The decision by the French parliament to ban head scarves in schools is likely to accomplish precisely the opposite of its goal: The ban itself will become a symbol of political and religious repression, and serve as a rallying point for opposition to that repression. It will give Muslim extremists a tangible example of the alleged intolerance of Islamic beliefs by French society. It will be an issue that they can use to provoke anger, and attract others to their cause.
No one understands the power of symbolism any better than the French. Americans understand it, as well. In the 1960’s, burning of the American flag became a means to express opposition to the war in Vietnam. Conservatives and other groups reacted by suppressing what they saw as the desecration of the ultimate symbol of American virtue and values. To opponents of the war, criminal prosecution of flag burners was not seen as protection of an important symbol of America, but as suppression of their rights of political expression. Anger was the primary outcome on both sides.
The role of religious fundamentalism in a secular society is a growing challenge not only for France, but also for the United States and other nations. In the United States, the political effect of religious fundamentalism on the issue of abortion now is powerful enough to influence the outcome of presidential elections. If it ever becomes powerful enough to change the law that allows abortions, the social upheaval in the United States will make the current situation in France look like a picnic by the Seine.
Politicians (on both sides of the Atlantic) tend to confront symbols rather than the underlying problems, if only because dealing with the underlying problems is a much more complex undertaking. However, when they yield to the temptation to focus on a symbol rather than an issue, they promote civil unrest rather than discourse. The debate shifts from the underlying issue to the suppression of ideas and beliefs, which is as likely to cause anger in the country of Voltaire as in the country of Jefferson.
When addressing issues such as religious fundamentalism, politicians would be well-advised to do as did Voltaire and Jefferson, and consult the teachings of John Locke. Locke, in his Letters Concerning Toleration, counselled that the repression of religious expression is likely to cause rather than suppress civil disorder.
August 24, 2008