I am a passionate believer in secularism, and I personally believe, having studied the history of France, that the French republic has the correct approach to the role of religion in government. Indeed this view has largely been informed by the fact that the country of my birth, England, still has an established Church that has the de facto support of the state and has unelected clerics in it’s legislature. However there is a section of people who are using the noble principles of the French Revolution to impose religious restrictions upon Muslims. This approach is not secularism, it is bigotry.
Secularism is the simple principle that religion should be distinctly separate from government. This can manifest in many different ways such as not excluding people from office on the grounds of their religious beliefs and not endorsing one religion over another. However, as all secularists will tell you, this does not mean that the state should persecute religious people or seek to force an irreligious world-view upon religious people.
In France’s case secularism has the label laïcité, and is based on a law with the catchy title: the 1905 law concerning the separation of churches and the state. The law encapsulates this idea of the state and judiciary being free from religious interference. The idea gained traction in France during the first French Revolution as there was widespread resentment towards the Catholic Church because they were largely exempted from taxation and held much political power. Further, the Enlightenment increased the amount of skepticism towards religion which led figures like Maximilien Robespierre to begin a programme of dechristianisation.
With this context we turn to a news story that has angered me. David Lisnard, the right-wing mayor of Cannes, has banned what has been described in the press as the ‘burkini’ from the city’s beaches. The ‘burkini’ is essentially beachwear that Muslim women can wear if they want to dress modestly.
Lisnard has banned this item of clothing because “if a woman goes swimming in a burkini that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order”. He went on to say “it is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision…the burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion”. There is an interesting philosophical conversation to have about whether the burka and other religious garments can be both liberating and oppressive in different contexts, but this is not relevant here.
Lisnard has banned an item of clothing because he thinks it denotes that person’s ideological viewpoint. Think about how silly that is. If I walked down the street with a French flag on my t-shirt you wouldn’t accuse me of being a member of the Front National. If a Muslim woman wants to dress modestly when at the beach then she shouldn’t be stopped from doing so, just as a conservative Catholic or a conservative Jew would be prevented from dressing in they way they wanted.
Furthermore, Lisnard is using the laïcité principle to ban this item of clothing by arguing that the clothing is promoting that person’s religion. The question I would ask is would this person say the same about a yamaka? No, you’d say that it’s just a symbol of that person’s Jewish faith. There is no consistency here, and Lisnard is trying to use secularism as a guise for his bigotry.
Secularists don’t go around banning people from wearing what they want on the grounds that not doing so may “disrupt public order”. The two questions here are about individual liberty and the role of religion in society. On the first point a person should have the right to wear what they want, end of story. On the second point, religion and government should be firmly separate, but this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be openly allowed to display their religious views in public. I wouldn’t be offending or worried about public order if I saw a nun walking down the street in her habit, and neither would Monsieur Lisnard. The Right is using secularism as a justification for discrimination, and it cannot be allowed to continue.