FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy stirred up a hornet’s nest Monday when he said the wearing of a burqa or nikab, the full-length robes and face-covers adopted by some Muslim women, “is not welcome on the territory of the French Republic.’’ Sarkozy justified his stance, saying: “The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem. It is a problem of freedom and of the dignity of woman. It’s a sign of servitude, it’s a sign of subjection.’’
Sarkozy is hardly alone among European leaders in his unease with the veiling of women. Leaders across the continent are struggling with how to assimilate large Muslim minorities - and particularly with how to accommodate religious practices that seem at odds with gender equality and individual liberty. Social tranquility depends on handling the apparent conflict gracefully, but France has yet to find the right approach.
The idea of freedom implicit in Sarkozy’s words differs starkly from American ideas about freedom. In a French secular tradition harking back to 1789, liberty - including liberty from religious institutions - is a value that the Republic wrested from an old order and that the state must defend.
By contrast, the American tradition is rooted in a concern to protect the citizen from the overweening power of the state. And in debates about overt religious insignia such as headscarves, burqas, and nikabs, the American penchant for the greatest possible tolerance of differences seems the healthier option - both for individual citizens and for society.
A study in the French National Assembly could lead to legislation banning the burqa and the nikab in public, and Sarkozy’s remarks were intended as guidelines for the discussion. Opponents of recently enacted laws in France against headscarves in public schools argue pertinently that their effect has been to drive a certain number of Muslim girls out of those schools - the place where the values of the French Republic are supposed to be transmitted - and into private Muslim parochial schools.
New laws that seek to prohibit pious Muslim women from wearing a nikab or a burqa (the difference is that the burqa covers even a woman’s eyes) would apply to only a few thousand fundamentalist women in France. And those Muslim women who did not want to give up garments they see as preserving modesty and honoring God would then face the choice of being confined to their homes.
French politicians are responding, in part, to President Obama’s recent Cairo speech to the Muslim world. In it, he said Muslim women in Western countries should be free to wear the veil, as long as it is their free choice to do so. Obama’s approach embodies the American way. In this case, the French would do well to be more like Americans.