On The Wearing of Religious Clothes in Private Life

Tuesday 22 September 2009
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On the occasion of its national congress held in Savoie, August 24 – 26, 2009, the National Federation of Libre Pensee wants to recall its principled position regarding institutional secularism and the respect of basic democratic liberties safeguarding the respect of the citizen’s private life in this country.

An important media campaign began at the end of June, starting with the initiative of a Communist Party Member of Parliament, and then with a majority of right-wing MPs, to stigmatize the wearing of burqa and niqab outside state schools, public administration and other public services. This move was echoed and amplified by the President of the Republic in a speech before the Congress – an exceptional meeting of both Houses of Parliament - at Versailles.

Let us remind that we were very surprised to see Nicolas Sarkozy wrapped in the mantle of secularism. Contrary to this, for years he has been insisting on the “necessary position” of religions in society and public life.

A Parliamentary fact finding mission is to publish a report on this issue.

What is secularism?

Secularism is neither a philosophy nor a life-stance; it is a mode of political organization of public institutions. Through the separation of religions and the state (1905 Law), its purpose is to separate institutionally the domain of administration and public services from the citizen’s private domain.

As a principle of political organization, secularism is applied to institutions and not to individuals. This clear distinction, implemented through the Law of July 1, 1901, on the freedom of association and the Law of December 9, 1905, safeguards the absence of interference of metaphysical concepts in the public domain in order to better guarantee the freedom of opinion and behaviour in the private domain.

In this sense, it is logically republican and secularist to ban all signs of religious membership in state schools and for people working in public services. That was the purpose of the 1886 Goblet Law, the 1905 Law and the 1936 and 1937 circulars signed by Jean ZAY. On the other hand, the law is not allowed to dictate the wearing of clothes in the private domain, or any behaviour, as far as they are not dangerous for other people’s lives.

We cannot fight one form of totalitarianism by replacing it by another form of totalitarianism.

Undoubtedly, the wearing of the burqa or the niqab is a symbol of oppression, as far as it is imposed. And yet, how is the wearing of the burqa by a few Muslim women less oppressing that a Roman Catholic priest wearing a cassock or a monk in a frock or a nun with a cornet, some Jews with a schtreimel, a spodik or in a caftan?

Let us remind that dictators have always been willing to impose a life stance and the wearing of garments. In 1872, in Poland then occupied by Russia, Tsar Alexander II banned Jews from wearing sidelocks and long mantles (their traditional clothing). Napoleon’s Civil Code banned women from wearing trousers/pants. From 1967 to 1974, in Greece, the “Colonels” banned short haircuts and miniskirts. History is full of these totalitarian attempts to run everybody’s life.

When fanaticism is at the service of an ignoble cause, we can regret, we must fight, although we can understand – intellectually – because this is a coherent system where causes and effects, aims and means correspond like a perfectly adjusted jigsaw puzzle. But when fanaticism is at the service of a cause, however noble, it degrades and disqualifies ipso facto this cause which it pretends to serve and promote. Why? Because Man is a complex being, capable of slaughtering his fellow citizens in the name of love, putting them in chains in the name of liberty, driving them into madness in the name of reason, and in a nutshell, maintaining the reign of terror in the name of virtue” (Alain Graesel, past Grand Master of Grande Loge de France).

Burqa, cassock, caftan, all those are imposed articles of clothing to standardize the lives of the people who wear them and “every uniform is a livery” (Ferdinand Buisson). Why then make a distinction between clothing oppressions? Why ban one article of clothing and allow the others?

In defence of democratic liberties

Freedom is always in defence of the freedom of those who think differently” (Rosa Luxembourg).

First, there is the ban of one article of clothing, but what will come next? There was a time when it was forbidden to kiss in the street. Are we to be taught the goose step?

We are living in a society where Orwell’s Big Brother regime of 1984 would appear like a kindergarten. We are put on files, watched over, controlled, inspected and searched on a daily basis. Through computer systems, those who own the network and the political power are able to know everything about us. Undoubtedly, listening to the BBC in 1942 was less risky that surfing the internet today, as far as the privacy of one’s opinions is concerned.

And are we to be told which article of clothing is banned and which is not? Insidiously, with this media campaign, a moral order which does not tell its name is being built. This means single thought, we are told what is politically correct. Society is being formatted.

After racial profiling [1] or “driving while black”, shall we see the offence of “driving while in the wrong article of clothing”?

This is a neo totalitarian concept. Let us remind that this type of debate took place as early as 1905. What was needed: A law of separation of religions and the state or a law or destruction of religions? Clearly, the political question was raised: a secular state or an Atheist state? The Libre Pensée found itself in favour of separation with Jaurès and with Aristide Briand’s proposal: “Fortunately, law has never been able to reduce to submission neither individuals nor groups of individuals, even less their thought. Any law which would have such a goal would be nothing but a law of persecution and tyranny”.

In conformity with this democratic tradition, the National Federation of Libre Pensée will examine the findings of the parliamentary probe and, using the above-mentioned principles, will publicly draw its own conclusions.

Adopted unanimously by the 200 delegates from the 81 federated groups represented in the national Congress


[1] The real U.S. crime is “driving while intoxicated”. “Driving while Black”, or DWB, implies that a motorist may be pulled over by a police officer simply because he or she is black, and then questioned, searched, and/or charged with a trivial offense. The term refers to “racial profiling”, which is used by police and other law enforcement officials. Racial profiling is the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act or to behave in a "predictable" manner


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