Image from Flickr via thekeithhall

In February 2012, India announced that it would be partnering with France in one of the country’s largest-ever international arms deals. Indian newspapers such as the Indian Express reported on the government’s impending contract with French airplane manufacturer Dassault, in which India would pay over 76,000 crore Indian Rupees (over $10.5 billion USD) for 126 planes. India—which houses the world’s largest Sikh population and the world’s second-largest Muslim population—should not be making this exorbitant deal with a country that institutionalized discrimination against Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews six years ago.

On March 15, 2004, former French President Jacques Chirac signed into law an amendment to the French Code of Education that banned wearing clothing or symbols in state schools that “exhibit conspicuously a religious affiliation.” This French ban, creating a seemingly “neutral” and generally applicable law, prohibited items like “a large cross, a veil, or skullcap.” The conspicuous exception allowing for the wearing of a cross as long as it is not large is, at best, a smokescreen: Firstly, most Christians do not see the wearing of a cross as an inextricable part of their daily practice, and secondly, those who regard the cross as an article of faith that should not be removed in any case wear a discreet cross around their neck. Therefore, even on its face, the French ban, as drafted, deliberately discriminates against specific communities: It had an immediate and disparate impact on Muslim hijabs (headscarves), Sikh dastaars (turbans), and Jewish yarmulkes (skullcaps), forcing students to choose between maintaining their religious identity or receiving a public school education.

In France, non-religiosity and intolerance for non-Christian faiths is now the state religion. As is Saudi Arabia, religions that differ from the mainstream must be practiced “discreetly” (a euphemism used by the proponents of these draconian regulations).

The ban illustrates that the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité has fallen victim to bigotry. And French intelligentsia, otherwise eloquent and outspoken when it comes to violation of human rights elsewhere, have remained deafeningly silent, if not shamefully apologetic and thus complicit in this blatant discrimination.

India’s recent arms deal decision is severely problematic both for its affirmation of bigoted behavior against turbans, headscarves, and yarmulkes as well as its irresponsible extravagance when India houses the largest population of the world’s poor—greater than 26 of sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest countries combined. The government’s decision is all the more maddening considering that the 2011 census revealed that over half of all households do not have a toilet. Expectedly, a “top-secret national security” reason would be cited as justification for the deal; this then simply begs the question of India’s decision to purchase from a country that does not respect the appearance of India’s own Prime Minister and millions more of his countrywomen and men.

The citizens of France, the European Court of Human Rights, the international community, and now the Indian government, have all pretty much allowed France to get away with denying young children the simple right to go to public schools, thus abandoning rationality and fairness, in favor of strict “secularism” (elitism), assimilation (intolerance), and bigotry (suppression of identity). They too, j’accuse!

In the country of Voltaire, no less, the most illogical connections have been drawn between dress and modernity of thought and action.

The glorious legacy of La France is unraveling at a rapid pace. In the notorious “Dreyfus affair” of 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, was arrested for treason and summarily convicted and sentenced to penal servitude for life in a secret court-martial by an openly anti-Semitic jury. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe then (as, unfortunately, it is again now, only focused more toward Semites professing Islam, and often extends even to those who happen to look like them). But France had some brave intellectuals then, and a handful rose, at personal risk, to defend this persecuted Jew. Above all, novelist Emile Zola wrote a scathing article, “J’accuse!,” openly accusing the then-French President of anti-Semitism, and for jailing Dreyfus simply out of religious vendetta. Zola was promptly found guilty of libel and forced to flee to England for a year. However, after a prolonged and fierce national debate, Dreyfus was eventually exonerated by a military commission in 1906, and returned to serve in the army with promotions and honor.

Despite this illustrious example of landing on the right side of history during the peak of religious hatred in Europe, the French today are forerunners of racial, cultural, and religious bigotry. Emile Zola is long gone and there doesn’t seem to be any intellectual who can replace him.

Today, France is not singling out an adult army official, but rather minor school children. And the world fails to oppose this persecution because it is titled “secular.”

Should we not oppose the French ban because expressing faith and identity are only the prerogative of the well-off? Should Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish children—who can’t choose between public education and freedom to practice—find solace in the fact that they could have gone to private schools, if their parents had the money? If they don’t have bread, eat cake?

Instead of giving minorities a chance to build a proper self-image and show true allegiance to the flag, the French majority is insisting that they start by saying “flag before faith.”

Should we not oppose the French ban because of the low-brow defense that it will limit influences of radical Islam and/or terrorism? Should we not consider how France is neglecting its Muslim ghettos and the smoldering anger within? Should we believe that determined terrorists will really be discouraged by the State’s undressing of young girls from the head up?

Should we not oppose the French ban because it mostly hurts migrants whose voices do not make headlines? Should the children of those parents who left their original homes for physical and/or economic security, and have diligently contributed to French society and economy, quietly accept their second-class status for ever after?

Should we not oppose the ban under the Western supremacist assumption that Muslim women need to be liberated? Should we happily ignore the hijab-wearing scientist, journalist, or doctor because the media programs us to obsess over women dressed in the latest of fashions from Paris or Milan, who haven’t the foggiest idea of science or politics? Should we ignore that the attack is in fact on a post-9/11 beleaguered community’s attempt to continue exhibiting pride and strength?

The French government does not engage with of these questions. And the complete lack of accountability does not end with the government. The overwhelming majority in France, and elsewhere in Europe, is convinced—with the kind of certitude that brooks no argumentation—that these discriminatory rules are necessary.

In the country of Voltaire, no less, the most illogical connections have been drawn between dress and modernity of thought and action. Take, for example, Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh. Both are highly educated in their chosen field (politics), and, despite not overemphasizing their respective faiths (Christianity and Sikhism), both have talked movingly about deep attachment to their faiths. From what appears in the press, both do occasionally find time to worship in the Church and Gurdwara, respectively.

Obama dresses the way he does because it is the accepted form into which the male garb of the Christian culture has evolved. Likewise, Manmohan Singh vis-à-vis Sikh male garb. In particular, the turban is the accepted headgear around the top-knot into which he ties his long hair—the kesh prescribed by the Sikh faith—every morning. Were he to put around it one day a “discreet hairnet”—as a French Education Minister once suggested that Sikh children attending public schools should start doing, so as not to offend mainstream sensibilities—not only would Singh lose face before his peers, he’d lose face in his own eyes, and his job, too, in the process. And, something analogous and equally sudden would befall Obama, were he to do something equally “indiscreet” one day on Capitol Hill.

This French illogic, spurned by fanaticism, has recently been challenged under international law. In September 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Commission found France in violation of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” as well as to “manifest one’s religion or beliefs.” A Sikh resident of France, 76-year-old Ranjit Singh, had gone to the UN to protest another wrong-headed French policy that requires the removal of turbans for passport and ID card photographs. The Commission noted that “the State party has not explained why the wearing of a Sikh turban covering the top of the head and a portion of the forehead but leaving the rest of the face clearly visible would make it more difficult to identify the author than if he were to appear bareheaded.” France has been asked to respond to the UN sometime this month. Nonetheless, legality is a weak argument in the face of state-sponsored bigotry.

In the name of curbing religious extremism, the French are, in fact, engaged in cultural assimilation of minorities. While the Chinese policies of cultural assimilation in Tibet are said to have prompted India to provide shelter to the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, the Indian elite remains a mute spectator to France’s 21st century assimilation project.

Many communities’ cultural mores—not just the religions around which these communities evolved—are today under attack in France. While insisting on assimilation, France is preventing its minorities from being complete and productive citizens, and it has already witnessed the dangerous angst of young men whose communities have been segregated. The 2005 riots in France were ignited by the deaths of two Muslim teenagers in a working class locality with high unemployment and police harassment. The ensuing wide-spread, prolonged and racially-charged violence was marked by an extensive loss of property.

Instead of giving minorities a chance to build a proper self-image and show true allegiance to the flag, the French majority is insisting that they start by saying “flag before faith.”

And India, which has not been able to provide private toilet facilities for over half a billion of its citizens, stands proudly poised to hand over its crucial crores to the French for military hardware, even as the faith and cultural traditions of those who comprise a large part of India’s population are punished in France; even as the French model of forced assimilation is seeping throughout Europe, and turbans of Sikhs flying India’s airliners are removed in the airport of nearby Milan.

When sanctimonious governments fail to uphold basic fairness, the task falls to the citizens of the world. It is not enough for only the non-French Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews to boycott the Alliance Française, refusing to do business or take vacations in France, and practicing divestment from French companies. This is not about the religious versus the irreligious. This is about a nation’s dangerous project of marginalizing certain cultures and skin colors that conveniently fall into non-majority religious groups—even when such projects have had disastrous results, including World War II, just over 70 years ago.

It is important for those interested in rule of law—particularly in international law and security, in cultural preservation, in freedom of religion, in anti-colonialism and anti-racism—to begin asking for accountability. It is important for the world’s students, for parents, for individuals who believe in basic fairness to make their voices heard against France’s new national religion: forced assimilation.

Mallika Kaur

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia. She has a J.D. from The UC Berkeley School of Law and M.P.P from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is volunteering with the 1984 Living History Project this 30th anniversary year.

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