The true meaning of Secularism

By Emma Brooks

Two pieces of news caught my attention last week, and got me thinking about the issue of secularism and the state. The first was of French president Nicolas Sarkozy banning the use of the burka in France. The second was of Belgium’s first veiled MP being elected to the parliament.

In the first case, president Sarkozy decided to make the announcement of the banning of the burka, in the interest of maintaining a secular state which forbids one to show any exterior signs of belonging to any religion. In the other case, Belgium, presumably also secular, allows a Muslim and therefore veiled young woman be appointed to the parliament, just as any other Belgian would be.

Quite a few European countries are secular, and this entails a separation between church and state, where the country is not declared to be of any one religion. This can be interpreted in different ways as both these cases show, but it seems to me that Belgian is definitely the case to follow.

How can a country claim to be secular, and then prohibit people from showing any signs of belonging to any religion, including wearing cross-shaped pendants? What happened to the freedom of expression? Instead, it seems to me that this most recent banning of burkas, and the ongoing polemics over the use of the headscarf, seem more like an attack against Muslims, rather than a strict application of the notion of secularism. After all, people do not complain about people wearing cross-shaped pendants or rosaries, this doesn’t offend them. This does not make women look as if they are being subjected to Christianity. On the other hand, according to M. Sarkozy, the burka is a sign of women being oppressed “imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity”.

What he fails to remember is that although some women may be forced to wear the burka against their will, others also choose to wear it. It is a choice of theirs, a personal devotion and way of life that they adhere to. Why should they be forbidden from living their lives the way they want to? Who are we to decide whether or not they are oppressed? It seems to me that this is a particularly unfair judgment to be made. As a president, his role is to represent all his people and this includes their beliefs and religions, or in any case support for them.

In my opinion, a secular state is one that would allow its citizens to express their religions, all of them, freely. People should be allowed to wear crosses, turbans, veils, burqas, kippas, anything they like without feeling bad about it, without worrying whether or not they might be offending someone or against the law. This is the case not only in Belgium as this week’s example has shown us, but also in the UK where one can see tube drivers wearing turbans, and policewomen or shop assistants wearing veils.

I am particularly shocked by France’s latest statement, and do not feel that it is appropriate for a world in which we are supposed to be embracing all the different cultures that are around us, and welcoming different people into our countries. Nor is it appropriate for a country that calls itself secular and is home to the largest Western European population of Muslims. As I have mentioned before, France already suffers from social unrest, does it really want to make matters worse for itself by making its Muslims feel even more excluded? Or does this actually count as secularism?

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