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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

French burqa ban violates atheist principles

Muslim woman. (cc) deepchi1 (bob),
Today, AP reported that the French parliament voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils. In typical political fashion, this was preceded a few years ago by the lesser (easier to argue) step of banning Hijab head scarves among minors while on public school property (which I criticized). There, it could serve as a test ground to get younger people accustomed to the idea that it's ok for your government to be telling you how you may dress. That, in turn, increases the chance you can later pass something referring to adults at any location. This is the cunning way that liberty is often whittled away bit by bit.

This reminds me of the Swiss, who not long ago voted to ban Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. At the time, I denounced that move as well in my article, Some basics on religious freedom. In that article, I outlined the important differences between the United States' version of secular government, which is a restriction on the state, and the French-style version of enforced secularism that looks at the issue as a restriction on citizens - the former being essential, and the latter being horribly misguided.

Last month, I reported that the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) had made a declaration from Copenhagen, Denmark on religion in public life, and listed their shared principles. What may be surprising to some is how diametrically opposed France's latest move is to these atheist principles on religion in public life.

In that document, atheists state, "We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law". Another item is, "We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all..." More specifically it states, "We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none." Even more to the point, another item declares, "We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others" (bold on all quotes mine). How does a person's choice of dress infringe upon the rights of others?

Although reading its references makes clear the Copenhagen Declaration is consistent with several documents on international law, the declaration is not by any means a legal document or enforceable, of course. It is merely a statement of shared principles by a large organization that represents many atheists (though not all). But it is interesting to note the irony of a declaration that so clearly stands in contrast to France's latest moves, which are no doubt the result of social pressures, fears, failed understanding of democratic principles, and reactionary responses.

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