Essay: On Liberty in Contemporary France
In 1994, the French parliament began to create laws to repress religious symbols in state funded schools in order to promote secularism, which originated the principle of separation of state and religious activity within France. On September 14, 2010, with 246 votes for and one against, the upper house of parliament passed a bill which prohibits the concealment of the face in public spaces. This ban included masks, headgear, veils, burqas and niqabs. Considering Muslims are the largest group of minorities in France, this ban serves as an unapologetic way of forcing Muslims to conform to the French governments idea of secularism.
Jean Francois Cope, the former leader of the parliamentary ruling party, The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), called for this law because supporters of the legislation believe the full veil “signifies a withdrawal from national society” and a “rejection of the very spirit of the Republic founded on the desire for social cohesion”. Cope believes this law will boost national identity within the community, however, it has only accomplished the opposite. Despite the ban not being government led, it received backing from more than 220 deputies and the former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy as he believes religious individuals should “practice their faith with humble discretion”. The United Nations Committee of Humans Rights, John Stuart Mill, as well as anyone who upholds the First Amendment sees this as a clear sign of intolerance.
The UN Human Rights Committee found that France violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing the niqab. After reviewing the incident, the UN declared “French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs, and that France had not adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit this clothing.” The UN agreed that for specific identification purposes, they urge Muslim women to show their faces; however, outright banning the niqab is a violation of personal freedoms. On October 23, 2018 the Human Rights Committee ruled France has 180 days to report back and decide what actions it will take.
This contemporary battle between infringement of rights and ‘public safety’ is reminiscent of Mill’s text On Liberty. If faced with this issue today, Mill would call France’s ban a “tyranny of the majority,” because the bulk of France’s population uses their political functionaries to execute their own tyrannical mandates over a population that is not causing them direct harm (Mill 8). The only time where direct harm could be called for was when Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, a terror suspect, escaped surveillance by disguising himself as a woman in a burqa in November 2013, after he failed to appear in court. Since the general population was put in harm, the UN imposed the rule of taking off the niqab only for identification purposes.
However, banning the niqab in all public spaces, is not justified by this incident as the benefits of completely banning the niqab for “safety” do not outweigh the harms of infringing on religious freedom. France claims that this ban is not a matter of security, but rather, a battle to institute unity in the public through secularism. However in doing so, France is causing more harm to Muslim women as it confines them “to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them.” France’s censorship of the burqa and niqab shows just how “the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves” within French society (Mill 12). As they claim to “accept” the Muslim religion, but confine Islam to the walls of its homes by censoring, fining and alienating them; because religion, in the eyes of those who approve of the ban, hinders French Republican principles.
Many second wave feminists support the burqa ban, as well as Sarkozy, with the argument that states “the burqa is not a religious sign” but rather a “sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” of women. Mill would disagree with this statement because, dissenters may be subject to criticism and punished by opinion, however, not by law. No human being should have the power over another to command his or her life in any form or direction. Despotism is acceptable in barbarians, but never within civilized society, as it provides for a rule of oppression and cruel tyranny. Mill and the UN challenge this argument by saying every person “is entitled to freely exercise” his or her own spontaneity, within reason (Mill 71).
Mill does accept aiding the judgement of those believed to be “ignorant” and states “exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtrude on him, by others: but he himself is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good” (Mill 71). Mill believes to fight ‘ignorance’ or ‘differentiations’ with education and a will to enlighten the community. However, one should never coerce another individual by force or with laws to abide the majorities rule, unless they harm to majority.
Even if certain customs seem ‘debased’ for the rest of the ascendant population, it is encouraged to advocate for creative discourse and debate within the ascendant and dissenter populations. If we refrain from voicing our opinions or exercising our religious rights, we become estranged from reality. By speaking out and displaying our thoughts, we begin to uncover truth. As our duty in society is to vouch for the truth and even if we fail we know “we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; [and] we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us” (Mill 22).
In conclusion, John Stuart Mill’s words have transcended from the 19th century to contemporary times. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has acted unknowingly alongside the words of Mill. In doing so, they have championed the importance of liberty and free speech. Through this path of liberty, the attainment of truth is one step closer to our reach.