In defense of the burqa ban

BOSTON — It is highly unusual for a foreign government to criticize a friendly, democratic country's decision to introduce a new tool into its judiciary arsenal.

Therefore, it must be because fundamental moral or strategic principles are at stake that the U.S. State Department issued a formal statement reacting to a French parliament proposal to ban the burqa — "a portable woman's prison cell," someone once observed —  in public places.

"We do not think that you should legislate what people can or cannot wear associated with their religious beliefs," proclaimed State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

For good measure, The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and even cliché-loving commentators who usually profess nothing but blind love for the French way of life, added their piece of wisdom on this "unwise" decision. An editorial in the LA Times went as far as comparing the French administration with the Iranian dictatorship recent banning of some "decadent haircuts" proudly worn by the Teheran youth.

Glenn Beck and his God-fearing, God-loving admirers must feel re-assured. Barack Obama, who they thought was some kind of Manchurian candidate for the atheists, is still on par for being president of the good old "In God we trust" nation.

What a strange country, ready to invade Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of universal human rights values. And it cries wolf when its oldest ally, another "universal nation," a secular republic based upon the pillars of freedom, equality and fraternity, challenges one of the most discriminating, exclusionary principles that any religion ever invented.

Yes, I hear you. The burqa is a way to express one's religion. And freedom of religious expression or worship is sacred in God's chosen country. OK, Mr. Beck, Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. State Department.

But, if we cannot relegate the burqa to the private quarters of the women who want to wear them, if freedom of religion is such an untouchable dogma, why not also tolerate a religious practice that is spreading in French public hospitals: the demand that male doctors do not speak to Muslim women, let alone touch them, even in life-threatening situations?

Why not accept, in publicly financed, deficit-digging municipal swimming pools, special opening hours reserved for Muslim women part of the day, Jewish men, Quaker children, sun-worshipping extraterrestrials, New York Yankees fans, on other parts of the day?

Why not — in the name of freedom of religion or expression — tolerate "honor killings," the lapidation of adulterous women, cutting off thieves' hands or heads, and so on (walking nude in the streets, topless women on beaches, smoking in the restaurant, wearing the KKK outfit to a Black Panthers convention ...)?

Why not? Because there is something bigger than a stupidly dogmatic respect for individuals' freedom of religion or expression: it is called universal, consensual values upon which democratic societies are based. Hiding your face is not one of those values.

The French projected burqa law is not desirable for "security" reasons, as some of its defenders have put forward in a somewhat childish way (the bank robber hiding his intentions behind the black veil, or even the kamikaze hiding his bomb under his robe — there are other, easier, ways to commit such crimes).

It is also not a good law because it would put a stop to the "Islamization" of the French society, as — paradoxically — some opponents and proponents have foolishly suggested. Many French people welcome the spreading of an Islamic culture that was rejected for too long, as France was not at ease with its colonial past. And the recent uneasy debate launched by Nicolas Sarkozy about "the French national identity" underlined that a lot of progress remains to be seen.

But nobody except the most radical French Muslims wants the Islamization of the French society. And if the acceptance or rejection of the burqa becomes the barometer of social and cultural integration in France, God, Allah ... whomever, protect our free societies.

It might surprise the State Department spokesman, the White House and most Americans, but France is not an anti-Muslim country. Mosques are being built throughout the country, most often with public money.

"The oldest daughter of the church," as France used to be identified, is not an anti-religious nation either. Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing even wanted to introduce a reference to its "Christian heritage" in the preamble of the latest European Union treaty that he wrote with several other statesmen. The idea was almost universally rejected. Because political treaties are for everybody. And religion is private.

But even that is beyond the point. For the burqa conundrum is not, mainly, a religious problem. "The burqa is not religious," said Nicolas Sarkozy. "It is a sign of the submission of women."

Allowing it in public would violate a rule of life in the societies I choose to live in. In a free society, you may love, hate or be indifferent to your neighbor. But for that, you need something very simple: you must be able to SEE him. Or her.

Jean Lesieur, a French journalist, was a correspondent and editor for the French news magazines Le Point and L'Express. He also served as an editor and editorial consultant for the Hachette-Filipacchi publishing group in New York and in Paris. In 2006, he joined the team that created and developed the French international news channel, France 24, broadcast worldwide in French, English and Arabic.