Earlier this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed French Muslims in a statement published in Le Monde. As is often the case with Sarkozy, the statement is a mixed bag of good and not-so-good ideas.
I like this part:
I address my Muslim countrymen to say I will do everything to make them feel they are citizens like any other, enjoying the same rights as all the others to live their faith and practice their religion with the same liberty and dignity. I will combat any form of discrimination.
But I also want to tell them that in our country, where Christian civilization has left such a deep trace, where republican values are an integral part of our national identity, everything that could be taken as a challenge to this heritage and its values would condemn to failure the necessary inauguration of a French Islam.
This is mostly good too, I think. Certainly the practice of Islam cannot be permitted to run roughshod over France’s republican values. However, Sarkozy may go too far when he condemns “everything that could be taken as a challenge to” France’s heritage (I’m assuming accurate translation here). It is too easy to misconstrue foreign practices as a challenge to the national heritage. Sarkozy isn’t strking quite the right balance here.
Sarkozy remains somewhat off-key when he calls on Muslims to avoid “ostentation or provocation” in the practice of their religion. A “provocation” standard could condemn behavior that is fundamental to religious observance while not inconsistent with core French republican values.
For example, Sarkozy reportedly has said that “the burqa has no place France.” But although the wearing by Muslim women of veils that cover their entire face may offend feminists, for instance, it’s not clear that it violates more fundamental principles, at least so long as the act is voluntary on the part of the woman in question.
Sarkozy also touched on the hottest issue regarding Muslim religious observance right now — the question of minarets. These are those towers you sometimes see alongside mosques, from which Muslims are summoned to prayer.
In Switzerland last month, voters enacted a ban on the construction of minarets. Sarkozy told French Muslims that instead of being outraged by the vote, they should reflect on the resentment felt by Swiss people and many other Europeans, “including the French people.”
However, Sarkozy stopped short of taking a position on whether France should enact a similar ban. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has called the ban oppression of religion. But Xavier Bertrand, head of Sarkozy’s political coalition, has questioned whether French Muslims “necessarily need” minarets for their mosques.
Supporters of the ban in Switzerland claimed that the minaret is not mentioned in the Qur’an or in any other holy scripture of Islam. They argued that it is mainly a symbol of religious-political power and a place where Islamic law is established. But legitimate religious practice isn’t necessarily confined to items mentioned in religious texts, and banning minarets isn’t going to prevent efforts to establish and enforce Islamic law.
Sarkozy is correct, I think, that European Muslims should reflect on whether they have been too aggressive in challenging core societal values. But European politicans and non-Muslim citizens should reflect on whether a ban on the building of towers traditionally used to call Muslims to prayer is an undue violation of religious freedom.