“Toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to […] the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it.”
Much a fuss has been made of the recent ban that has gone into effect in France that forbids the wearing of the niqab in public. At once an opportunistic tactic, but also a misinterpretation of Enlightenment principles, the legislation is not necessarily worth the amount of press and anguish devoted to it.
Nicholas Sarkozy is the least popular French president since the founding of the Fifth Republic. Hovering at around 25% approval from his people, Sarkozy has so far enacted a two part play in order to rectify his image. First, his overt conjecture in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya was supposed to rally his countrymen behind his veneer of Manichean populism (while he let the U.S. do the heavy-lifting where it counted). Next came the ban, something less than novel at this point in time (recall Quebec, Belgium, Turkey, the Netherlands, etc.). Sarkozy knew this was a sure-fire route to take when his heart sank at the prospect of Marine Le Pen out-prejudicing him on the Islam front. The horror! Halal food and minarets have gone through the same treatment.
But it seems that every time something like this comes along, one is forced to enter into another nebulous philosophical debate with “clash of civilizations”, “secular freedom under siege”, “repression of women” and other clichés bouncing off of one another. Every single time, the same arguments are re-argued, and the same anguish is recycled. However, with each subsequent joust, the discourse becomes more unclear, eventually mediating the representation of the big picture that finally gets lost in the fold.
Let’s quickly dispel the three main arguments deployed by those who are for the niqab ban. (1) No, the fewer-than-2000 niqabis in France do not constitute a security threat. A backpack is a much better place to hide a bomb, should we ban them? Should we also ban ski masks (much more common in robberies) and balaclavas (popular among violent protestors)? (2) No, banning the niqab is not on the same plane as banning frontal nudity in public. Most free societies do have some sort of regulation in term of dress, but compromises can be reached when particular difficulties like the niqab are presented. There are ways around problems like this, like getting a female bureaucrat to check ID when necessary. Not the end of the world. (3) The “mobile prison argument”, that women are forced to wear the face-veil by their fathers and husbands. Suffice it to say that one should speak to those who wear the niqab in order to evaluate the merit of this argument.
Where does that bring us? Back to square one, a most basic and fundamental principle of Enlightenment expression and tolerance: cartoonists who drew demeaning portraits of the Prophet Muhammad have to put up with the face veil, and the niqabis have to put up with the cartoonists. One may not “approve of” or respect a particular way of life, but—like it or not—that is the deal in a free society: one must to learn to live with practices that one “resents”.
Therefore, the Sarkozy ruse is, like its progenitors, an easy one to untangle. It fails politically due to its easily detectable hypocrisy and opportunism, but also philosophically (if one is to grant him the audience of an unnecessary debate), for it disrespects the vows of a free society and the guiding principles of free-expression/religious-freedom.