Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy Misunderstands Secularism And Freedom

I'm sure a number of you heard about this, but in case you didn't, here's what French President Nicolas Sarkozy said a couple of days ago:
In a speech at the Palace of Versailles, Mr Sarkozy said that the head-to-toe Islamic garment for women was not a symbol of religion but a sign of subservience for women.

"The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience," he told members of both parliamentary houses gathered for his speech.

He added: "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."

Why the hell not? What business is it of Sarkozy's, or really anyone's, what a woman chooses to wear? As long as she is not physically or mentally abused or threatened into wearing it -- and my guess is many Muslim women who wear it in the West aren't abused or threatened -- then who the hell cares? How is it any of Sarkozy's or the state's business?

People like Sarkozy make life very difficult for people like me. When I argue for a secular system of governance in Pakistan (a pipe dream, I know, but humor me for a bit), I take care to mention that secularism is not the absence of religion from society. It is merely the politico-legal separation of religion and state, so that (a) everyone is free to practice their religion however they choose without interference from the state, and (b) no one is impelled to practice a certain type of religion as a requirement as a citizen.

When I am met with the argument that "Pakistan will never be secular because we are a religious people" I am at a loss for words because the second part of the statement is a non-sequitur. You can be religious and secular at the same time. There is no contradiction there. You can pray five times a day, grow a beard to your navel (if you're a man), cover yourself in a burqa or niqab (if you're a woman) and still live in a secular society. The two concepts are not opposed. I can't emphasize this point enough.

Unfortunately, the mistake many religious people make in Pakistan in delegitimizing secularism is the exact same mistake people like Sarkozy make: they think of secularism as the absence of religion, when it is anything but. This irony is both tragic and comical. Essentially, when I scream my head off at mullah types in Pakistan that they should mind their own goddamn business if a woman chooses to wear a tank top and jeans, and when I shake my head at Sarkozy types and ask that they mind their own goddamn business if a woman chooses to wear a burqa, I am arguing against ideological bedfellows, both totalitarians in their own way.


Xeb said...

I agree.

Faiza said...

I agree completely with Ahsan. My question to both sides here is why focus on women's attire? Can we think of a subject more frivolous to waste our time with? I mean no one really gets upset over beards or prayers or people fasting enough to prompt Presidents to address the issue. These can also be outwards of signs of devotion. Why do mullahs think the greatest evil is in a tank-top when Pakistani society has enough problems as it is? And the likes of Sarkozy could do so much better in integrating the 'beurs' (2nd-3rd generation kids of North African immigrants) in France. He would get more results if these French citizens weren't discriminated against in their own country.

These are my thoughts on attempting for an explanation but I would really like to get a better one! I know that the burqaa for some people here in the West is daunting and abnormal. I can understand it is this fear of the 'other', an unknown idea that they aren't used to. So I'm going to say that it can be a cause of xenophobic reactions of the sort that Sarkozy is subject to. So on the other side, is showing more skin a representation of this unknown 'other' to more conservative societies? Do they see the unravelling of their own social constructs in a woman's clothes? Do women really represent (in our minds) all that is wrong with this 'other'? Surely if we wanted to promote secularism and women's independence and participation in society (like Sarkozy MAY want to do), or put forward religious morality (like the mullahs) there are better ways of doing it? Why take it out on the women? Any takers?

AKS said...

This is such utter BS. Worst of all (from my frame of reference anyway) is that this will play so nicely with all the idiots who believe that the West is conducting a war against Islam. Muslim women, specially in the west, are choosing to wear more traditional / modest clothes as a symbol of their Islamic identity and they shouldn't be persecuted for that.

My mom's sister has lived in the US for two decades and have four wonderful kids. My aunt and uncle moved to Kuwait a few months ago to teach at a University there. Their two eldest daughters stayed in the US - one is at an Ivy League college, the other is a High School Senior at a fancy boarding school.

No one in my family has ever worn a scarf or a burqa, but my younger cousin - the high school student, of her own volition started wearing a scarf last year. A few weeks ago both sisters were traveling to Kuwait via London. At Heathrow, the younger was pulled out for 'special checking,' made to take off her scarf by and slightly mistreated by airport security; as a result she burst out crying at the spot. She's actually still been upset (you can't really expect 17 year olds, no matter how smart, and she is smart, to not be emotionally fragile), and to this day she's refused to wear the scarf or talk about the incident.

Not everyone who wears a scarf is a terrorist nor are they forced / abused into doing so. Moreover, we shouldn't trivialize this issue as its not frivolous to question the reason why young liberated women are choosing to adopt an attire that their own mothers found were repressive. Their is no easy answer and the only way to go about the issue is to respect the decision of these women, because for them this attire is a strong statement about their identity.

In essence, Sarkozy should shut up.

Speaking of shutting up, hasn't Obama been just awesome. By keeping his mouth shout (largely) he's really robbed Ahmadeinejad with the ammunition to label the reformist movement as American stooges.

Indophile said...

Well Aks right now your cousin may be wearing Burkha to assert her Islamic identity.But don't you feel that after sometime it will a social norm and the next generation will not be having a liberty to opt out of this tradition. Well may be not as the societies are moving towards liberal environment. I can understand the need of the people to assert their identity in France which is very multicultural society but your own country what's the need to assert any Islamic identity as it is predominantly an Islamic in nature.

Well of course Sarkozy is forcing the state upon his subjects which is absolutely wrong but my point was do you need to encourage an environment where Burkha has became a tool to assert your religious identity.

Ahsan said...


Great comment. My two cents would be that the "other" explanation really fits on the burqa question. Not sure about its applicability to the tank-top question. There I think questions of honor and guarding self-imposed notions of "decency" are the primary factors. But great comment.


Yeah, I think many in the west simply have trouble with the idea that women would actually choose to wear this stuff. It's quite silly to be honest and as your story relays, can really affect people's lives.


People who wear the Burqa in France may not be wearing it for the same reasons as someone wearing it in Saudi Arabia. In the former, it's probably a case of asserting your difference, in the latter a case of asserting your conformity.

mais said...

A related opinion I found interesting

Butters said...

I think you're confusing a secular system of government with a minarchist or libertarian system. There is no reason why there can't be a secular government that promotes certain norms and values, and in fact all secular governments do engage in value promotion.

A state that functions even reasonably well serves functions other than the protection of property and person. It serves the purpose of social norm and value creation, by sending the message that some things are acceptable and others aren't. Policies serve several purposes, and one of them is almost always a symbolic purpose.

Every nation (which the state represents; usually anyway) has its own culture, and that culture is reflected in the policies of the state. The idea that the state simply prevents people from coercing one another as if it were an emotionless, valueless, cultureless machine is nothing but a naive libertarian fallacy.

Sarkozy is right to promote French values, even at the expense of minority communities who treat women as chattel. They are French and ought to be brought into the fold of mainstream French culture and society.

Prostitutes_must_wear_veils-Ataturk said...

I think it would be presumptuous of you to comment that Asian Muslims people in UK and France are making a choice by wearing veil.The thing about such religious on-your-face assertion is that it creates social pressure by a holier-than-you. Then it becomes a race to become a "better Muslim than you neighbors".
Besides, coz ghettoiation of Muslim communities in the West, there will be as much social pressure for a girl to wear the veil than a girl next door in "ran-over" Pakistan. These religious "power-projection" is a bait for conflict as it intimidates others by being someone different from other people. In schools and colleges, its great to ban attempts "to become better muslims".

Ahsan said...


I see where you're coming from, but I have three main objections.

1. You talk about "promoting" certain norms and values. There's two points to be made about this. First, there is a difference between "promoting" and "prescribing/proscribing". There is a subtle yet seminal difference between the two. Sarkozy here is doing the latter which I find unacceptable.

Second, I realize that the state, in all its forms, has historically taken to promote ideologies, norms, identities, values, networks and so on. But in secular societies, the state has no right to tell its citizens how, when, and whether at all they can practice their religion. For whatever reason, religion has been treated as a holy grail, excuse the pun. Obama's statement on this issue is closer to my thinking. You can google it if you would like.

The bottom line is that a private citizen's religion, and practice thereof, has been off the table for the modern liberal democracy. It should stay that way.

2. I have serious problems with your conflation of nation and state. France is a multicultural state -- it is not Poland or Japan. There is no such thing as "French" culture, and if there is, then it certainly is not the case that all or even most of the French citizenry subscribe to these values. That fact should be respected, as part of the state-society contract.

3. Some people *like* existing outside the mainstream. Who gave the state the right to mainstream-ize the population? Would you have the same objection to goths? Nudists? People who listen only to underground jazz? All such people exist outside the mainstream. That is their wish, and as long as you are not causing harm to others by transgressing *others'* freedoms, you should be allowed to do whatever you want.

I appreciate the intelligent comment though, even if I disagree with it.


Again, as with Butters, I see where you're coming from. It's a hard issue and there are no easy black/white answers.

I would say the following: unless there is actual physical evidence that a woman has been forced to wear the veil, we must assume she has chosen to wear it of her own volition. Is that a smart or a sensible assumption? Who knows? But as far as the law is concerned, it is the obvious one to make.

Just like you, I deplore the ghettoization (as you call it) of Muslim minorities in the West (well, it's really Europe that worries me, in Canada and the US, Muslims are fairly well assimilated). But there exist networks of pressure and conformity for ALL ethnic/religious groups (the way to dress in poor urban black neighborhoods, for instance, or what to eat in Asian neighborhoods, just to use two examples).

We like some more than others. But again, by the law, we must treat all of them the same.

dudelove said...

i don't know if you'd be able to see this my way. to me seeing a woman in burqa abhors the same way as an act of public indecency. you're right -no one gets worked up about skull caps and beards. but there is just something about the burqa - of what it is and what sort of mentality it seems to represent. it's an issue where it is less about religion but more a social evil. as for my views on secularism - i think all religions esp when attempting to control people - are little more than boogyman tales. they deserve little more than a philosophical/historical inquiry from a truly modern state.

Anonymous said...

I think the statement "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience," itself proves that for him its not a question of religion at all. As dudelove said it is more a social evil. It's like making slavery acceptable if someone wants to be a slave on his/her own.

Butters said...

1. Promoting can be done in non-coercive ways, for example with propaganda, but it is often the result of coercive policies. Besides the practical purpose of any law, a symbolic purpose is almost always served, even if inadvertently. So, though I recognize the theoretical distinction between proscription and promotion, I don't think in practice these two are always distinct. Promotion usually does occur through proscription, and in any event proscription successfully functions to promote norms and values, which was my original point.

In light of what I've said, Sarkozy's behaviour is rational and even justified if one supports the value creation role of the state and the particular values being promoted in this case.

As for religion being the holy grail: I'm not sure I agree that historically religions have been left untouched even by secular governments. One would have to research this question, though on the face of it I doubt it is true; but even if it is, the behaviour of secular European governments in this era might signal the beginning of a new relationship between liberalism, secularism, immigration and multiculturalism/religious toleration. All the signs appear to be pointing in this direction.

2. There is such a thing as mainstream French culture, even if French society is not as homogenous as Japan or Poland. Any ocuntry within Western civilization is recognizably similar to any other country within it, which is how we are able to use such categories to begin with. Whatever the differences might be between groups of French people, such an extreme and conservative manifestation of Islam is not part of French history or culture. It is only a recent and anomalous phenomenon that has not been incorporated into the idea of Frenchness and the myths and narratives involved, partly due to its clear difference, and probably for other moral and ethnic reasons (possibly some colonial ones too).

3. I'm not comfortable with rights-talk since I do not believe in rights, but if we're going to use it, I should mention that I do believe the state has the 'right' to mainstreamize the population. It would be impractical and overly coercive to try to erase every slight deviance or eccentricity, but to ban the burqa feels different than banning nudistry or some other trivial eccentricity.

Of all the reasons why it feels different, one of them might be that it has been defined as different by people like Sarkozy. Even if this is true, I am comfortable with it since there are good moral reasons why the force of French identity and national pride should direct against the burqa; and in any event, that is not the only reason it feels different.

Ahsan said...

The analogy to slavery is not apt, but slavery is inherently a relational concept (i.e. for a slave to exist, there has to be a master) whereas wearing a burqa, one's biases notwithstanding, does not prima facie entail that. It is singular and organic. Now, you may stretch that to say "well, you're a slave to a culture of subservience" or something to that effect, but that is changing the goal posts. For instance, I might say people who wear their jeans on their thighs are slaves to a culture of urban poor black America, but that is neither here nor there. Functionally, one is relational and one is not.


Again, I see where you're coming from. But the fact remains that there may be many things that make someone uncomfortable, but to start outlawing things on the basis of how far they exist outside the mainstream, and how PERCEPTIONS of their normative value, is HUGELY problematic. It is a massive slippery slope.

And moreover, I would take Sarkozy more seriously if he at least PRETENDED to engage with the idea that many (though by no means all) women in the west choose to wear it as a marker of their identity. There was a great piece in the Guardian on this a few years ago which I will dig up if my googling is up to par. But at present, this smacks of bias and phobias taking over from rational thought.

If people aren't breaking the law, then I find it problematic that you change the law so that you deem them as breaking the law, when what they're doing is harmless to other people. That's the bottom line for me.

Anonymous said...

This topic is talked about a little too much. The French, long before Sarkozy, have implemented a no-religious-symbol policy to promote secularism, and bar citizens from viewing others as being Muslims or Hindu or Sikh etc. There has been an outcry on the matter, but the French administration has put their foot down. I don't necessarily agree with what they're doing and implementing, but the decision from their POV is wise. If men or women who choose to wear the headscarf or turbans are offended, move out of France! You move there in the first place, make money off the country, live a comfortable life. Yet, you criticize for being too harsh to your personal identity. Similarly, people living in America criticize it to the bone. Bush has made rash decisions, and declared War on Terror, which kills innocent lives--hundreds of thousands of them. But for some odd reason, we just can't seem to stop talking about Islam. This makes a lot more sense in my head--but I hope you guys get where I'm coming from, and what I'm talking about.

There have been numerous books published on this issue and the French, frankly, don't give a rat's ass. Get over it.

Naqiya said...

thought of this post when i read this article today:

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how "relational" affects the main point that even if someone is doing some thing on his/her own; doesn't make that thing acceptable.

Payal said...

Sarkozy is bold and needs to be applauded! I am a woman! I dont need to dress myself in a chaddar from head to toe to prove my modesty or be safe from men! I can dress modestly in salwar kameez or even wear burkha and attract guys with my eyes! Its a 1400 yr old thing which has no place today. IO would find difficult to communicate with a person whose facial expressions I cat see. Also how anyone dress themselves in a black dress in summer!!! Many ll agree that many woman are forced into wearing burkha as that sends out a signal of pious woman! And dont gimme that modesty or avoidance of rape BS. Woman are raped in Afghanistan, Pakistan and much much more in SAUDI!
Forget everything, having a woman in burkha is a security risk. Who knows what she is hiding inside her all black ensemble!! Sooner or later all nations will come up with burkha ban in public to avoid security risks with terrorism on high! Sarlozy I am with u...

bubs said...

This may be the first time in Rs 5 history that many of the commenters are taking a more extreme stand against religious expression than the contributors. For the record, I agree with everything Ahsan has said.

Ahsan said...


Tell me about it. I feel like Tom Cruise in that morning scene in Times Square in "Vanilla Sky". Don't recognize anything and don't know where to go.

Payal said...

Also if I am not wrong Quran does not ask women to wear burkha but tell them to dress modestly! So why such hulla boo over something which Quran does not even specify

Anonymous said...

Is this decision by Sarkozy consistent with basic democratic principles of free speech and free expression?
If educated Muslim women are freely choosing to wear Burqah , then we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for wearing it but at the end of the day,they have as much of a right to wear a Burkha as to not wear a Burkha. We should respect their freedom of expression and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear.

Faiza said...

Haha, I thought you guys would be used to comments going off on complete tangents by now. (eg. how dare you justify burqa with the rape theory?). What I am wondering is where has the representation from the other end of the ideological spectrum gone? All those people who hate your 'decadent libertarian' ways? Have you guys lost a chunk of your readership? Have they done over to Karachi Khatmal?

Ahsan said...


Haha, I think a couple of them are around but lurking. Most have probably left.

Honestly, I didn't really mind the other-end-of-the-spectrum comments, but some of them were so over the top and so personal and so vicious that I can't say I miss them.

Ray Lightning said...

Actually, secularism is understood differently in France. In "public spaces", nobody is allowed to wear religious symbols. This is a hard version of secularism, where religion is pushed even strongly into the private space. Even catholic crosses are not permitted. Of course, people still do wear religious symbols, but they take care that they are not conspicuous.

Going by the French understanding, burkha cannot be permitted. In fact, the people who most vigorously campaign for a ban on burkha or Muslim immigrants from the Maghreb, who associate the garment with persecution in their native countries. Young girls also say that if people are permitted to wear burkha, they will have to succumb to pressure from peers and their families. This is a very thin line, and difficult to argue either way.

Please come to France, and discover the culture for yourself :) Religious freedom is extremely important in France and there's no persecution whatsoever based on people's personal beliefs.