifiable claim to a certain right, and then use that right to promote the kind of ideology that has been the main obstacle to the achievement of that right in his or her own home country. One cannot use a right in a way that could lead -- and has led -- to the erosion of that right.

Regardless of how one feels about the ban, the real question to ask ourselves is not why France is willing to create this limited regulation on a very specific religious garment that often interferes with the state's execution and implementation of basic duties and responsibilities. The question is: Why is it that we as a society can constantly strive for progress and equality and place limitations on the right of people to promote ideologies that impede that progress, but simultaneously turn a blind eye and force ourselves and each other to accept certain antiquated practices and traditions just because they have been categorized as religion?