Sunday, April 17, 2011

The French burqa ban has nothing to do with secularism

I've blogged about the burqa before, when the French were still deliberating about banning it. Now that they have banned it, there's an online debate, if you can call it that, about whether or not to ban it here. Predictably, the anti-religionist atheist and UKIP member, Pat Condell, thinks it should be banned. I find him so irritating that I'd slap a preservation order on the burqa, just to annoy him.

One of my Facebook friends wrote something the other day about France enforcing secularism with this ban, or words to that effect. I think he confuses secularism with atheism. A secular society is one where religion doesn’t dictate political decisions – where the state and religion are separate – and where freedom of religion is possible, as no one religion dominates society. There are religious people who support the principle of secularism, recognising that it's the fairest system there is. Of course, hard-line atheists who are anti-religious don't like this idea; one told me he lived for the day when all religion would be gone. He'll have to live a very long time, possibly forever.

Nicolas Sarkozy is very unpopular - one poll puts his approval rating at about 29% - and the burqa ban seems to be a cynical ploy to win votes from the far right. Until now, few women have worn the burqa and niqab in France. It's possible that more will adopt it now, in gestures of defiance. Apart from security considerations, such as those that apply to motorcyclists who are asked to remove their helmets when it's necessary to identify them, it's an infringement of someone's human rights to legislate about what he or she may or may not wear in public. Yes, I know all the arguments about oppressed Muslim women being forced to wear the burqa, but the answer to this is education, not legislation.

Communist states have banned religion and its manifestations in the past, only for it to resurface from the underground when repressive sanctions have been lifted. I sometimes wonder whether those atheists who seem to imagine that religion can be forcibly eradicated or sneered into submission have any understanding of people in general. I'm inclined to agree with Baroness Mary Warnock, who, when interviewed by Laurie Taylor for New Humanist, said:
I find Dawkins’ simple-minded view of religion very difficult to take. It pays no proper attention to the history and tradition of religion. It says that religions have done nothing but harm but that is manifestly not true. He omits all the good things, the education, the cathedrals, the music. All that’s disregarded.
There are many things about religion I find difficult to understand, like how intelligent people can believe so much nonsense, but as a secularist, I'm happy to live and let live, as long as they do the same. However, wearing the niqab and the burqa isn't just about religion; it's mainly a cultural thing. The monotheistic religions are inextricably linked to patriarchal politics, but would banning the burqa improve the lives of the women who wear it? Not necessarily. They have a variety of reasons for doing so; it would be a mistake to assume that they're all forced by male relatives. I doubt very much that Nicolas Sarkozy had women's interests at heart, and nor do the most vocal advocates of a British ban.


SUIRAUQA said...

I came across your blog by way of Twitter, and found it interesting. I don't know if my comment will make it through, but there are several issues on which I'd like to disagree with you.

First, atheists have no prima facie problem with secularism. "Live and let live" is a very fine principle in theory. But that's not how religion operates. Religion thrives by spreading itself - much like a cancer metastasizing; this happens with religion either insidiously creeping into various aspects of daily life, as happens in largely secular countries such as US (Cf. the battles over evolution and abortion); or, forcing itself down the throats of those that do not subscribe to its tenets, as happens in fundamentalist theocracies around the world (Cf. blasphemy laws). So, as a 'secularist', do you think that religion adheres to your lofty 'Live and let live' ideals?

Secondly, the good Baroness - from her privileged position - may well find Dawkins' view 'simple-minded'. I somehow doubt that she has actually bothered to read 'God delusion'. But be that as it may, in defending religion, the Baroness conspicuously ignores one fundamental and immeasurable harm that religion visits upon humanity by its insistence on faith - the harm to rationality, sense and sanity (that leaves the mind open to arrant superstitious nonsense of various kinds), not to mention the psychological toll of indoctrination.

Thirdly, the vocal 'liberal' opponents of the French burqa ban tend to gloss over two facts:
(a) the burqa is the ultimate symbol of religion-inspired subjugation of women; it brands the burqa-clad women as chattel, the property of some man, father or husband, and is often enforced by Islam on pain of death. What would you think if you suddenly found at an open place a woman put on a collar and a leash, being pulled by a man? The burqa, enforced by tribal patriarchal customs, is symbolically equivalent, although you may not quite understand this parallel unless you have lived in or in close conjunction with an Islamic country. Therefore, even if Sarkozy's France is not completely motivated by secularism in enforcing the burqa ban, the move should still be hailed as a courageous stand.
(b) The ban is in effect only in public places. One of the main reasons cited in the prior debates is the question of public security. In a system where identification largely depends on facial features, how is identification of any kind possible in presence of a Naqaab?

Margaret said...

I've answered with another post.