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France Forgets Voltaire


France’s burqa ban: Has Europe forgotten the gas chambers?” The Christian Science Monitor (April 14) headline is followed by the text, “As we’ve seen with France’s burqa ban that went into effect this week, global religious tolerance — especially in Europe — is under threat.”

France is arresting women who wear a burqa or niqab in public … and it is doing so in the name of “liberating” those arrested. The burqa (a robe covering women from head to toe) and the niqab (a veil covering the lower face) are illegal because they are deemed to be instruments of the male Islamic oppression of women. Or is it because they are symbols of fundamentalist Islam?

The ban has sparked outrage across the world and within France itself, where 80 women were recently arrested for rallying in Paris; over two dozen of them wore the forbidden niqab.

The self-righteous persecution of women who do not religiously conform can best be understood in the context of xenophobia that has gripped much of Europe; currently, its main expression is Islamophobia.

No wonder British leader David Cameron declared at a February 5 security conference that the “doctrine of multiculturalism” was a failure.

A few months earlier, German Chancellor German Angela Merkel had announced that “the “multikulti” concept “does not work in Germany.”

It is difficult for something that has not been tried to fail. For decades, a genuine multiculturalism based on true tolerance has been politically discouraged and demonized in both Europe and North America.

Those who openly seek to purge society of nonconformists and reshape it into a uniform Utopia are clearly enemies of toleration. But today’s faux defenders of diversity and multiculturalism can be equally toxic. For decades, political correctness has encouraged the censorship of “improper” speech or thought in the name of “respecting” others. To hold “wrong” opinions about women, minorities, the disabled, or gays has become hate speech and can be punishable by law. The value of “toleration” passed down from the Enlightenment has been under such sustained attack that, today, the word is often used in an Orwellian manner to mean its opposite. To tolerate something now means to silence or remove any criticism or opposition to it.

Both the open antagonists and the faux defenders of tolerance have established a cultural war of all against all in which genuine multiculturalism never stood a chance. True toleration is both their enemy and their victim.

What is True Toleration?

The word “toleration” comes from the Latin tolerare — to endure — and it means “the allowance of freedom of action or judgment to other people.” It means that beliefs and peaceful behavior should not be prohibited or constrained.

The word “allowance” is key. It does not mean agreement, validation, or respect. It means acknowledging another’s right to believe in and pursue his own values even if the beliefs and behavior are repugnant to you. It does not mean silencing or censoring yourself. It does means minding your own business.

Crucial to this “allowance of freedom and action to others” is the idea of a public and private sphere within society. The private sphere consists of those concerns and activities for which the peaceful individual answers to no one but his own conscience; into this area, the government or any other authority cannot properly intrude. Examples of the private sphere include: religious belief; sexual orientation; freedom of speech; personal preference in food or clothing, for example; and, the education of children.

The specific private sphere that launched the 19th-century Enlightenment was freedom of religion. A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) by the classical liberal philosopher John Locke was written in response to the popular fear that Catholicism would overwhelm England and replace the Established Church (the Anglican Church). Eventually, the Popery Act of 1699 imposed civil and legal penalties on those who openly practiced Catholicism. (Europe currently fears Islam in much the same manner.)

Amid the cries for suppression that led to the Popery Act, Locke’s Letter suggested a different solution: religious liberty and toleration. His advocacy sounds modest to modern ears. For example, he also argued against tolerating atheists. Nevertheless, Locke rejected the then-popular idea that an effective civil society required uniformity of religion. Indeed, Locke believed that enforced uniformity caused the breakdown of civil society because the introduction of force into private matters of conscience engendered only hostility. He believed that toleration — that is, minding your own business and allowing others to mind theirs — was far more conducive to civil society. Locke’s purpose in the Letter was to argue for a different relationship between government and religion, one that distinguished “exactly the business of civil government from that of religion” and, then, separated the two.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778) later developed this theme in his work on tolerance entitled Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733). Written in England, the book took the form of “letters” penned as though to explain English society to a friend in France. Voltaire was especially taken by the contrast between the English and French attitudes toward religious diversity. France had been almost ripped apart through religious conflicts and wars.

Legally speaking, England was hardly a bastion of toleration: laws against nonconformists and atheists were still actively in force. Yet in England, and not in France, an air of toleration existed on the street level quite apart from what the law said. Voltaire observed, “This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.”

What was the impact of such tolerance and diversity upon English civil society? It flourished. Unlike France with its massive and bare-subsistence peasantry, England had such a thriving middle class that it was known derisively in France as “a nation of shopkeepers.”

What was the cause of the street level tolerance and diversity? Voltaire was not blind to the various contributing factors. For example, despite its aristocracy, England did not have the unyielding class structure that prevented social and economic mobility in France. Moreover, English commerce was an ideal of freedom when compared to that of France. But freedom of religion and conscience was Voltaire’s focus. He began meticulously to dissect the complex relationship between religious toleration and a harmonious society. The conclusions he reached were revolutionary.

France enforced a uniform system of values not merely to benefit the elite but also in the conviction that homogeneity was necessary to ensure civil society. Common values, particularly religious ones, were seen as the glue that bound the social fabric. Without this cohesion, society would collapse into open violence. Thus, those in authority centrally planned and rigorously enforced the values to be practiced by the average person. After all, if people were allowed to choose their own values, then civil war would result.

Voltaire believed precisely the opposite was true. Imposing homogeneous values led only to conflict and religious wars. Moreover, the resulting society was intellectually stagnant and morally corrupt because diversity and dissent were forbidden. A thriving, peaceful society rested on heterogeneity and freedom. Voltaire ended his most quoted letter, “On the Presbyterians,” with the observation: “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.”

The true source of civil discord was government interference. When people were left to choose their own values and interact to mutual advantage, then civil accord naturally followed. In “On The Presbyterians,” Voltaire ascribed the religious “peace” he saw to a mechanism that was a pure expression of personal choice and exchange with others for mutual advantage: the London stock exchange. Voltaire observed, “Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”

After the exchange had occurred, the parties returned to their separate lives to observe different religious practices in peace. The toleration was not based on validating, understanding, or even respecting each other’s religion; it was based on each man’s minding his own business and acting to his own benefit. The less government was involved, the more civil a society became; the more true toleration flourished.

In arresting women for symbolizing a religion, France has forgotten Voltaire. It has wiped the grime of centuries off of the aristocratic view that authority must impose uniform values, down to the clothing women are allowed to wear. It has revived the elitist belief that wrong religious practices must not be permitted, and it has done so with a twist that would have shocked even the urbane Voltaire. The government is now arresting, fining, and stigmatizing religious nonconformists for their own good.

At least, under the likes of Louis XIV, persecution and tolerance were called by their own name.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).