Religion in International Affairs
Pof. Berna Turam
The West vs. Muslim Women
One of the most current topics in International Affairs especially since 9/11 when
Islam was put on the spotlight and has been under the microscope ever since is the issue of
Muslim women. Since so much attention has been drawn to Islam, the West has taken on this
“white man’s burden” to help the Muslim women as they assume that they need to be
rescued. Laws of Islam and the Qur’an might not seem women friendly to the West but do
Muslim women actually want change? If they wanted change would not they have called for
it by now? Why is the West so obsessed with “freeing” Muslim women? This topic is crucial
to International Affairs as it explores one of the reasons why the West is so Islamophobic.
The question, therefore, which requires an answer, is why the West is so determined to save
However, there is another aspect of this topic that must be explored in order to
understand today’s society. The West, in my opinion, is divided in two parts, namely, the
United States of America and Europe. Both sides have extremely different views and
approaches concerning the Muslim world, and especially toward Muslim women. In my
research paper, I will explore the differences between the US and Europe when it comes to
dealing with Muslim women, more specifically how each party deals with the issue of the
Hijab (the veil). Why do the United States and Europe, more specifically France, approach
the matter of the Hijab so differently if they are both supposed to be secular, liberal and open
minded? Such an issue is crucial to international relations as it explores one of the major
problems between the West and the Middle East. This dialogue could be ruining or benefiting
the relations between these two parts of the world. According to Elizabeth Hurd the
assumption in international relations is that the world is secular, secularism is taken for
granted, as it could not be imagined that religion is part of modern day politics. However we
will see that religion is part of secularism, it’s all about how the government pushes the
boundaries between religion and political secularism. It is widely believed and assumed that
religion was gone, outdated, and no longer a crucial factor in society yet religious
fundamentalism and religious differences have emerged as crucial factors in international
conflict, national security, and foreign policy. How we deal with religion and especially Islam
nowadays is curtail to understand as it has become more relevant than ever, in a world that is
supposedly secular and modern we have found that religion still plays a tremendous role and
issues such as the Muslim Hijab in foreign countries be analyzed in order to understand
courtiers policies and the role religion plays in them.
The ancient government in France had relations with religion such that the monarchy
was married to the Catholic Church. There was a twofold struggle by the republicanism and
anticlericalism against the kingdom and clergy. As a result, the Catholic Church was
perceived by the majority of ancient 18th century French philosophers like Rousseau and
Voltaire as a hindrance to the republican project they pursued. During the late 19th century,
anticlericalism was established by Leon Gambetta in France. This individual argued that
clericalism was the enemy of state governance. The Catholic Church in France was
disestablished and reestablished severally since the Revolution in 1789 to the 1905 Law,
which detached the state from the church. This regulation was opposed by the Catholic
Church because it was against secularism, and it sought to preserve the hegemonic position it
enjoyed within the country (Kuru 587). The divorce of the state and the church left the
society with a bitter feeling of religion. A historical consequence of this divorce is laicism,
which stemmed from the hostile marriage of the state and the church. According to Alexis
Tocqueville religion mixed with government equals terror. Further emphasizing the
conditions that this marriage of the church and state was forcing people to live under, terror.
Unlike in America, in France no ideational connection existed between the Catholics
who were conservatives and secular republicans. Consequently, the two opposing factions
within the country were regarded as a zero-sum game, a war of opposing sides within the
country. A section of the country, predominantly the secularist, anticlerical republicans who
sought to preserve the inherited values established by the 1789 Revolution. The leftist parties,
a section of civic associations like the Freethinkers and Freemasons as well as the
discriminated religions, including the Jews and Protestants formed part of the other faction.
On the other hand, the members included the conservative followers of the clergy in matters
of bureaucracy and politics. Secular republicans in France like Jules Ferry, an education
minister, facilitated the secularization of education system during 1875 to 1905, referred to as
Third Republic, through exclusion of several cleric instructors from teaching in public
schools. In addition, the minister instructed the closure of approximately 15 000 schools in
the country managed by the Catholics. The Catholics in the nation protested against the
secularization policy, but they were not successful or valuable in the parliament and the
politics of parties in France at that time (Kuru 588).
The secularists proceeded to pass the secular legislations regardless of the protests
from the conservative Catholics. The state was, therefore, detached from the church in 1905.
The majority of the National Assembly members, 341 against 233, accepted the law, similar
to the Senate in which 179 members accepted the bill against 103 opposing members. The
battle line between the state and the church was well drawn with the state increasing its
hostility toward the church through pursuing secular administration. The church had no
authority or value in the parliament or politics. Instead, led by its clergy Pope Pius X, the
Catholic held a press conference to denounce the stand of the government in its relation with
the church. According to the serious differences that had persisted between the state and the
church, the state popularized assertive secularism to be the main ideology in France (Kuru
598). Laicism became the new image of France as a historical consequence.
The United States went through passive and assertive secularism as predominant
religious ideologies when it was going through secular state building as from 1776 to 1791.
These were periods between the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment.
America has been so tolerant to diverse religions in the country since time immemorial. The
country was inhabited by immigrants at independence. The leaders at that times included
secular individuals like Washington G., Madison J. and Jefferson T. who did not emphasize
doing away with monarchy or viewed religion as their partner. Despite the British kingdom
and Anglican Church collaborating, before then, it was never recognized or formed part of
the ancient administration in the country (Kuru 587).
During the ancient regime in America, the Anglican Church had establishment in six
colonies only, whereas the rest of the seven colonies either had no churches or
Congregational churches were the instituted ones. The establishment of the Anglican
churches in the six colonies was insignificant at that time, and the authority of the church
over religious concerns was ineffective mainly (Tocqueville 353). These circumstances
influenced the toleration of the secular elites on the public role of religion, and the openness
of religious associations to church and state disconnection at the federal level. The ancient
regime in America had no national hegemonic religion, which influenced or provided
opportunity for religious groups to embrace the division with no reminiscence for an ancient
rule. Furthermore, the contending Protestant denominations in the country were many; thus,
most of the religious associations could consider state and church division as the alternative
to religious liberty across the nation (Kuru 587).
Another explanation to the tolerant religious space in America is the Puritan
immigrants’ role in establishing religious liberty in the United States. Religion has been
essential in the establishing the public sphere in the country. The Puritans fled from
discrimination in Europe and partially helped in encouraging the detachment of the state from
the church in form of religious liberty. Most of American colonies have built churches and
categorized various religions like native Indians, Catholics, African slaves and Protestants as
minorities because they were against the churches established by the colonies (Kuru 586).
This laid the ground for its Judeo-Christian nature.
When Alexis Tocqueville came to America he was fascinated democracy within this
nation and the role of religion. Coming from France where the government was the church he
saw what a different role religion took in the American society. People going to America left
hereditary inequalities and the pope behind to create an environment where religion was no
longer hostile. In the United States freedom comes before religion, and as Tocqueville’s
views freedom as a priority he no longer viewed religion as an enemy as long as it did not
mix with government. He identified indirect causes of religion such as mores, family, civil
society and associations. The power of religion in America therefore comes from indirect
actions as mores shape the way of life and the way society functions and the strong civic
society found in the United States if shaped by religion according to Tocqueville.
America had no ancient regime and religious multiplicity’s presence is the basic
contributing factors in the emergence and establishment of secularism as well as religious
liberty as a progressively developing political process. The founding secular rationalists in
America, who were not against religion, were shaped through the Enlightenment. Similarly,
the evangelicals were influenced by the Great Awakening, and were tolerant and receptive to
the separation between state and church. Both the evangelicals and the secular rationalists
were an ideological common ground founded on liberalism of John Locke. They also shared
on the perceptions of certain Protestant thinkers like Backus and Witherspoon. The factions
accepted the separation between the state and the church at the federal level according to the
principles of the First Amendment. This agreement and compromise resulted in the dominant
ideology of passive secularism in America (Kuru 587). In more recent times we see how
religion remains an important part of American culture as Elizbeth Hurd identifies America
to be a Judeo-Christian secularist country. Judeo-Christian secularism connects contemporary
western secular formations to a legacy of “western” values, cultural and religious belief,
historical practices, legal traditions, governing institutions and forms of identification (Hurd
France passed a law that prohibited wearing of showy religious symbols like the
Muslim veil in 2004. This was the first European nation to prohibit the full-face Islamic veil
in public areas in the country. The country has a large population of Muslims approximately
five million. This population of Muslims in France accounts for the largest minority in
Western Europe. This decision to ban Muslims from adorning their veils was arrived at by the
French government because it argued that such veils oppressed Muslim women. As a result,
the state was playing a crucial role in “freeing” Muslim women from such kind of
oppressions. The Hijab prohibition took effect in 2011 of which no Muslim woman, whether
French or foreign, would be permitted to depart from her home within the country, hiding her
face behind the veils. In such circumstances, these women run the risk of attracting fines
from the government authorities (Kuru 569).
The intellectuals and academicians in France proposed through a report on secularism
to the government, through the president, that the Hijab and other conspicuous religious
adornments should not be permitted within the public areas in the country. Executives as well
as legislators in the country also accepted the state to be assertive on secular issues in the
nation. The basic aim of passing the prohibition law was to deter Muslim women from
putting on their veils (Kuru 569).
Despite France being a secular state, the country is more hostile to religions, such as
Islam, such that they cannot exercise their doctrinal practices and beliefs in public places like
schools without interferences from the state. This may be perceived as an affront on the
religious freedom and liberty of some individuals because the state has no legal or judicial
control over religious institutions in secular states. Secular states like France should not
establish any official religion or atheism in the country (Scott 14).
The state has set penalties and fines for wearing veils in public places within the
country to 150 Euros. Similarly, any individual convicted of forcefully instructing Muslim
women to adorn the veil would be charged a fine amounting to 30 000 Euros. Some French
women proceeded to defy the government orders by wearing their Hijabs in public areas
within the country; as a result, they were arrested and prosecuted. Nonetheless, opponents of
this legislation have argued that they would challenge any fines that may be imposed on these
women (Scott 14).
In contrast, the majority of the population in France, including several Muslims, has
supported the move by the state to ban public adorning of veils. These Muslims and the
French community insist that the Hijab is disrespect to the values of the society.
Notwithstanding, the opponents of this law, predominantly outside the French jurisdiction
argue that the state is violating the liberties and freedoms of individuals. The country, through
its public and political leaders, has continued supporting the position of the government
overwhelmingly. The division of the powers between the state and the church is preserved in
the law of the nation. France argues that because it is historically committed to secularism,
the Muslim women should not be allowed to display publicly their religious standing within
the country. The country’s interpretation of division of powers between the state and the
church does not accommodate the adornment of religious headscarves in public schools
(Williams and Vashi 275).
An interesting historical circumstance is to be noted when it comes to Frances
Islamophobic attitude. Van Deer Veer’s main critique of Max Weber’s work is that he clams
that Weber leaves out colonization from his study which he claims is an essential key to
understanding Europe. In fact, to understand France’s problem with the hijab one must go
back to the colonization period, as it could be a key factor to current issue of the hijab. In the
19th century France established a new empire in North Africa, it colonized countries such as
Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia all being Muslim countries. France enforced its culture on to
the colonized people; the French language and western attire were imposed. Nowadays the
role has reversed, as there are nearly five million Muslims, mostly North Africans, residing in
France and trying to impose their culture such as the hijab in the French society. France finds
itself in a unique position in which the people whom they once colonized are now the
colonizers. This could be a motive to keep the Muslim minority under control and make sure
that their ways and culture such as the hijab do not taint or infiltrate the French society. In
Laila Abu-Lughod’s article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” she touches on the
issue of the West taking this “white mans burden” and wanting to go into the Middle East and
save the Muslim women. One of the things that Muslim women need saving from according
to the west is the veil, however the west forgets that the veil is part of the Middle Eastern
culture and most women wear it by choice. In the case of France is it becoming the colonizer
that will come in and save the Muslim women by banning the veil and enforcing what they
(the west) think is right.
The opponents of banning the Muslim Hijab in public places across the nation
perceive this directive as a form of discrimination that the state in directing towards the
Muslim minorities residing within France. Discrimination against Muslims across the West
increased after the terrorist attack, which took place in September 11, 2001. The Hijab ban is
perceived as a propagation of discrimination towards the Muslims within the French society.
Critics argue that France is taking a contradictory position against values, including human
rights and social contracts of which it is a liberal promoter. Whereas the Hijab ban in France
has underscored significantly the sensitivity of religious matters across the globe, a section of
the French community posits that the veil has no unitary significance; instead, it demonstrates
the multiplicity of experiences of women and their aspirations across the globe. The section
that argues that Hijab has symbolic meaning in religion concluded that French government is
trying to oppress the Muslims from expressing themselves within the Western nations (Kuru
The religious policies in the United States are more tolerant of Muslim clothing like
the veil such that they are permitted to adorn their religious attires and symbols in public
places within the country. Secularism practiced in America implies that religion should be
protected from any form of interference from the government (Scott 15). America allows
Muslim women to adorn their veils in public because they believe that the American society
is founded on the principle of equality. All individuals within the country should be accorded
equal rights with no discrimination despite their diverse backgrounds.
Allowing Muslim women to adorn Hijabs is an exemplification of religious liberty
devoid of external authority or control that religious groups or institutions across the nation
enjoy. Individuals in America have non-negotiable freedom and rights on their religion. All
individuals, including Muslim women, are free to exercise or make personal independent
decisions. Further, American government has an innate moral and legal responsibility to treat
every individual within the country equally (Williams and Vashi 275).
In America, adornment of the veil is perceived differently from the French because
the country believes in protecting and providing every individual with a freedom of religion
and worship. The tolerance to Muslim women wearing the veil in public places within the
country and outside American jurisdiction is perceived as a basic principle of religious liberty
that the country promotes in several countries across the world. The country argues that every
individual has the permission and freedom to exercise as well as practice his or her religious
beliefs peacefully without any interference from the state (Abu-Lughod 785).
Some people in America argue that permitting Muslim women to adorn Hijabs in
public is a form of imposing Islam in the public sphere against the state policy of secularism.
This is perceived as a form of promoting the Islamic agenda of supremacy. The critics assert
that Hijabs are a form of oppression whereby women are exposed to gender inequality
through limiting their dressing in public against the practices of men within the society.
These critics do not perceive the wearing of Islamic veils in public arenas as a practice
promoting the American ideals as well as religious liberty that has been shared by both
rational secularists and clergies since historical days (Abu-Lughod 785).
Another view as to why American is so tolerant of the veil is its Judeo-Christian
nature. Because religion is a substantial part of American, it makes the nation more tolerant
of religion. George W. Bush believed in secular democracy but yet religion played an
important role in his strategic vision, leadership and policy decisions as is seen in his second
inaugural address in 2005, Bush describes his commitment to human rights as founded in the
belief “that every man and woman on this earth… bears the images of the Maker of Heaven
and Earth” and “liberty is both the plan of heaven for humanity and the best hope for progress
here on earth” (Hurd 37). Such biblical references are often seen in politician’s speeches, as it
is a tool to connect to the people as it creates a moral basis for political life. For President
Bush, the United States is empowered by a transcendental authority. It is a secular republic
that is realizing (a Christians) God’s will, this joint invocation of secularism and Christian
discourse is Judeo-Christian secularism according to Hurd.
The differences in religious policies in France and America are because of historical
background of the state and religion. In America, religious tolerance is predominant because
the ancient government did not have a recognized association with any church. Further, the
established churches in the country during the ancient period were in certain colonies across
the nation, whereas other states did not have established churches or they had different
churches. The multiplicity of the competing churches established in America during the
ancient kingdom ensured that individuals within the country compromised on religious
liberty as an alternative choice provided by the state. Religious freedom, included in the
headscarves and Hijabs, is non-negotiable in America. The United States has a contrasting
policy difference from the French that permits students to adorn religious clothing and
symbols anywhere within the country (Kuru 569). The historical establishment of the division
between religion and state permits any individual to adorn religious attires and symbols in the
majority of its jurisdictions.
France has adopted the position of interfering with the religious liberty and freedom
of Muslim women because of the historical differences that the state had with the church after
passing the 1905 Law separating religion from the government, making the country a secular
state. This was against the position of clergy and the church followers. The state continued its
hostility towards the church through exerting control and authority against the principle of
secularism. The French government interpreted secularism to mean that the church had no
role in public sphere. Consequently, the public visibility of Muslim women in public areas
within the country was perceived as an affront to the principle of secularism (Scott 16).
Ultimately, the definition of the principle or policies of secularism between the United
States and France is shaped differently. France had a close relation between the state and an
established church, which ended and gave rise to controversies. Bitterness and hostilities
towards the position of the church have been propagated and maintained from ancient times
to the present. The diverse competing religious establishments across America forced the
church to seek an appropriate alternative in the state as a neutral provider of religious
freedom and liberty. Both competing parties agreed to this position, and religious expressions
and practices in the country have remained accepted and tolerated throughout the history of
the society. Presently, the government of France propagates a dominant ideology of assertive
secularism, controlling religious groups and denying them publicity. On the other hand,
America practices religious secularism passively such that the church is not controlled in any
way by the state. Individuals have rights and freedoms founded on the ideals of the society
Furthermore, Judeo-Christian secularism, which is unique to the United States, seeks
to find the common ground between the people and politics like laicism but to simply find a
common ground in order for people to relate to politics, it uses religion essentially as a tactic
to comfort people. Therefor if the Muslim women in the United States which to wear a veil
they should feel comfortable in doing so as it is nit a hostile environment to religion. History
is the key element here as it laid the foundations to each of these societies and ideologies.
A crucial difference between France and the United States is that one is a nation state
and the other is a federal state. France eking a nation state seeks to preserve and values its
cultural identity and any foreign culture present in the society is perceived as a threat. On the
other had America is a land filled with different minority groups and immigrants, it is at its
core and immigrant nation. Nowadays the immigrants have obtained more and more power
and influence as was seen in the 2012 presidential elections were a big percent of the voters
were immigrants, African Americans and minority groups.
America has a different religious policy from that of France. American society is
more tolerant of the role of religion in the public sphere. This position is shaped by historical
background that had no state inclination towards a particular religion in the country. Further,
the law of the nation provides that any individual be accorded the freedom and liberty to
exercise and practice his or her religious beliefs without any form of interference from the
state. As a secular state, the United States believes that its government has no authority over
any religious institution or grouping in the country. As a result, the nation practices passive
secularism position in which the state is detached completely from the church. The Muslim
women are permitted to adorn their veils in public places without any form of state
In contrast, France is a secular country just like America but with different religious
policies. The predominant ideology is assertive secularism that denounces the role of the
church in public domain. Its policies are influenced by the country’s historical background in
which the state has had constant conflicts with the church. Consequently, the state came up
with hostile regulations, which displaced the church from the public. The control of the state
in religious matters in France has been exemplified in the recent case in which Muslim
women were banned from adorning their veils in public places. Defying the state law would
result in fines and penalties from the government authorities. Notwithstanding, majority of
French community, including Muslim women, have supported the position of the government
of liberating such women from oppression. Some Western nations like America have
denounced the position of France in prohibiting women from wearing Hijab. This is against
the values of the society that French government claims to be protecting.
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