French President Sarkozy is throwing his weigh behind a law which would make burqa-wearing a crime in France. He could not be more wrong. Burqas are certainly a public matter which merit Sarkozy’s attention. But the public, be it in France, the United States or anywhere else in the world is best served when its members are allowed the greatest degree of religious freedom – including the freedom to wear burqas should they choose to do so. The same can be said for skullcaps, turbans, wigs, long black coats, etc. Nicholas Sarkozy, like many leaders in France over the last two-plus centuries, confuses liberty for all with his own understanding of what it means to live free.
Who is Mr. Sarkozy to determine what is and is not a “religious sign”, especially for those who practice a religion different from his own? The height of his arrogance is matched only by the height of his ignorance.
He might be surprised to learn that many women are quite comfortable wearing a garment which he describes as a “sign of subservience and a sign of debasement”. That would be the case because for many religious people, including myself, subservience (at least a measure of it) is not always synonymous with debasement. In fact, many people find precisely those practices which declare their submission to God, highly liberating.
What is not liberating and is in fact always debasing is religious coercion, which should not be welcomed in any country. It is why, to take an example close to my own heart, I believe that even in the Jewish State of Israel, the existence of a state-sponsored rabbinate is a terrible idea. And it is why state-enforced burqa wearing is something against which to struggle every bit as much as we struggle for a woman’s right to wear one should she so choose. Coercion, not clothing is the issue.
President Obama was 100% correct when he told his audience in Cairo and around the world that “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit, for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. It also means that throughout the Muslim world, there must be genuine religious tolerance for those who practice other faiths or practice Islam in ways that differ from the majority of their neighbors. The idea, for example, that teaching religions other than Islam to Muslims remains a capital offense in many Muslim countries, is every bit as offensive and actually far more dangerous, than Sarkozy’s statements about Burqas.
Once again we must resist the urge to defend whatever practice looks most like our own and instead fight for the freedom which all people say they want. For some, this will be the freedom to submit to the will of God as they understand it. And if that means choosing to wear a burqa, so be it. For others, it will be the freedom to escape all religious thought and practice and that will have to be okay to, as will the freedom to select a new religion for one’s self if that is where a particular person’s spiritual journey takes them.
The only thing that will turn this conversation from one of fear-based cultural aggression be it in the name of secular France or totalitarian religion of any stripe, to one which celebrates human dignity in all of its many manifestations is real freedom without any pandering. Sarkozy and other leaders, who share his views, cannot pander to those who make easy assumptions about religion and how it works in the lives of others, but must take responsibility for helping to develop a fuller understanding of freedom.
At the same time, President Obama and all those who welcomed his words in Cairo, must find the words which not only reassure Muslims about the ways in which their tradition must be fully respected, but also the words to secure religious freedom of all people, regardless of the country in which they live. This is a two-way street and we need to learn that arguing for only one side of the road at a time is actually bad for all those who travel down it.