In a truly free society people can worship anything: images, fictional or non-fictional publication or even a lump of rock if they so choose, permitted that they do so whilst not interfering with others. In the secular states of the Western world the practices of certain religions have called into question what is right and justifiable in the public realm. President Sarkozy yesterday spoke to the French Parliament and raised the issue of the ‘burqa’. He stated that:
In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement…It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.
Following on from the feminist driven emancipation of women in the 20th century there came those that apparently freely chose to hide themselves away and revel in subservience to a misogynistic interpretation of a revered text. And this is the crux of the matter. Religion is a wholly private matter (admittedly in France, adherence to the state is the primary religion) and the people should be free to choose. If the consequence of this decision is that they end up dressing as a ninja (or halloween ghost) there is little the government can do to stop them unless the government seeks your genuflection to be directed towards them.
On occasion the pope wears a funny hat, yet we do not seek to stop him from dressing in such a way when he appears in public. Sarkozy’s words are rebutting a perceived threat to the power of the centralized state by couching it in terms of individualist, feminist freedom. While also drawing upon a perceived undertow of public distrust that is directed against Muslims: a truly populist move. If Muslim women choose to disavow their religion they have at their disposal, in the Western world, at least, the tools that will support their decision and protect them from harm. But if they live in France upon disavowal they are required to convert to state worship.