John Menadue. The burqa and hijab – public space must be neutral and secular.-a repost

The burqa and the hijab are stale news in France.

There has been an important debate and discussion on Muslim head and body covering in France for many years. The simple head dress or hijab, turbans and kippas have been banned in French schools since 2004. The burqa has been banned in public spaces since 2010. The French approach has a wide consensus across the political spectrum.  

Under the French policy of ‘laicite’ the state is neutral in relation to religious practices and institutions. Within that laicite framework religious codes and conduct must not infringe in the public area.

France has a population of about 7% Muslim or 4 million people. I suspect that, as in Australia, many would be ‘cultural’ Muslims as there are ‘cultural’ Christians. Fundamentalists are on the fringe of all religions.

The largest group of French Muslims has come from former French colonies, Algeria and Morocco.

As part of the general consensus around the policy of laicite, President Chirac proposed in 2003 that the wearing of  ‘conspicuous’ signs of religious expression, whatever the religion was incompatible with the French system of laicite; that it breached the separation of church and state and would increase tension in France’s multicultural society.

Later that year, the French Parliament decided that the law should prohibit the wearing of religious signs in schools according to laicite requirements. It came into effect in 2004. The legislation prohibited Muslim hijabs, Jewish yamulkas and large Christian crosses. Religious adherents were still permitted to wear discrete symbols of faith, such as small crosses, the Star of David or Fatimah’s hands.

In 2010 France banned the wearing of the burqa in public spaces, a full-body covering, except under specified circumstances (e.g. motor-bike riders’ helmets and helmets worn by safety worker). The ban includes balaclavas, masks and hijabs.

French government policy in these areas was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights this year (2014).

The French are very tough minded and resolute on these issues. We should also be resolute and as part of a defence of multiculturalism and diversity. This is a subject on which conservatives have been quite ambivalent, but Prime Minister Abbott in his speech to the United Nations Security Council this week was quite explicit ‘The Australian government will be utterly unflinching towards anything that threatens our future as a free, fair and multicultural society; a beacon of hope and exemplar of unity in diversity’.

Multiculturalism however is not just an aspiration or principle. It must be grounded in firm policies and programs such as the French approach to dress.

Our multiculturalism should be expressed in very clear ways.

  • It must be underpinned by a substructure of important values, e.g. freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
  • It must be underpinned also by our institutions – our parliamentary system, the common law, English language and citizenship.
  • It must ensure that all Australians including newcomers have equal opportunities to promote economic and social mobility.
  • It requires strong leadership by both governments and community leaders.
  • It acknowledges and welcomes diversity which is for the common good.

Australia has one of the most successful records in the world in immigration and multiculturalism, and until recently, refugee resettlement.

Whilst we welcome diversity as part of a multicultural society, there is a rub. Diversity which contributes to the common good and is broadly accepted in mainstream Australia is welcome, but diversity for its own sake has a downside. Some diversity that is expounded or practised is not acceptable, e.g. female genital mutilation, polygamy and child marriage. We must be resolute in opposing this type of diversity .

In a multicultural society the glue that holds us together is critical.

In that regard we should consider closely what the French have done with their policy of laicite – that the public space must be neutral and secular. The French are not mealy mouthed about it and neither should we be. Some on the political Left, feminists and cultural relativists should look at the French experience.

I can also understand why Muslims are often offended by the very explicit way that the female form is so often portrayed in advertising.

The Australian Government should seriously consider French policies of laicite and not just burqas.

There will be constitutional problems but there is no reason why the Australian Government could not introduce appropriate policies in all Commonwealth public buildings. The states could then follow.

The issue of wearing religious symbols in public is serious, but unfortunately some find it an opportunity to promote division. We need to discuss it soberly, inclusively and quietly.

The home, the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the temple and the shrine are private and should be respected as such. So also we should respect public space that should be both neutral and secular.

Multiculturalism is always work in progress.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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