France has made international headlines for their plan to ban the wearing of overtly religious symbols, including headscarves, skullcaps and large crosses, in schools and other public places. While the ban is perfectly in line with the secularization sentiment dominant in much of Europe, what should be disconcerting is that this ban is an attempt to enforce cultural assimilation. There is an assumption, particularly prevalent in France, that no one will be picked on if everyone is the same. The “civilizing missions” into Africa, where natives were offered citizenship in exchange for their total assimilation into French culture, is one historical example of this attitude. If they did not repent for their African culture, they were treated as second-class persons. Both historically and with this ban, the goal is to limit the differences. The current trend is to privatize religion right out of the public eye. Each person is free to personally pray to Allah or Jesus or Jehovah, but publicly everyone is on the exact same ground as a French non-religious citizen. The plan only works if every one agrees to go along with the plan. Not everyone is content with being a Catholic or a Muslim just on the weekends. In fact, many faiths explicitly expect their members to continue to live a religious existence every day of the week. Problems start when people actually take these expectations to heart and buck the French ideal of secularization.Religion is a powerful and persuasive force, especially when it is integrated into the identity of a person. The symbols France seeks to ban are powerful and visible means for individuals to proclaim that they not only interested in being identified as French, but also as children of God. Seeing others donning outward representations of their beliefs, each individual is able to connect to a larger group. Where there is a group – real or simply perceived – there is power.Governments are rightfully wary of this power, as it is capable of compromising or overthrowing civil authority. History books brim with examples of powerful symbols – the swastika, the hammer and sickle, the cross or lady liberty. Removing the signs of outward religious adherence restricts the ability of those individuals to feel as if they are part of a larger movement, and thus reduces their power. It is obvious that the French are ruling out of fear. The French possess a rich culture and are right in their desire to want it preserved. However, they must realize their own cultural strength and not react violently to anything they view as a threat. In an increasingly heterogeneous world, where people of different cultures are continuously moving, pluralism is here to stay.Miller can be reached at amiller@campustimes.org.



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An open letter to all members of any university community

I strongly oppose the proposed divestment resolution. This resolution is nothing more than another ugly manifestation of antisemitism at the University.

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