The French way, or the Anglo-American way?

Some French politicians are indicating their displeasure with ultra-Islamic women’s coverings again. Nicolas Sarkozy just said that “The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

From an Anglo-American liberal point of view, this can easily come across as an example of the state overstepping its bounds, interfering with individual practices in order to impose a notion of the good. The liberal state should be neutral toward individual conceptions of the good, enforcing a commonly acceptable notion of justice instead. Liberal secularists, such as CFI’s John Shook, find the French attitude objectionable.

As always, however, the situation is murkier. Liberal individualism faces two immediate problems, neither which I think liberals can bypass.

One is, that by establishing a social order attempting to be neutral between individual conceptions of the good, liberals disadvantage more communally oriented ways of life. Liberals disguise this lack of neutrality by presenting communal behaviors as individual choices. A burqa, for example, is fine as an individual choice, part of the package that comes with choosing conservative Islam. But varieties of Islam that favor such extreme modesty are almost always strongly communal as well. They are ways of life that discourage, and explicitly oppose, liberal individualism. What sense does individual choice of dress style make, when the whole point is to immerse oneself in a communal sense of the sacred, so that obedience, not choice, becomes a central virtue in life?

The liberal response to this problem is typically to try to steer the conflict into a debate over choice and rights. Thus liberals will worry about whether the women who wear burqas are coerced into their choices: whether family, husbands, or the Muslim community is putting undue pressure on her. But this worry exposes liberal incoherence rather than Muslim pathology—the liberal inability to face up to forms of coercion endemic in all ways of life, even those which participants strongly favor. The same behavior by the community can be oppressive to one woman, supportive to another. If a woman is attracted by a more secular individualist way of life, community pressure will be constraining; it may harbor veiled threats of violence. For a more devout woman, community pressure will come across as solidarity, a reassuring sign of collective commitment to a moral ideal. Coercive aspects of community policing will accord with her notion of justice.

A second problem is closely related. Liberals countenance interference when individual rights are violated. There might, for example, be an argument for discouraging the burqa through public policy and legal means if such policies are necessary for securing women’s individual rights. Whether the burqa is a coerced choice remains an important point to settle, since preventing coercion seems, to most liberals, to be enough to justify positive action. (Anglo-American liberalism has, I think, inherited the Christian notion of unfettered libertarian free will, with all its nonsensical aspects.) But even so, I don’t think the argument based on women’s rights goes very far. After all, if liberalism is to be truly neutral with respect to competing individual conceptions of the good, it should not discriminate between conceptions rooted in different cultures and histories. But the particular set of rights liberals defend when discussing the burqa are rooted in a particularly Western, post-Christian culture and history. They don’t appear so universally compelling to people from other backgrounds, not to mention the continual deep political disagreements about rights Westerners have among themselves. If you throw in inclinations toward multiculturalism—a natural outgrowth of liberalism—it becomes even less clear that individual rights provide much of a leverage for political opposition to burqa-wearing.

The French, in contrast, tend more toward affirming a secular individualist way of life as a good worthy of public defence, rather than as a condition of neutrality.

This has its own problems. For example, it becomes less easy to defend secularism as a universal good. If they are honest, the French have to say that secularism and gender equality are an important parts of their way of life, full stop. Being committed to their way of life, they are prepared to take political action to ensure its reproduction and continuity. Conservative Muslims can say much the same thing from their perspective, naturally. So be it. Then we have overlapping and competing ways of life. The competition will inevitably involve varieties of coercion (not all coercion is violence!), since people cannot help but interfere in each others’ lives.

In that case, my view of the burqa matter is that it depends. What policy I favor depends, in other words, on my particular commitments and also the details of the particular circumstances. Banning burqas may be a good idea, but it also may be a damn stupid idea. It depends on what it is supposed to accomplish and whether it will accomplish that. What doesn’t help me is the notion that we can invoke some liberal principle either of state neutrality or of women’s rights and that that alone will settle the question.