MELBOURNE – My parents came to Australia as refugees, fleeing Nazi persecution after Hitler annexed Austria. They arrived in a country eager to assimilate immigrants into its dominant Anglo-Irish culture. When my parents spoke German on a tram, they were told: “We speak English here!”
Assimilation of that kind has long disappeared from Australian government policy, replaced by a largely successful form of multiculturalism that encourages immigrants to retain their distinct traditions and languages. The burkini — a swimsuit that covers the body from the top of the head to the feet, though not the face — is one aspect of that multiculturalism. It was invented by a Muslim woman in Sydney to enable observant Muslim girls to join their school friends and other children in the beach activities that are an important part of Australian summers.
Australians find it hard to fathom why some French seaside towns should seek to ban the burkini. Without swimming costumes that comply with their religious beliefs, observant families would not permit their girls to go to the beach. That would reinforce, rather than reduce, ethnic and religious divides.
The burkini bans in France (some of which have since been overturned by courts) follow other French restrictions on clothing and ornamentation. Students in public schools cannot wear conspicuous religious symbols, which is usually interpreted to prohibit the headscarves worn by Islamic women, as well as the yarmulkes (skullcaps) worn by Jewish boys and large crosses worn by Christians. A full face veil — a burqa or niqab — cannot legally be worn anywhere in public.
France is often seen as a special case, because of its long history of strict separation of church and state. But last month, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, proposed banning the burqa from public places such as government offices, schools, universities and courtrooms, raising the possibility of such prohibitions spreading beyond France. It is, de Maiziere said, “an integration issue,” and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, agreed: “From my point of view, a woman who is entirely veiled has hardly any chance at integrating.”
The pendulum is therefore swinging back toward assimilation, and the key question is how far that swing should go. Should a country that accepts immigrants also allow them to retain all their cultural and religious practices, even those that are contrary to values that most of the country’s people consider central to their own way of life?
The right to cultural or religious practice cannot be absolute. At a minimum, that right reaches its limit when such practices may harm others. For example, children must be educated, and even if the state permits home schooling, it is entitled to set standards regarding the knowledge and skills that must be taught.
In extreme cases, like forms of female genital mutilation intended to reduce sexual pleasure, almost no one supports allowing immigrants to adhere to tradition in their new country.
In France, it has been argued that allowing burkinis to be worn on beaches tacitly endorses the repression of women. To require women to cover their heads, arms and legs when men are not similarly required is a form of discrimination. But where are we to draw a line between the widely, if not universally, accepted requirement that women must cover their breasts (also not required of men), and the greater degree of coverage of the female body required by several religions, including Islam?
It is also dubious that integration is best served by banning religious dress in public schools. At least as long as private religious schools are permitted, this is likely to cause observant Muslims and Jews to send their children to private schools. If we really want a secular, integrated society, there is an argument for requiring every child to attend a public school; but in most Western societies, that argument has been lost.
If a society is to be more than a collection of discrete individuals or groups living within common territorial boundaries, we can reasonably want a degree of integration that enables people to mix and work together. We should reject cultural relativism — the example of female genital mutilation is enough to show that not all cultural practices are defensible. A society is justified in saying to immigrants: “You are welcome here, and we encourage you to preserve and promote many aspects of your culture, but there are some core values that you must accept.”
The difficult question is to determine what these core values should be. Not harming others is a minimum, but racial and sexual equality should also be part of the core. That becomes tricky when women themselves accept restricted opportunities because of their religious beliefs. They may be the victims of a repressive ideology, but Islam is not the only religion that teaches, in at least some of its forms, that women’s role in life is different from that of men.
John Stuart Mill, the great 19th century liberal, thought that society should use criminal law only to prevent harm to others, but he did not think that the state had to be neutral vis-a-vis different cultures. On the contrary, he thought society has, and should use, the many means of education and persuasion available to it, in order to counter false beliefs and encourage people to find the best forms of living.
Mill would argue that if we allow sufficient time for immigrants to be exposed to the influences of education and proximity to different ways of life, they will make good choices. Given how little confidence we can have in other options, that path remains worth trying.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of “Ethics in the Real World.” © Project Syndicate, 2016
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