In 1994, the French parliament began to create laws to repress religious symbols in state funded schools in order to promote secularism, which originated the principle of separation of state and religious activity within France. On September 14, 2010, with 246 votes for and one against, this bill was passed by the upper house of parliament and prohibited the concealment of the face in public spaces. This ban included masks, headgear, veils, burqas and niqabs. Considering Muslims are the largest group of minorities in France, this ban serves as an unapologetic way of forcing Muslims to adapt to French culture.
Jean Francois Cope, the former leader of the parliamentary ruling party, The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), called for this law which bans anybody from wearing a garment whose effect is to hide the face. Despite the ban not being government led, it received backing from more than 220 deputies and the former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy pressed religious individuals to “practice their faith with humble discretion.” However many liberal thinkers, the United Nations Committee of Humans Rights, as well as John Stuart Mill, believe this to be a clear sign of intolerance.
The UN Human Rights Committee found that France violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing the niqab. After reviewing the incident, the UN declared “French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs, and that France had not adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit this clothing.” The UN did agree that for specific identification purposes, they would urge Muslim women to show their faces;however, outright banning the niqab was violating personal freedoms. France now has 180 days to report back and decide what actions it will take.
This contemporary battle between infringement of rights and ‘public safety’ is highly reminiscent of Mill’s text On Liberty. If faced with this issue today, Mill would have called France’s ban a “tyranny of the majority” (Mill 8) because the bulk of France’s population is using their political functionaries to execute their own tyrannical mandates over a population that is not causing them direct harm. Since Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed did escape surveillance by disguising himself as a woman in a burqa in November 2013, the UN has imposed the rule of taking off the niqab only for identification purposes. The benefits of completely banning the niqab for “safety” do not outweigh infringing on religious freedom. In doing so, France would be confining Muslim “women to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them.” France’s censorship of the burqa and niqab shows just how “the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves” (Mill 12) within French society. As they accept the Muslim religion, but confine it to the walls of its homes by censoring, fineing and alienating them.
The burqa ban is strikingly being supported by women feminist activists with an argument that states “the burqa is not a religious sign” but rather a “sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” of women. Mill would disagree with this statement by saying the dissentists may be subject to criticism and punished by opinion, however, not by law. No human being should have the power over another to command his or her life in any form or direction, seeing as despotism is acceptable in barbarians, but never within civilized society. Mill and the UN challenge this argument by saying every person “is entitled to freely exercise”(Mill 71) his or her own spontaneity, within reason.
Mill does accept aiding the judgement of those one believes to be “ignorant” and states “exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtrude on him, by others: but he himself is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good” (Mill 71). In more quaint terms, Mill is saying to fight ‘ignorance’ or ‘differentiations’ with education and a will to enlighten the community. However, one should never coerce another individual by force or with laws to abide the majorities rule. One may only be reprobated when they have committed harm or failed in enacting one’s duty within society.
In On Liberty Mill’s example of this lack of duty is explained with a man, which through extravagance, fails to pay the debts of his house, due to this, he has failed the community, not through his “extravagance”(Mill 75), but rather, because he has failed the moral responsibility of taking care of his family. When this example is applied to the burqa ban, it can be seen that Muslim women are not causing harm to the community by wearing the burqa or niqab because they are not committing infractions in their duty to society. If in the case they do take advantage of wearing the burqa to commit an infraction, which is highly unlikely, then they should be reprimanded but by the act and not the burqa itself. Thus, “whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law” (Mill 75) however, until the definite risk is in place, no laws should be enacted which could infringe an individuals personal liberty.
Mill himself, admits to being in complete disagreement with the Mormon regime for accepting polygamy. His position in the argument is quite similar to the one of women feminist activists who oppose of the burqa ban. However, the way Mill combats the problem is different. Instead of imposing his views on Mormon women and demanding that the community embrace monogamy, he uses their logic and tries to understand it with empathy by saying:
“still, it must be remembered that this relation is as much voluntary on the part of the women concerned in it, and who may be deemed the sufferers by it, as is the case with any other form of the marriage institution; and however surprising this fact may appear, it has its explanation in the common ideas and customs of the world, which teaching women to think marriage the one thing needful, make it intelligible that many woman should prefer being one of several wives, to not being a wife at all” (Mill 85).
Many rebuke this argument by saying those who follow, in this case, polygamy and in contemporary times, wearing the burqa are uncivilized. However, Mill states it is no one’s moral right to decide on another person’s behalf what is right or wrong. Partaking in moral righteousness through enforcing laws on those who are in “retrograde” is highly immoral in that it advances despotism. The UN also agrees with this statement as in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they explicitly state “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”, thus it is no one’s moral right to ‘civilize’ a specific religious group since they are already entitled to their own rights and freedoms.
Even if certain customs may seem ‘debased’ for the rest of the ascendant population, it is encouraged to advocate for creative discourse and debate within the ascendant and dissentist populations. If we refrain from voicing our opinions or exercising our religious rights, we become estranged from reality. By speaking out and displaying our thoughts, we begin to uncover truth. As our duty in society is to vouch for the truth and even if we fail we know “we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; [and] we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us” (Mill 22).
Another reason as to why the UN Human Rights Committee may agree with Mill is because of his strong views on utilitarianism. Utilitarianism promotes that one must act in a way that always creates happiness in others, “grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being” (Mill 14). Mill’s method of determining the best utility is that a moral agent, when given the ability to choose between actions or opinions, ought to choose the one that increases the total happiness in the population. Under this method of thinking, the burqa ban should be uplifted because by accepting religious persecution, society is accepting the ability to infringe on anybody’s religious beliefs. This would in turn, destroy creativity, curb the important process of finding the truth, and hinder happiness.
In conclusion, John Stuart Mill’s words have transcended from the 19th century to contemporary times. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has acted unknowingly alongside the words of Mill. In doing so, they have championed the importance of liberty and free speech. Through this path of liberty, the attainment of truth is one step closer to our reach.