Every summer, the police in Iran crack down on “bad
hijab”flimsy veils and skimpy headscarves.
All women are required by law to cover their heads and to wear a coat
that conceals their bodily form.
This is a blatant violation of freedomfreedom of expression
(to choose your clothing) and freedom of religion (to define for yourself how
God wants you to behave).
But consider the fact that in some democratic countries
today the law is just as severe because it forbids
Muslim women from covering their heads in public places. In 2004, France passed a law prohibiting
Muslim schoolgirls from wearing veils or headscarves in public schools. Jews are also prohibited from wearing
yarmulkes and Christians from wearing ostentatious crosses. It’s a general ban on
religious symbols, but former President Chirac made it clear that Islamic head
coverings were the main target when he said that most French people saw
“something aggressive in the veil.”
Iran has a theocratic government, France has a militantly
secular democracy. The two extremes
meet in the sense that each can be repressive.
At first glance, it looks like we have the ideal situation in the U.S.
because we don’t force women to wear a veil, and we don’t force them to take it
But things are not so simple. The current American concept of “free exercise of religion” (a
phrase from the First Amendment of the Constitution) is also problematic. We are forced to recognize that there’s an
inherent tension between religion and democracy, a tension that can be treated
in different ways but that can’t be entirely eliminated. Most commentators on the French headscarf
ban portray it as sheer bigotry and excessive state intervention.
I propose instead that we look at the ban as a thoughtful
effort to frame religion in democratic terms.
Once we see the underlying logic in France, we will not want to copy
itbut we will have a better understanding of the logic governing the
relationship between religion and democracy in the U.S. today, and we will have
a clearer view of our own excesses.
What is going on
in France? Many have said that the
French just don’t like Muslims, that the headscarf ban reflects nationalist
prejudices against immigrants. But this
can’t be the reason. First of all, the
French Left, which is committed to egalitarian ideals and is sympathetic to
immigrants, supported the ban.
Secondly, about half of French Muslims, of both sexes, supported the
ban. Finally, there is a more draconian
ban on the headscarf in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country.
The willingness of Muslims themselves to implement a
headscarf ban suggests that the source of these laws is not hatred of
foreigners but an abstract theory: a democratic philosophy that idealizes the
citizen, the member of the whole nation, over the particulars of ethnic and
religious background. Many people in
both France and Turkey argue that the sentiment of citizenship is a
precondition of democracy. In other
words, citizenship must come before religion.
If people flaunt some other form of identity in public
institutionstheir religion, their ethnicityit will tend to destroy the sense
of equality and solidarity. Religion is
especially suspect because each of these countries has a long history of
religious conflict, and religion was a buttress of absolute monarchy before
these nations became democracies.
In France and Turkey the Muslim veil has become (not for
everyone but for a substantial part of the population) a symbol of separatism
and the primacy of religious law over democratic equality. I realize that this view of the veil does
not do justice to all the reasons that lead Muslim women to wear it. I am not advocating that we adopt a headscarf
ban here in America either.
But I do believe that the debate about the veil has to be
a serious intellectual discussion of how much religious expression a free
society can sustain. We can’t just say,
“Oh, those socially prejudiced French people!”
We have to try to think about where we ourselves would place the limits
on religious freedombecause there can be no democracy without some limits on
what religious persons desire.
So now I come back to the U.S. As I said, it looks great that we don’t require women to wear the
veil or to take it off. But our “free
exercise of religion” has its own anti-democratic dimensions. In many states in America, religious parents
who believe in faith healing do not have to provide medical attention for their
sick childrenand many kids have died.
In most states, religious schools and daycare centers do not have to
meet the basic educational standards that non-religious educational
institutions have to meet. In the U.S.,
you could get out of a military draft as a conscientious objectorif you have a
religious conscience. If your reasons
against fighting are not religious, if they spring from a secular philosophy of
peace, you probably get no exemption.
Today, imprisoned convicts who claim to be religious often
get special food, study time, and other privileges. Members of religious sects who wish to use illegal drugs in their
ceremonies are often permitted to do so.
A schoolgirl can certainly wear a headscarf in a public school, but she
may not be free to wear a T-Shirt expressing a provocative political
opinion. This is not theocracy like in
Iran, but it does show that in the U.S., religion is elevating people of faith
above the laws that everyone else has to follow. (For a full discussion of this problem, see Marci Hamilton’s
book, God vs. The Gavel, Cambridge
University Press, 2005.)
The “free exercise of religion” now means that religious
persons have more rights than unreligious persons. A Frenchman or a Turk would probably be quick to point out that
this violates the principle of equality before the law. Personally, I wear a religious symbolunder
my shirt because I don’t wish to announce to my American fellows that most of
them don’t belong to my group. I choose
to act as if I belong to the whole.
That’s the logic of Rousseau’s 1762 Social
Contract, which underlies the French and Turkish visions of democracy. I see more and more students, and even
university colleagues, wearing ostentatious religious symbols on campus. Our society respects their religious passion. It does not give enough consideration to the
integrity of those who make a point of keeping their religion private.
It’s easy for us to see how coercive the headscarf bans
are in France and Turkey. It’s harder
for us to focus on the price we are paying for our religious exhibitionism. The
lack of universal co-feeling in our society may well be the root cause of much
mutual disrespect and violence. From
this perspective, America is struggling with the relationship between religion
and democracy as much as France and Turkeywe just don’t have the kind of
explicit popular discussion about the tradeoffs that you find in the other
If France and Turkey need to lighten up their attitude
toward religion and become more tolerant of the veil, we in the U.S. need to
look more acutely at the cost of permitting religious persons to be exempt from
--Daniel Gordon, Professor of History, UMass Amherst