The French can ban the veil but not the English

The French can ban the veil but not the English
A woman seen in a veil in London's Regent's Park. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently broached the idea of a niqab ban, which may be consistent with French history and culture but not with English tradition.

Since 2011, France has banned the niqab from all public spaces. The niqab is the full-face veil that leaves just a slit for the eyes, which some Muslim women wear.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently broached a niqab ban too. This is odd because a niqab ban may be consistent with French history and culture but not with English tradition.

In the English media, the issue is portrayed in terms of an individual's right to express her religion.

In French discourse, however, the issue is seen through the lens of laicite or "secularism". The free exercise of religion is guaranteed in France by the law concerning the separation of the churches and the state. Passed in 1905, it bears little resemblance to the separation of Church and state in the United States.

In the US, the state adopts a hands-off approach to religion. Competition among a diversity of faiths in the religious marketplace is supposed to lead to a stable and peaceable religious pluralism.

Not so in France, where the revolution that overthrew the regime of Louis XVI in 1789 was viciously anti-clerical. The revolutionaries perceived the Catholic Church as being in an alliance with the monarchy and smashed first the monarchy, then the Church. Setting up the Republic, they vowed never to let class or religion divide society again. So the republicans passed a law to confiscate all Church property in 1790, permitting the Church to use it only at the state's pleasure.

To this day, the state owns and maintains all churches constructed before 1905, including the world-renowned cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, and Reims.

In French society, the Church is thus kept reliant upon and subject to the state. French laws targeting Muslims arguably also aim to rein in Islam and make it subject to the state. (Earlier, in 2004, France also passed a law forbidding girls from wearing the hijab or headscarf in schools).

Such state control of religion since the revolution is justified in terms of laicite. Enshrined in the Constitution, it is a doctrine of citizenship grounded in liberty, equality and fraternity. In this conception, faith-based diversity of views can be seen as a threat to social cohesion.

A common school system tries to inculcate the national values of equality, non-discrimination and dignity. The French assimilationist project expects all, including immigrants, to give up their communal identities in public.

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