, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Tue, 01/20/2004 3:21 PM | Opinion
Muhamad Ali, Lecturer, State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta
Indonesian Muslim women from Hizb ut-Tahrir recently rallied outside the French Embassy in Jakarta against France's headscarf ban at state schools. The protesters urged the French government to revoke the ruling, arguing that wearing headscarves for Muslim women is a religious obligation and not merely a cultural expression. A poster read, ""Secularism oppresses Muslim women.""
The above protest reflects one among different positions in the world concerning the ban of Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in France's public schools. The issue of the ban on religious symbols indicates that the question of secularism is still alive, even in the first secular state, France.
One is not sure yet what the percentage is of those Muslims living in France (five million, or 8 percent of the country's population) who oppose and who agree with the ban, but surely their views are mixed: Opposing, accepting or being neutral.
Dr. Yusuf Qardawi, an influential Egyptian cleric, opposed the ban, saying that banning headscarves might provoke the hatred and enmity of Muslims. According to others who oppose the ban, French President Jacque Chirac has violated religious liberty.
On the contrary, the sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Mohammad Sayyed Tantawy, commented that the French government has the right to ban headscarves at state schools. Muslim women should obey their government even though they live in a secular state, not in a Muslim state. People may see a political context behind Sheikh Al-Azhar's agreement with the French policy, but putting this aside, we can see how Muslim leaders themselves disagree on this matter.
French secularism (laiciti) needs to be put in context. To maintain the secular character of the French state -- liberty, galit, fraternity -- the French need to prevent fundamentalism .
Yet, in France itself, the concept of secularism is a dynamic one. Even the French Revolution of 1789 has been interpreted in different ways. The French have to deal with migration issues and minorities, and Muslims living in the West have to decide between rejection, adaptation, or assimilation.
There have always been dilemmas between individual rights and collective rights. Today, liberty seems to be a universal principle, but its interpretation and applications vary. Secularists love liberty, but many of the religious fundamentalists in the West and the Muslim world have equally used justice or liberty as their political language, but they interpret them differently; many would use liberty to oppress others' liberty.
The issue here is not so much about whether or not wearing the headscarf is a religious obligation, as has been debated in Muslim circles (France recognizes that for many wearing the headscarf is believed to be obligatory for Muslim women, and also understands the sacred aspects of Jewish and Christian symbols which are also to be banned). Rather, it is about whether or not the state permits the religious expression of its citizens.
Those who advocate the ban and those who oppose it have different interpretations of liberty. The former argue that there is an intimate connection between liberty and law, and that the law to ban the headscarf at state schools is aimed at ensuring liberty in the assumption that the ban will prevent religious fundamentalism and its further effect, terrorism, and therefore ensure liberty.
Those who oppose the ban contend that the ban would mean violating liberty. The law should ensure that civil liberty, including observing religious rituals and wearing religious symbols, is ensured. Here the point of debate is the notion of liberty.
Thus, France is struggling between individual liberty and civil liberty, as well as between religious liberty and political order.
There are a number of definitions of the secular state, one of which, by Donald Eugene Smith (1963), states: ""The secular state is a state that guarantees individual and corporate freedom of religion, deals with the individual as a citizen irrespective of his religion, is not constitutionally connected to a particular religion, nor seeks either to promote or interfere with religion.""
Secularism should recognize no religious expressions at state-owned institutions, including state schools. The completely secular state, however, does not exist. What exists are states that pursue their own secularism.
Secularism is a very complex, not monolithic phenomenon. It involves beliefs, ideas and institutions, relating to such religious and political issues as human rights, liberty, discrimination, citizenship and so forth. Secularism in its different forms has been celebrated in most Western countries, but has been also politically practiced in most of the Muslim world.
The problem of secularism is not about right and wrong in its absolutist meaning, but a matter of human effort to live in plurality in a manner that would please as many people as possible within a nation-state.
Modern history shows us that secularism has never pleased everybody, and the success of secularism from country to country varies according to how much both the state and civil society have worked out a social contract.
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: ""Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains."" For Rousseau, it is possible to be both free and be a member of a political society. One's liberty is guaranteed but also is limited by law. It is for the people themselves to determine their own social contract for the benefit of their own good.
In one sense, the French government has chosen one among many different interpretations of the secular state. The United States, for example, has its own application of secularism, where President George W. Bush has personally recognized religious expression in public, albeit at the same time triggering controversy as well. For many in the U.S., a ban on religious symbols would be a violation of religious freedom.
Eventually one needs to recognize the different interpretations of what it means to be a good state. As Rousseau put it, ""Throughout the ages, men have debated the question, 'What is the best form of government?', and yet they have failed to see each of the possible forms is the best in some cases and the worst in others.""
Indonesia and other countries may see the ban as inappropriate for their own nation-states, but the French government may have learned from its own history about how to deal with diversity.
Muhamad Ali is the author of Teologi Pluralis Multikultural and a graduate of Edinburgh University. He is pursuing his PhD in history in Hawaii and is an East-West Center fellow.