France Bans Burkas, Is America Next?
Beginning April 12th Muslim women in France can no longer legally wear the face covering religious garments known as Burkas or Niqabs. Women may be stopped by the police and asked to uncover their face or pay a $190 fine and attend a civics class. Men found guilty of forcing a female to wear a burka in public could be fined up to $19000 and face a year in prison. This may seem unusual to Americans who are familiar with our first amendment guarantee to religious freedom, but France has always been extremely serious about assimilation and protection of French culture from foreign infiltration, as well as determinately secular. However this is about more than protecting French culture from non- assimilating groups. French authorities say it is a civil matter (and a women’s rights issue), but in reality France and Western Europe are becoming increasingly secular and concerned about religious influence in general on civil matters; this includes Christianity as well.
In France’s case, trending secularism began in 1789 with the French Revolution. Only a few years earlier, America rebelled against King George on the grounds of oppression and economics. The French rebelled against King Louis XVI because of the same reasons, but additionally rebelled against the priestly aristocracy who was the real source of social stratification. So while America was establishing Puritan and Quaker churches, the French were renaming their houses of worship Churches of Reason. This didn’t last of course because the French majority was not intent on forever abandoning their religion. However, the event certainly left its mark on France as did the Enlightenment ideas of where faith belongs in society-well out of civic issues.
So could this restriction on Muslims happen in the U.S.? Should it happen? It is certainly true that America was founded on a strict separation of church and state, but our problem is we haven’t exactly found out where that dividing line is, and who gets to draw it. Therefore, the answer to the first question is yes and no. We have already seen the uproar and attempt to prevent the Muslim mosque being built near ground zero in New York, and there have been several reports of similar outrage and action in cities and towns across America. So yes, as long as the decision is made locally we may soon see a legal restriction on some Muslim expression of faith. However, such a restriction would never be upheld by the constitutionally restricted U.S. Supreme Court.
Perhaps the more relevant question is should such restrictions on Islam be desired? Once again the answer is not black or white but a shade of gray. Fundamentalist Islam is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous forces facing the future of global stability, but in America this threat is often not qualified with the words “fundamentalist” or “extremist”. It is an indisputable fact, that the vast majority of American Muslims are moderate, and are as assimilated as any other ethnic group in America. Moderate Muslims interpret the Koran allegorically; most significantly by interpreting jihad as an internal struggle against evil, rather than an external struggle against the infidels. However, if read literally there is no doubt that the Koran commands violence against those who oppose its teachings. The argument that is being made regularly is that America’s moderate Muslims are not doing enough to persuade their extremist brethren to interpret the Koran as they do. Now this is a simplification of the motivations behind Fundamentalist Islam, because of course, the Koran is not the only breeding ground for extremism, while it certainly makes it easier to become a martyr knowing you will be immediately rewarded for doing Allah’s work, their primary motivations are intertwined with global economics, politics, and cultural evolution.
Now here is where it gets personal for America’s Christians. Fundamentalist Christianity, characterized by a literal reading of the bible rather than the allegorical and selective exegesis of moderate or liberal Christians, is also a major threat to global stability and American civics. While Christianity has as much or more historical blood on its hands, admittedly it has evolved in to an overall less violent mode. However, the bible read literally is just as violent, xenophobic and ethnically exclusive as the Koran. Much of the universal love and brotherhood that Christianity supposedly represents is the result of interpolations by the early church leaders. Most religious scholars agree for instance that when Jesus said “love your neighbor” he was referring to your Jewish neighbor. Such statements were later stretched to form the creed of universal brotherhood. Regardless, the three thousand year history of Judeo-Christian belief is certainly not a historical exhibit of universal love and tolerance of ethnic differences. The same argument that says moderate Muslims sustain the foundation on which extremist Islam grows can be made about moderate Christians and their extremist brethren.
So the real question is not should we restrict the religious freedom of Muslims because of Islamaphobia (and it is a phobia by the way because it is an irrational belief that all Muslims are dangerous), but should we intently and methodically restrict religion’s role in civics and society in general. Contrary to popular conservative belief there is much evidence to support that the founders intended America to be a secular, not Christian, nation. Secularism, in spite of religion, is the source of our legal and moral system, and the contemporary form of Christianity is a reflection of our secular progress, not the source of it.
Fundamentalist Islam must evolve toward at least the pretense of universal brotherhood, but this will only come with advancing the status of women and cultivating economic and social justice in third world Islamic nations. Meanwhile, America needs to take a fearless gut check and realize that no religious ideas belong in any civic or public sector. And until it’s ready to restrict all religion based on reason and secularism instead of bigotry and xenophobia, Muslim’s religious freedom must be protected or we might find out that we are a lot more like France than we want to admit.