It might sound like a cliché, but at times it does appear as if secularism has acquired an almost religious status. Nowhere is this more apparent than in France, a nation where certain religious expressions are considered a form of near heresy.
In 2004, for instance, the French government prohibited the wearing of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in schools. In April 2011, it followed up with a law forbidding the veiling of the face in public spaces (with certain sporting or cultural exceptions). This effectively prohibited the wearing in public of a niqab (which covers the face apart from the eyes) or a burqa (which covers the whole body). This was not a fashion statement on the part of the French state; it was a political statement.
Given that fewer than 2,000 Muslim women in France (out of a Muslim population of five million) reportedly wear a veil, there was always something absurd about the French state’s antipathy towards it. Indeed, in all my visits to France over the years (I was born there), I can count the number of times I have seen a woman wearing the burqa or niqab on one hand. Statistically, it just was never an issue; politically, however, it was, and is, an issue. In France, it seems, the state knows best.
Talking to different people on a recent visit to Lyon, the same sentiment kept being expressed: the state must come first and the state is always right. Which is odd. As history reminds us, neither states nor their laws are always right. The slave trade, racial and ethnic segregation, and so on, were also protected by state laws. And in the case of anti-veil legislation, it seems that the French state is amply proving that the state is fallible.
A few weeks ago, tensions between state and citizenry came to a head. The arrest of a woman wearing a niqab in the Paris suburb of Trappes prompted three nights of unrest. No sooner had the trouble died down than a row over the wearing of veils in French universities took off.