Open Faces or Open Minds: France, the Muslim Veil, and Democracy
In defence of new legislation that would ban the Islamic veil from being worn in public, the French justice minister Alliot-Marie argued that â€˜democracy thrives when it is open-facedâ€™.1 The legislation comes in the wake of a law enacted in 2004 that banned all ostentatious religious items from schools.2 Where religious practices such as the Muslim veil or headscarf appear to conflict with the cultural identity of the state, the question arises as to whether democracy should be open-faced or open-minded and whether such practices should be embraced, tolerated, or frowned upon.
The French answer to this question is premised on the three values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Although it is clear that these values are essential for a democracy to thrive, by banning the Islamic veil, France departs from the spirit of these values and gives effect to an abstraction of them. It is therefore clear that it is an open-minded, and not an open-faced, democracy that thrives.
The Islamic veil is also known as the niqab; the headscarf is also known as the hijab; and the loose-fitting cloak, the jilbab. I shall refer to all these practices collectively as the hijab unless one in particular is at issue.3