The Agence France Presse reports that scarf partisans [who advocate the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls] … appeal in public to the doctrine of universal human rights, which are observed only in states such as France; on the other, in private, they use the traditional male dominance of their culture–including the threat of violence–to impose their views on others in the name of Holy Writ. …in some giant housing projects surrounding Paris and other French cities, young Muslim women who dress in western clothing are deemed to be fair game, inviting–indeed, asking for–rape by gangs of Muslim youths. …it is impossible to know whether the adoption of Islamic dress by women in western society is ever truly voluntary, and so long as such behavior persists, the presumption must be against it being so.

…Islamic extremists use secularism to impose theocracy: a tactic that calls to mind that of the communists of old, who appealed to freedom of speech with the long-term aim of extinguishing it altogether. The parallel is all the more exact, because just as Moscow financed the communists, the Saudis finance many of the Muslim extremists. France’s headscarf problem illustrates the limited ability of abstract principle to decide practical political questions. There are good abstract arguments, appealing to human rights on both sides, for allowing and disallowing the wearing of the headscarf. But the question can only be decided sensibly based on the study of social realities. [Theodore Dalrymple, “France’s Headscarf Problem,” City Journal, 4/23/03]

Here once again is an example of conservatives’ intellectually bankrupt approach to social problems. How is “the study of social realities” supposed to lead to a policy in the absence of principles? On what basis is one to judge whose claims have merit and whose claims don’t? But “there are good arguments on both sides,” and the conservative is too intellectually lazy or cowardly to weigh the arguments and decide which side (if either) is right. The implicit premise is: Anything can be proved on the basis of principles; principles will justify both sides of a contradiction. In such a case a rational person would conclude that his principles are incorrect–but the contemporary pragmatist simply chucks out principles altogether.

What’s more, in this particular case it isn’t all that hard to grasp the relevant principles–assuming one grasps the principle that the role of the state is to protect its citizens from the initiation of force. If schools were all private, as they should be, the government would clearly have no legitimate power to ban the wearing of headscarves at school. Even in public schools, whose rights are violated by this practice? If there’s a disciplinary problem, shouldn’t the instigators be punished? There is nothing inherently disruptive about wearing headscarves, any more than crosses or yarmulkes.

The issue around wearing headscarves in the exercise of a public function comes down to this: Public officials have a responsibility to uphold the law objectively. The state legitimately prohibits public officials from using the government to enforce or promote their religious beliefs, or from otherwise putting their own religious beliefs above the law. But it does not prohibit public officials from having religious beliefs: the law governs behavior, not ideas. In the case of headscarves (or crosses, or yarmulkes) there may be a legitimate legal issue as to where the display of one’s own personal religious beliefs is inappropriate, but the principles themselves are clear.

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