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Illiberal Democracy in France (And Beyond)

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] I had coffee the other day with a colleague who told me why he had recently declined a job offer from a French media company. In fact, he was initially quite interested. The salary looked pretty decent, and the city where he would have to live, Lyon, seemed appealing. He even found a few nice possible schools there for his 10-year-old son. But then came the bad news from Lyon. "We would love to welcome your wife and child as well," the employers said. "But, sorry, you can't bring them for the initial 24 months." This, they explained, was the result of a new "immigration law" the French Assembly had passed under the auspices of President Nicholas Sarkozy. After two years, they added, the benevolent French Republic would perhaps be kind enough allow the broken family to reunite. (Yes, not certainly, just perhaps.) "This is insane," my friend wrote back to his would-be employers. And then he, quite wisely, declined to move to a country that seems to have little respect for the most quintessential human institution: the nuclear family. Burqa matters Yet this was only the second news I heard last week about the growing illiberalism in France. The other story even made the global headlines: the ban on the burqa, the all-covering Islamic veil, which the French Assembly will most probably pass next week. Before that, though, let me note this: I am really not a fan of the burqa, which covers everything but the eyes of a woman. I wish no women ever wore that. As a Muslim, I also think it is not a requirement of Islam, but a medieval tradition that is quite burdensome on women. In fact, I am even willing to discuss whether the headscarf - which covers just the hair, not the face - is a requirement of Islam as well. But all of these are my own opinions, and I don't think I have the right to impose them on others. Most French politicians, however, and the voters they represent, seem to believe they have that very right. Nadine Morano, the "family minister" of France, makes this all obvious by heralding that everyone who visits her country will soon "respect the law and uncover their faces." What Ms. Morano probably doesn't realize is that her line sounds very much like that of the Taliban, who ask all female visitors to respect the law and cover their faces. The "law," in both cases, is an illiberal one that dictates to individuals how they should walk around. Another French politician who cheers for the burqa ban is Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French Assembly. His recent piece in the New York Times ("Tearing Away the Veil," May 4) is hilarious. He says the ban is necessary for "our republican principles" and public safety, and supports the latter by referring to "an armed robbery recently committed in the Paris suburbs by criminals dressed in burqas." One really wonders if there was less crime in the Paris suburbs when the burqa was not around, or whether criminals will really have a hard time disguising themselves after the ban. Or will the all-encompassing French Assembly pass other laws that ban large sunglasses, trimmed hats and wigs?0 What is curiously lacking in Mr. Copé's piece is a consideration of the effects of the ban on the women who wear the burqa. Will they really take it off and join the open-faced majority? Or will they instead avoid going out and stay in their homes? The latter was the effect of the ban on the veil that another illiberal regime - that of Reza Shah of Iran - implemented in the '20s. It was also the beginning of a snowball-effect reaction that culminated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. France, of course, is a much better place than the Shah's dictatorial Iran, but it is still a persistent disappointment when compared to truly free countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Such a ban would be unthinkable in those Anglo-Saxon states, no matter how hard their societies are pressed by the threat from militant Islamists. The two Wests Similarly, French laws that dictate a certain interpretation of history - such as requiring that the Armenian ethnic cleansing of 1915 has to be called "genocide" - would be unimaginable in Britain or America. Even Holocaust denial, as delusional and disturbing as it might be, is free in the English-speaking countries. This difference, of course, is not just between the Anglo-Saxons and the French, but between the former and much of continental Europe. And the latter, I worry, is increasingly being dragged into what Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria wisely calls "illiberal democracy." The burqa ban was first implemented in Belgium a few weeks ago, and another unbelievable ban on minarets was legislated by democratic vote in Switzerland last December. In all these countries, it seems that liberty is seen as a value valid only for the people who look, live and worship (or not worship at all) as the majority does. As a non-Westerner, let me assure you that this attitude is not going to win hearts and minds in this part of the world. It will only deepen rifts and consolidate prejudices.
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