Weekly (Port Louis)

3 November 2012

Mauritius: Secularised Bigotry


God knows that we have always promoted secularism and been opposed to any religious tyranny and blind dogmas.

We hold that, since we live in a multi-religious, "secular" society, no religion should be allowed to prescribe how we conduct our lives in all and sundry respects. We have, in the name of tolerance and freedom, stood for the principle of keeping religion outside the public domain.

It is in the name of this tolerance that we deem the fuss created around the school pupils of the Islamic faith wearing a headscarf unnecessary, avoidable and disproportionate. The headmaster who objected to his pupils wearing a headscarf has exemplifi ed a form of fanatical intolerance similar to some religious dogmas we have systematically stood against.

This one is worse because it comes wrapped up in the guise of secularism. In asecular state, or in a rights-based culture, there is no room for such behaviour which verges on oppression and religious persecution. It tramples on civil liberties and is contrary to all kinds of freedoms.

People dress according to their culture, habits, beliefs and, as long as they observe the basic requirements of decency, which is necessary in any civilized society, they should be free to dress as they choose. The Muslim scarf is merely an article of clothing, symbolising modesty and/or respect, just as the fl owing end of saris is wrapped over the heads of traditional Hindu women.

The ruckus around it is diffi cult to understand. Yes, it is an item of clothing with a symbolism but so what? We should not make the mistake, however, of amalgamating the headscarf issue with that of the niqab (full veil) which may raise security concerns and which, at any rate the Quran does not call for and is not a requirement of Islam as we understand it.

The argument that school should be a place where all children are equal and not distinguishable by religious symbols of any kind looks nice on paper. In reality, it is diffi cult to talk about uniformity in our schools with the way kids are streamed in their ancestral language/catechism classes. A pluralistic and free society does not require conformity, even for the sake of the "secular and free state" itself.

What should or should not be allowed in a multi-religious society should be guided by common sense and sensitivity rather than by blind intolerance. Is the item of clothing offending anyone and/or is it illegal? Does it require additional state resources?

Headscarves are neither inappropriate, impractical or socially harmful. Nor are they a sign that we have renounced our secularism. According to Human Rights Watch, "accommodating different forms of religious headgear does not suggest that state authorities endorse any particular religion." Sikh police, for example, are allowed to wear their turbans in far less traditional societies such as the UK, Australia and some US states.

Having said that, allowing people to dress as they wish within the limits of decency is a different issue to caving in to religious pressure to postpone exams. It is one thing to be allowed to dress according to the principles of one's religion. It is quite another to ask for concessions in the name of one's religion. Last week's decision to postpone exams, quite apart from being an illegitimate interference in the day-to-day running of our public institutions, sets a dangerous precedent. It is a mistake.

A state does not jeopardize its secularism by allowing headgear of any kind. By postponing exams for religious reasons, it does.

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