Effective last Monday, France’s ban on publicly wearing niqab went into full effect, with violators liable to fines of 216 dollars. The legislation was met with a protest Monday morning, as several women stood in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral donning niqab’s. The protest, at least from what I can gather, appeared small in scope and was swiftly brought to a halt as French police detained two women for taking part in what was designated an “unauthorized protest.” Reports continued to be released Tuesday that more people had taken to the streets in protest, with a number of women donning niqab’s in solidarity.
Regardless of how the future plays out, this legislation has already left an indelible mark on Muslims in the West. It is only a matter of time before like-minded nations begin considering similar actions against their Muslim populace, and the larger question – one we will see played out over the course of the next decade in most Western nations- is how a secular democracy operates in the face of public religion. Secularism is an institution that is supposed to protect human rights by restricting the state from adopting a specific state religion. So in principle, secularism doesn’t say that one cant be Christian, but simply that Christianity cannot serve as the state religion. Under that premise, secularism seeks to empower all religionists and non-religionists equally, permitting them to engage in the political, social, and cultural arena without prejudice to ones beliefs.
It is also under this same premise that calls of ‘religious privatization’ are taking hold. Since nothing meaningful in society is permitted religious influence, why should we permit religious displays in the public square, particularly when they appear as ostensibly medieval and oppressive as the niqab? How should we respond to a contingent whose very presence makes us feel threatened?
As Muslims, the very claim that Islam can remain a solely private affair is antithetical to the basic dictates of our beliefs and runs counter to an even casual glance at the history of our ummah. And though that may sound extreme at first glance, almost every religion has adopted public practices and symbols that embody the ethos of their belief systems, even if they aren’t hard and fast requirements. Practicing Jews often don yarmulkes, Christian monks and nuns dress distinctively, Buddhists adopting monastic lifestyles wear robes endemic to their religion, and Hindu women are commonly seen wearing tilaka’s on their foreheads, a tradition unique to their own religion. It is even arguable that non-religionists conform to some standard of dress and manifest their own beliefs publicly; people’s clothing are often reflective of their favorite music genre, sports team, or job. When people speak, their vernacular reflects the TV shows they watch, or the books they read, or the people they surround themselves with. As John Donne famously wrote, “no man is an island, entirely of itself.”
Therefore, what we are really saying is that anything and everything is allowed to inform the way a person dresses and acts publicly save religion, particularly when the religion is viewed as a foreign entity. We don’t mind religions so long as they coincide with our pre-conceived narratives of what religion is ‘supposed to be like.’ We inhibit that publicly which we decry as eccentric, while at the same time criticizing the eccentricity for its ability to inhibit public life for its adherents, even though we are the inhibiting factor. And perhaps most tragically, we refuse to acknowledge beauty, coexistence, and religion when it doesn’t look like the beauty, coexistence, and religion we wanted. And for that reason, we should be ashamed.
And Allah Knows Best.