Prohibiting Modesty: Should Religious Equality Apply to Muslims?

Photographs of armed, male police officers forcing a Muslim woman to remove her over-garment on a public, French beach are currently trending on social media. The woman was told to remove her long sleeve top (revealing a tank top underneath) and to tie her headscarf into a bandana. She was also fined for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” One eyewitness was quoted in The Guardian, saying, “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, [and] some were applauding the police,” she said. “Her daughter was crying.”

This incident results from the recent ban by several French towns on a particular style of swimsuit, known as a burkini, which is often worn by Muslim women. Ironically, the woman in the picture was not even wearing a burkini; she was simply wearing a traditional headscarf. It is important to note that the burkini is nothing like the burqa. The best way to describe the burkini would be to compare the garment to a loose-fitting wetsuit with a hoodie over the top portion of the suit, leaving the wearer’s face fully visible. I can’t imagine that Catholic nuns will be prohibited from wearing their religious attire on the same beaches.

One can easily sense that the principle of religious equality in secularism does not apply to Muslims.

In order to understand the rationale behind the ban on burkinis, it is necessary to discuss the principle of secularism in France and its deep-seated theocratic phobia.

By Giorgio Montersino from Milan, Italy - cool burkini, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9437456
Giorgio Montersino, Creative Commons

Since the French Revolution, France has been committed to the principles of laïcité (secularism), or more simply put, the complete separation of church and state. Prior to the Revolution, the Catholic Church controlled both the spiritual and temporal powers in France, including the education system. Once the Catholic Church was removed from power, the 1905 Law of Separation finalized the eradication of a state religion in France. The first two articles of the Law of Separation state: “Article 1. The Republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion. Article 2. It neither recognizes nor subsidizes any religion.” It seems odd that the principles of secularism would be used to prohibit wearing religious clothing considering the two articles above.

The debate concerning the interpretation of laïcité and its application for Muslim women’s clothing is not new. However, the increasing Muslim population in France, along with recent attacks by Muslim radicals, has spurred controversy to new heights. The problem first arose in 1989, in what has come to be known as the Scarf Affair. The Scarf Affair took place in Creil, France, on October 3, 1989, when three Muslim girls were expelled from middle school after refusing to remove their headscarves. The head-master of the middle school commented that headscarves would contravene the Republic’s principle of secularism. Eventually the Conseil ď État, which is the highest court in France, ruled that the wearing of “signs of religious affiliation” is not in contradiction to the principles of laïcité .

In 1994, the headscarf debate resurfaced when the Minister of Education, Francois Bayrou, decreed on September 20, 1994, that “overt” religious symbols should be prohibited in all schools. Again, the conflict ended up in the court of the Conseil ď État. The 1989 court ruling was reaffirmed, putting the headscarf issue to rest for a second time. However, it would not prove to be the final word concerning headscarves in France.

In 2003, the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who eventually became president, demanded that Muslim women remove their headscarves for official identification photographs. He reasoned, “When I enter a mosque, I remove my shoes; when a Muslim girl enters a school, she must remove her veil.” Sarkozy’s argument from analogy does not bear much weight. His voluntary visit to a Mosque does not compare with Muslim girls attending school, which is compulsory.  Furthermore, the removing of his shoes is not a compromise of a religious conviction in the way that removing of a headscarf would be to a Muslim. Despite the poor logic of Sarkozy, the Headscarf Ban was passed by legislature on March 15, 2004.

In order for France to continue in its promotion of secularism, the law was considered necessary. France needed to find a way to force Muslim integration into French society, and headscarves were viewed as Muslims’ unwillingness to assimilate. The intention of the ban was to integrate Muslim girls into French society.

However, if public schools are to be a place for learning the principles of assimilation, why would the government choose to expel those who arguably need to be integrated the most?

Why force young girls to choose between religious devotion and education? Banning the headscarf from public schools forces some Muslim girls to pursue a private religious education, which is ironically what France had prior to the Revolution.

French citizens are divided on these issues. The Conseil ď État ruled today to overturn the burkini ban. I am sure many Muslims are breathing a sigh of relief; but at the same time, they are keenly aware that this is all too familiar. Despite the court’s ruling, I fear many Muslims likely feel alienated. A further concern is that the recent photographs will be used as recruitment propaganda for Muslim radicals in the same way the headscarf ban was for Al-Qaeda,

“Banning the hijab in France is consistent with the burning of villages along with their people in Afghanistan, demolishing houses over their sleeping residents in Palestine, and killing the children of Iraq and stealing its oil under false pretexts…. It is consistent with tormenting prisoners in the cages of Guantanamo… It is consistent with the right that the United States granted itself to kill any human being or arrest anyone anywhere…It is consistent above all with the banning of nuclear weapons everywhere, except Israel. The banning of the hijab is consistent with all these crimes. It shows the scope of the Zionist-Crusade’s moral and doctrinal hypocrisy and the extent of its savagery in its war against Islam and Muslims.” —Ayman Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda Leader

I recognize that many Christians resonate with banning Muslim religious attire in Western societies. I further acknowledge that some Christians do not see a place for defending the religious liberties of Muslims. However, if my wife or daughters were ever in a situation where they were forced to reveal parts of their bodies that they have deemed private I would be outraged.

My simple argument is that I want to love my Muslim neighbors as myself.

I trust this approach will help Muslims to feel less marginalized as well as make radical propaganda less appealing.

This article was originally posted at the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies blog by Trevor Castor.

About Trevor Castor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.