Laicité, Liberalism and the Headscarf
10 J. of Islamic L. & Culture 188 (2008)
Posted: 23 Nov 2014 Last revised: 19 Dec 2014
Date Written: 2008
In 2004, legislation was passed in France that effectively banned the ostentatious display of religious symbols in the public sphere. The 2004 law, which came to be known as the “headscarf ban,” also formally proscribed the display of other religious symbols such as Christian crucifixes and Jewish yarmulkes, but was centrally motivated by the Muslim headscarf. Scholars from varying disciplines polemically claimed that Islamophobia, a phenomenon sweeping through Europe, was the main catalyst leading to the ban. Amid today’s polarized geopolitical landscape, this interpretation was trendy but simplistic. A survey of the modern French historical narrative reveals that laïcité, the uniquely French brand of secularism, furnishes a more robust and comprehensive rationale and, coupled with the spreading culture of “Islamophobia” provides an ample and accurate assessment of the genesis of the headscarf ban.
The second half of the article comparatively assesses the French secularist model with the American religiously neutral model, examining both through the theoretical prism of John Rawls’ “political liberalism”. Whereas the United States’ First Amendment mandates religious neutrality and the ample right to practice religion freely, France’s enshrinement and implementation of strict secularism, or laïcité, most radically evidenced by the 2004 law, is a violation of Rawls’ political liberalism paradigm.
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