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In defense of the burqa ban

Opinion: It's about universal, consensual values upon which democratic societies are based.

woman in niqab
A woman wearing a niqab buys socks at a market of Venissieux near Lyon, eastern France, on April 22, 2010. France's lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on wearing burqa-style Islamic veils on July 13. (Philippe Desmazes/Getty Images)

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.