the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 February 10


Acting on a proposal of Jacques Chirac, self-designated champion of anti-imperialism and cultural enlightenment, the French national assembly has voted today to ban the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, from French public schools. The new law, when it takes effect this fall, will also ban conspicuous displays of other religious dress, including crucifixes; but there is no pretense whatsoever about the intended target of the law, which was always the hijab. The only hope for a change is that the French senate will undemocratically reject the bill. The French people are apparently solidly behind the law; seven in ten French citizens support it, including the only French person I personally know, a relative who is quite dear and, as it happens, quite wrong. She has told me, in other contexts, that the French do not like public displays of piety, that profession of religious belief in mixed company is considered supremely bad manners. I have said, in other contexts, that I think religion worthless unless it is serious, that I cannot comprehend the French version of Christianity, which is basically nominal, a religion of custom rather than conviction. My relative does not believe this Christianity, but her compatriots largely do. And their peculiar secularism is every bit as religious as the Islam of the immigrants from the old French empire who so trouble French society today.

It is disingenuous ― an imposture of purity and innocence ― for the law’s proponents to evoke the oppressed girl being forced to wear the hijab. They are simultaneously evoking the image of totalitarian Islam in Taliban Afghanistan, or even totalitarian Christianity in Inquisition Spain. They make appeal to memories of old Catholic-Protestant feuds in France itself. But the honest equivalent of a woman in Kabul compelled to put on the burqa is a woman in Paris compelled to take it off. If girls in France are being forced to wear the hijab, they can seek a remedy for the transgression of their personal rights. They should not, and they probably do not want to, deprive other girls of their personal rights. France clearly does, though. It claims that some girls are not allowed to choose the manner of their dress. It proposes that no girls be allowed to choose the manner of their dress. That oughta learn ’em.

I am a rationalist republican, and have long identified with a current of the same that appeared in the eighteenth century, especially in Europe. But the French republican experiment was the zenith, and it ended in violent, cannibalistic disaster. First individual republicans degenerated and began beheading republicans. Then the republic itself degenerated and began beheading other republics, which it had helped to create. Napoleon Bonaparte was the sword of the republic and then, almost without transition, the mace of the empire. The French have discredited rationalist republicanism once before, in other words.

Some would see today as a good day for religious dissent. Facing me is the seductive, utterly seductive, suggestion that I, a secular atheist, could have a society that looks out for my beliefs. I believe that there is no God, and that Christianity is nonsense. But I find that I am less dedicated to those beliefs than I am to the idea that each individual can decide this for itself, and, having freely made that decision, can freely express it, in whatever peaceful way it chooses. The space in which I can choose not to believe is only free if it admits those who choose to believe. That is my secularism; and by that standard, the French republic is less secular today than it was yesterday.

Even casual acquaintances know how kindly I take to any effort to tell me how to dress. My own adoption of the livery of transcendent rationalism is wholly symbolic, even if only to me. If I would retain the symbol of my own belief, I must grant others the symbols of theirs. My ostentatious non-ornamentation demands an acceptance of whatever ornamentation others wear, not only in principle but in functional effect. What is non-ornamentation without ornamentation to define it? What is a symbol of disbelief without symbols of belief for contrast? I could force others to dress like me, but I could not force them to think like me. I want people to alter their beliefs, not suppress the expression of those beliefs. When symbols are subject to coercion, they lose their meaning. And for me, especially, my symbolism of non-belief would be meaningless if I forced others to adopt it. Those others would be insincere, but more to the point, so would I. Even an attempt to force others to adopt a system of individualist, rational, secular, tolerant thought would be the greatest of hypocrisies, as well as stratospherically absurd.

The French are admitting defeat. They want religion out of the public schools, and so do I ― but not like this. As a secular rationalist, I still believe that I will eventually carry the argument. Believe, hell; I know. But the French tire of arguing. They have exclaimed, to translate from the Gallic: screw this. We will no longer argue the secular case; we will simply have our way. We will end the argument with a nationwide chorus of La Marseillaise. But do they understand what they are singing? The French tricolor does not stand for liberty if it trammels expression. It does not stand for equality if it disadvantages the minority. And it does not stand for fraternity if it lacks the tolerant respect one sibling owes another. The French republic, and its pious secularism, are forcing out every competing belief. The Muslims say: God is great. The French say: shut up.


Original version


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