France, the Burqa and the Politics of Recognition

Recently a French parliamentary committee has recommended a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transport (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8480161.stm). Anyone showing visible signs of “radical religious practice” should be refused residence cards and citizenship it said. According to the French interior ministry 1,900 women in France wear the full veils. The French government has refused to grant citizenship to a foreign man who forces his wife to wear the full Islamic veil. The French prime minister said the man, “has no place in our country … The civil code has for a very long time provided that naturalisation could be refused to someone who does not respect the values of the (French) republic… This case is about a religious radical: he imposes the burqa, he imposes the separation of men and women in his own home, and he refuses to shake the hands of women”. France has taken increasingly strict steps to enforce a sense of the values of the republic by prohibiting outward signs of religious belief which, it argues, confer values incompatible with the republic.

This raises the question of whether it is right to impose a cultural identity on others with a different identity. One argument goes: If you move into my patch and I am in the majority you should follow my way of life. In other words my way of life is better than yours and if you want to come here you have to change.

However, a very different approach is taken in Canada, in Quebec, where the French identity is protected and preserved. Charles Taylor has written about this in his work Multiculturalism: Examining The Politics of Recognition. He notes that societies are becoming increasingly multicultural with more migration. The idea that one culture should impose itself on others suggests that one culture is superior. This means minority cultures will diminish and perhaps even vanish. Whether or not a culture is recognized or not recognized influences a person’s identity. The failure to recognize a culture causes damage to an individual or group. For example the failure to recognize women or black people in society led to great injustices and great suffering for women and black people in the past. Human beings need some kind of recognition. There needs to be equal recognition.

In the past there was an idea that society was structured by the old concept of honour. Thus those who had more power and wealth had greater importance than those with less power and wealth. In the modern age we have a new idea – dignity. This is a kind of universal and egalitarian idea of worth. There is a sense that every individual has an original identity. People are carriers of culture so each individual carries a culture forward. Charles Taylor writes:

“Equal recognition is not just the appropriate mode for a healthy democratic society. Its refusal can inflict damage on those who are denied it… The projection of an inferior or demeaning image on another can actually distort and oppress, to the extent that the image is internalized.” (1994: 36)

Equal recognition can mean one of two things. It can mean universalism – the sense that everyone has equal worth, equal rights and entitlements and equal citizenship. It can also relate to difference, building on the idea of individual identity. Every person should be recognised for his or her particular identity. An individual should not be assimilated as this leads to a loss of distinctiveness and peculiarities. In the sci-fi series Star Trek the Borg are a race of creatures that absorb every race they encounter. All of the particularities of the species are lost in the greater Borg but what you have left is Borg. The politics of difference “…asks that we give acknowledgement and status to something that is not universally shared. Or, otherwise put, we give due acknowledgement only to what is universally present – everyone has an identity – through recognizing what is peculiar to each. The universal demand powers an acknowledgement of specificity.” (Charles Taylor 1994: 39)

By applying universal dignity we are blind to the differences of people – everyone deserves equal respect. If we apply the politics of difference we do not discriminate by acknowledging the differences and treating people in a differentiated way. Cultures and identities deserve equal recognition, but not necessarily equal treatment. In France the Government sees republican values as a universalism. In French Quebec, however, the politics of recognition allow for special laws that preserve French identity in a majority English speaking Canada.

The question is how recognition of difference is balanced against a universalism of dignity in responding to issues of religious diversity. One way of considering this dilemma is to think about national identity, patriotism and a sense of civic homogeneity. An alternative approach is to encourage a more diverse and cosmopolitan vision. If we think we have discovered the best possible way of living already perhaps a universalism is the way forward. If we think we have not yet discovered the best possible way to living, perhaps there might be something in different cultures to learn from. Otherwise, in an effort to universalize, we might eliminate a way of life which has something to contribute to the best possible way of living. One could draw a parallel with the biodiversity argument and the preservation of the rainforest. If we destroy life forms we know nothing about, we might lose future scientific cures. Perhaps the same is true for cultures.

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