Headscarves and religious liberty

With regard to the headscarf debate in Europe, specifically in Germany and France, my Greek friend Giorgos raised an interesting question to me: How can we determine the limits between religious liberty (which can be defined as the respect of the society to the right of person to believe in the ontological axioms and to obey the ethical demands of a specified religion) and human rights?

I agree that it is an important question. Certainly the state must act sometimes to prevent such horrible cruelty as e.g. female circumcision, whether that practice is a religious, cultural, or ethnic practice. The state can implement limitations on religious liberty that are “prescribed by law” and that are “necessary in a democratic society,” according to Article 9, para. 2 of the European Convention. The question is, is wearing a headscarf susceptible to limitation on these grounds? (The European Court of Human Rights found that it was in the case of Dahlab v Switzerland, [2001] Eur. Ct. H.R., no. 42393/98, Decision of Feb. 15, 2001). More importantly, is neutrality the correct argument to use to limit freedom of religion in the case of wearing headscarfs? Because if the state bans headscarfs using the neutrality argument, then it is really hostile toward religion, rather than truly neutral.

So, I agree that the state plays an important role in policing against the violation of human rights under the pretext of religion or culture or ethnicity. But also I think we should be careful in how we ask the question. If phrased as Giorgos posed it–”How can we determine the limits between religious liberty (which can be defined as the respect of the society to the right of person to believe in the ontological axioms and to obey the ethical demands of a specified religion) and human rights?”–it almost sounds as if the freedom of religion is not also a human right. But in many ways it seems like the most important human right because it serves as a measurement of how free society is. So as we discuss the philosophical limits of the freedom of religion (i.e. where the free exercise of religion harms someone physically or serves as the premise for oppressing someone else) we need to remember that freedom of religion is also a human right that the state must protect in a neutral way by not favoring one religion over another, but rather allowing all religions to flourish and thus promote a pluralistic society where freedom rules, not prejudice.

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2 Responses to Headscarves and religious liberty

  1. Maria says:

    I do not have all the documented facts that you have read, but I do know that the French State has been known to actually be hostile against religion an not neutral. That is a big point in the Fifth Republic and even in the other republics they have always insisted on being a secular State.

  2. john f. says:

    Maria, I agree with you and think that it is very unfortunate that France exhibits such hostility towards religion for the sake of laicité, or secular humanism. Regardless of any good motives that France might have in doing this, the disadvantage religion faces because of it, and the signal that it sends–that France devalues religion in and of itself–is that freedom is relative in France.

    For example, France has gone much further than Germany in its crusade against the headscarf: whereas in Germany new state legislation will prohibit public officials such as school teachers from wearing a headscarf while performing their official duties, in France even the regular citizens who are not public officials are prohibited from wearing headscarves in certain public contexts, such as in public school. This is a severe restriction on the free exercise of religion by normal citizens who do not stand in a special relationship with the state by virtues of their public duties (which is the basis for banning such free exercise by public officials in Germany).

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