Note: I also posted this at The Center Way.
In this article in Slate, Christopher Hitchens wastes his considerable wit arguing stupidly in favor of France’s burqa ban, which is supported by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He compares burqas to the masks of the KKK and posits that in a democracy, we all have the right (!?) to see each other’s faces.
So it’s really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.
He also contends that “pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa” only make this allowance for one religion, Islam. No. It is the backers of this proposed law who single out Muslims. I have yet to hear of a French ban on prescribed coverings for, say, nuns. The law is paternalistic and the implications are xenophobic. Hitchens gives the game away with this line: “The burqa and the veil, surely, are the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate.” Ah, yes. We must strip away all differences. You have to dress as the French dress, speak as they speak, (worship as they worship?), or you have no place in France. Hitchens exposes his devotion to the secular state, where any separation from Enlightened Society (TM) must be eliminated.
The irony is that by trying to aggressively force this kind of cultural assimilation, France sets itself up as antagonistic toward Muslims, and is probably driving greater wedges between the segments of its society. I would never claim that the U.S. has no history of shame in the area of ethnic and cultural differences, but I know this kind of law would never fly here.
Now, I understand the concern of French legislators for women in patriarchal family groups who are forced to wear the burqa and endure other restrictive and abusive practices. I personally find the burqa oppressive. But I’m not the boss of how other people dress. And you aren’t going to overcome centuries of tradition with a law like this. Those women who do not choose to wear the veil (there are many who do choose it, including many converts to Islam), but are forced to, will be just as oppressed. Only now they won’t be allowed to go outside.
So here’s my view, which I think is pretty common sense: nobody should have to wear anything they don’t want to wear, and also nobody should have to not wear anything they do want to wear. Where there is an unavoidable conflict between religious law/ethnic custom and some legitimate safety need of the government (like taking photographs of one’s face to get a driver’s license) then public safety comes first and some folks might not be able to participate. But that should be a last resort, and the law should bend over backward to allow people to express their faith as they see fit. And if you are bothered by women in hijabs, Sikh men in turbans, or Jewish men with payot, that probably says something about you.