[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
It has been more than two centuries since the Jacobins and sans-Culottes, the bloodiest thugs of the bloody French Revolution, put thousands of clerics to the guillotine. Yet the French zeal against religion has not faded away. This time, however, the target is not the Catholics, who had suffered immensely in the past under the iron fist of a bizarre French principle called laicite. It is rather the Muslims, whose loyalty to their faith clashes with the dictates of a jealous god called “the French Republic.”
What I am speaking about is the new tide of secularism policing that the French government put in practice. The burqa, the all-covering face veil, which is worn by very few women in France, is now banned by law. So, French policemen are fining veiled women, or, far worse, dragging them to their headquarters to admonish them about the right way of life.
Sarkozy as Taliban
Meanwhile the zestful president of the French Republic, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, is enlightening us about the virtues of this ban. It is for upholding “French values of equality and secularism,” he says. I bet it is. The problem is that those “French values” do not seem to honor the right be left alone from government interference. Alas, they even justify a tyranny, which mirrors that of the Taliban: while those Afghan despots force women to put the burqa on, their French counterparts force them to take it off.
Now, what you and I think about the burqa does not matter here. In fact, I am among those who believe that it is a bad medieval tradition, which has nothing to do with Islam, and should better be abandoned. So, if the women in that excessive veil asked my opinion, I would advise them to take it off, too. But advice is the furthest point that I, and anybody else, can legitimately go. We cannot use state powers to “liberate” those women from what they wear out of their genuine convictions – just like the fact that an ideological nudist cannot claim to forcefully “liberate” us from our shirts, pants and underwear.
We should see that there are various religious communities on Earth with quite burdensome practices. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have extremely detailed laws about how they should live, eat, dress and have sex. Buddhists monks live a life of routine hunger and poverty. The Amish in America reject all the blessings of modern technology. All of those practices might look very oppressive to us, but it apparently makes purists happy. So, let them be happy, and let us mind our own business.
Yet “minding your own business” is apparently not a very French idea. The common French political mind rather seems to be swamped by a totalitarian presumption that every citizen has to accept a particular form of culture. And those who fail to conform – such as Jews in the past, and Muslims today – are stigmatized.
Mr. Sarkozy, whose il-liberalism is only matched by his arrogance, heralds even more fronts in this culture war. He says he wants “no halal food options in school canteens, no prayers outside and no minarets.” Just replace the word “halal” with “kosher” here, and the “minaret” with “star of David.” You will get the poisonous French anti-Semitism of a century ago – the times of Captain Dreyfus. The difference today is just the change in the composition of the hated Semites – now they are the Arabs, and, by extension, all Muslims.
We in Turkey very well know that this rampant Islamophobia in France is the main reason why the majority of French society is categorically against Turkey’s accession into the European Union. That’s why we are not terribly impressed by the French critiques of our democracy, such as Ms. Marland-Militello, the parliamentarian who questioned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on religious freedom in Turkey in Strasbourg early this week. Erdoğan’s rhetoric was indeed a bit harsh in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, meeting, and a few of his arguments were really not convincing. But his reaction to the self-righteous and overbearing attitude Turks have being facing from some Europeans, especially the French, was understandable.
We in Turkey are also realizing these days that some of our misfortunes in the past century stem from our big mistake of taking France as a beacon of modernity. We imported the fanatically anti-religious laicite of the Third French Republic, which not only brought oppression to our believers, but also paranoia to our seculars. Similarly, we imported the assimilation-focused nationalism of successive French Republics, and were drawn into a madness that our Ottoman ancestors would have never dreamed of: banning languages and cultures other than Turkish. Hence we created our own “Kurdish problem.”
At the end of the day, the trouble within mainstream French political culture is the lack of the “liberte” principle that they superficially cherish in the famous motto of their famous revolution. That is a liberty, which is only valid for those who are secularized, and assimilated, enough. That is a liberty, in other words, which is not liberty at all.