Religious symbols

The discussion about banning “religious symbols” from public schools in France* made me wonder, how the fuck does one tell what is a religious symbol? Does government have to issue ginormous books with pictures of all possible religious clothing and symbolism, and all students have to go through a “religion detector” every morning, similar to the metal detectors in some American schools?

Probably not. So, how the hell does one tell what is or isn’t religious? And how does one avoid discrimination, when something worn by one person is a fashion statement, but worn by another is a religious statement**? I mean, “everybody knows” that a cross is Christian, a Yarmulke is Jewish and a full hijab is Muslim, but what about other symbols? Imagine for a second this sort of thing being introduced into American schools. Which of the following would qualify as a “religious symbol” and which wouldn’t***?

It seems to me that there’s a whole bunch of “religious symbolism” that would fly under the radar because it’s so rare, or because it’s close enough to mainstream culture. This sort of thing would be guaranteed to promote established privilege against the visibly “other”.

– – – – – – – –
*and, much closer to home: Niedersachsen’s new Integration-Minister Aygül Özkan has made comments about removing religious symbols, as well. If I understand her correctly though, she’s talking about classroom decorations and staff, not students; which is something slightly different.

**well, I possibly already have an answer to that, if the reports of several Muslim girls being sent home for wearing standard bandanas are true…

***And let’s hope none of the students end up with a Latino boyfriend named Jesus, either :-p

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21 comments on “Religious symbols

  1. Walton says:

    I absolutely agree with you on this one, as you know. I think this:

    This sort of thing would be guaranteed to promote established privilege against the visibly “other”.

    is exactly right. The French law may formally apply to all religions, but in substance it is a very specific attack on Muslims. And while I don’t doubt that some of the bill’s promoters sincerely believe in its secularist purpose, I’m also pretty sure that there are other people who are supporting it who are simply motivated by prejudiced fear of Islam.

    As we noted when this issue came up on Pharyngula, the French law is already hurting Muslim women, a lot. In a lot of cases, they are put in a position where they have a chance between violating their community’s and family’s norms – with the social stigma, and even violence, that might well be associated with that – and forgoing their right to an education. One 15-year-old girl shaved her head so that she could keep going to school: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3708444.stm

    But there are some supporters of the French law who probably think the harm it causes to Muslims is “A Feature, Not A Bug”. This is a huge problem that we have throughout Europe: bigoted Islamophobia masquerading as secularism. Pat Condell is a British example of this. I don’t know why so many Pharyngulites were surprised when he came out as a UKIP voter; it was always obvious that his anti-Islamic rhetoric was just a convenient cover for his personal hatred of Muslims. Because open xenophobic sentiments are no longer OK in mainstream British and European society, it’s often displaced onto hatred of Islam – much like American racists railing against “illegal immigration” and “welfare queens” when what they really mean is that they don’t like Hispanics or black people.

    I think those of us who are real secularists have a responsibility to dissociate ourselves from pseudo-secularists. As I tried to explain to people when this came up on Pharyngula, a secular state does not mean that the state should promote non-theism or non-religion, any more than it should promote religion. Rather, a secular state should be 100 percent neutral in matters of religion, and should not interfere with the citizen’s right to freedom of expression. If a Muslim woman wants to walk around wearing a hijab, she has a right to do so; if an atheist woman wants to walk around wearing a T-shirt saying “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” she equally has a right to do so. Both are expressions of a person’s identity, autonomy and views, and should be protected by the right to free speech.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    The French law against religious symbols in public buildings is against big, conspicuous ones. All your examples are allowed, and so are small religious symbols as pendants on neck chains (a small cross, a little hand of Fatima [can’t find a photo right now]…); the kind of big cross that Catholic clergy wear is forbidden.

    I’m not sure what enforcement looks like in practice (…how is “small” defined?), except that I’ve seen students wearing a hijab on campus and in a university classroom with nobody saying a word.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Incidentally, all the campus security people came from Algeria themselves :-þ

  4. Jadehawk says:

    The French law against religious symbols in public buildings is against big, conspicuous ones.

    That might eliminate some of the less obvious jewelry. However, the “prairie dress” is as big of a symbol of fundie Mormonism as the headscarf is for Islam, especially since, like I mentioned, it seems some Muslim girls were forbidden from wearing bandanas, which are perfectly secular pieces of clothing when not worn by brown people named Aisha.
    would they enforce pants and lowcut shirts, to avoid the prairie dresses and denim jumpers, which do signify fundie mormonism/chistianity very loudly?

    and then of course there’s the problem with “conspicuous” in general. It’s almost by default that everything about the “other” is more conspicuous, since they don’t blend with mainstream culture.
    Think for example of the “a cross is not a religious symbol, it’s a symbol of mourning!” ridiculousness. Of course such a thing is extreme and born our of American isolation from and ignorance of other cultures, but smaller things do sneak past all the time in any culture that developed out of Christianity, whereas almost everything about a freshly imported culture stands out

  5. Jadehawk says:

    This is a huge problem that we have throughout Europe: bigoted Islamophobia masquerading as secularism.

    yup. which is why I’m glad that the Danish cartoon dude isn’t going to be at the conference in Copenhagen.

    It’s really quite difficult, especially from the other side of the pond, to properly separate serious and warranted criticism of Islam from bigoted flights of xenophobia. Sometimes the bigots make it easy and use convenient talking points that identify them as fucking morons (any and all claims at Muslims outbreeding Europeans for example), but often they hide it enough to fool those not paying close enough attention.

    And then we get Christians getting huffy at us because we “defend” Islam. *sigh*

  6. Walton says:

    It’s really quite difficult, especially from the other side of the pond, to properly separate serious and warranted criticism of Islam from bigoted flights of xenophobia. Sometimes the bigots make it easy and use convenient talking points that identify them as fucking morons (any and all claims at Muslims outbreeding Europeans for example), but often they hide it enough to fool those not paying close enough attention.

    True. Usually, the telltale signs are more obvious to those of us who live in the UK or mainland Europe and encounter Islamophobia frequently.

    I agree that it’s important to separate legitimate criticism of Islamic beliefs from bigotry towards Muslims. But to be honest, I think it’s a waste of time for liberal secularists, in Britain at least, to bother criticising Islam at all. Despite the fear-mongering of the bigots, observant Muslims are a very small percentage of the population – around 2 or 3 percent in the UK – and only a small proportion of those are fundamentalists. The “threat” of Islam is mostly a manufactured issue created by xenophobes as an excuse for railing against immigration.

    Don’t get me wrong. We absolutely should be very critical of the gross abuses of human rights which take place in many Islamic states. But this shouldn’t be a pretext for generating irrational fears of “Islamization” in the West.

    The biggest threat to liberty in Britain and much of Europe today is not Islam, nor indeed religion in general. Rather, the biggest threat to liberty is the impact of ignorant xenophobic fear-mongering about immigration, crime and terrorism, and the authoritarian policies which are enacted based on these irrational fears. That’s what I, as a liberal, am most concerned with fighting.

  7. Jadehawk says:

    But to be honest, I think it’s a waste of time for liberal secularists, in Britain at least, to bother criticising Islam at all. Despite the fear-mongering of the bigots, observant Muslims are a very small percentage of the population – around 2 or 3 percent in the UK – and only a small proportion of those are fundamentalists. The “threat” of Islam is mostly a manufactured issue created by xenophobes as an excuse for railing against immigration.

    you’re probably right. I’ve been gone from Europe for too long (and I’ve left before I really started caring about these things), so I lost track of these debates, but it does seem like Europe has much bigger problems than immigration.

    On that note though, I’m reminded of the uncontrollable fits of laughter among my family that resulted from the Western European fear of the Polish Plumber™ a few years back :-p

  8. Pygmy Loris says:

    Alas, I agree with Walton (but Jadehawk does to, so maybe it’s not the apocalypse) ;) This kind of thing always makes me nervous. It seems to me that the hijab should go under the same category as a cross on a chain or other small religious symbol. Even calling the hijab a religious symbol bothers me. It’s not a symbol like the cross or the Star of David, but part of the dress code associated with a religion. There’s a difference.

    I don’t see fundie Mormons very often, but I do see Muslims wearing the hijab on campus regularly. Around here the most commonly seen representation of the dress code for fundie Xianists is the ankle-length denim skirt and a hair bun. One thing I’ve noticed about fundie Xian dress codes, the men manage to blend in quite well while the women are the ones who stand out. Oh patriarchy, how I hate thee.

  9. Walton says:

    Alas, I agree with Walton (but Jadehawk does to, so maybe it’s not the apocalypse) ;)

    Well, Jadehawk and I often tend to agree, these days, when it comes to issues of civil liberties, individual freedom, social liberalism and so on. We mainly disagree on economic matters, as I have a more favourable view of capitalism and markets than she does (though certainly a less extreme one than I used to have).

  10. Pygmy Loris says:

    To be honest, Walton, we often agree on civil liberties and such, but have wildly divergent views on economics. It won’t kill me, and we’re all glad to see you progressing along. Over here you’d already be among the most liberal members of Congress :)

  11. David Marjanović says:

    the “prairie dress” is as big of a symbol of fundie Mormonism as the headscarf is for Islam

    I had no idea. So, yes, it would be forbidden in France if anyone there found out (there must be, like, 3 Mormons in the country… and the one Mormon I knew in Austria was so far from being a fundie, I wouldn’t have known he was a Mormon if he hadn’t told us).

    “a cross is not a religious symbol, it’s a symbol of mourning!”

    <chortle>

    Fortunately I’ve been spared that so far!

    This is a huge problem that we have throughout Europe: bigoted Islamophobia masquerading as secularism.

    yup. which is why I’m glad that the Danish cartoon dude isn’t going to be at the conference in Copenhagen.

    Seconded.

    it does seem like Europe has much bigger problems than immigration.

    Oh yes.

    Though, actually, I can’t think of any big problems at all (never mind the global ones like Peak Oil and AGW). Austria voted for president last week; the xenophobe candidate wanted 17 % of the vote, her party leader^H^H^H boss wanted 35 %, she got about 15; the Social Democratic incumbent finished with almost 80.

    One continuing problem are the most widespread and worst newspapers in some countries (Bild in Germany, Kronen Zeitung — misspelled in the original — in Austria, probably Daily Mail in the UK, none in France) and their fear-mongering agenda.

    One thing I’ve noticed about fundie Xian dress codes, the men manage to blend in quite well while the women are the ones who stand out.

    Also often true of North Africans in Paris. Among the West Africans (who are usually Muslims, too), the men, too, tend to wear their beautiful traditional clothing.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    The font size of the nested blockquote is not intentional.

    Also, test test for the <s> and <strike> tags.

  13. Walton says:

    To be honest, Walton, we often agree on civil liberties and such, but have wildly divergent views on economics. It won’t kill me, and we’re all glad to see you progressing along. Over here you’d already be among the most liberal members of Congress :)

    Well, I’m much less right-wing than I used to be on economics.

    Reading some people’s comments online about their own experience with poverty, along with studying criminology and learning a little about the sociology of my own country, has made me realise just how sheltered and privileged I am, compared to many people. I’ve never seen or experienced that kind of desperate, horrible poverty. JustALurker’s comments were particularly harrowing; it’s awful that, in a developed country, someone with a child can be left to fend for herself and face homelessness and daily struggle for survival, and yet be disparaged and insulted by clueless, judgmental people. Her story really made me feel guilty about self-identifying as a libertarian.

    Realistically, I’ve come to be more aware of the fact that I’ve lived a materially comfortable life, and have good prospects for the future, primarily because I come from a stable, supportive middle-class family. That isn’t something I “earned”; it’s a privilege I was born to, and it’s one which so many people don’t have. And I’m increasingly conscious of the fact that most of my conservative and libertarian friends are privileged middle- or upper-class kids who, like me, have never had to worry about poverty or homelessness. Perhaps Jadehawk is right that I need to meet more people who aren’t wealthy.

    I’m sorry if this sounds trite, or overly emotional (and I realise it’s also off-topic for the thread). But I have been struck by some of the personal stories, and feel an increasing sense of guilt at my own cluelessness about the real lives of many of my compatriots. And I’m increasingly certain that, while I generally support a capitalist economy and private ownership of wealth, the provision of welfare and a decent minimum standard of living to everyone is also incredibly important.

  14. Pygmy Loris says:

    Walton,

    It’s very telling about you as a person that you’ve been willing to change your ideas about the world when confronted with evidence about other people’s lives. Empathy is a valuable (in a human sense, not necessarily an economic one) trait. I grew up with middle-class privilege, but my parents made sure I was aware of it because they both grew up in poverty. Here’s my parents’ stories:

    Dad was born in ’44 to a mother who didn’t want him (for reasons I won’t elaborate on). His grandmother (born in 1898) raised him until she died when he was 14. My great-grandmother was a proud, hard-working, Pentacostal woman, but they had very little money. Dad lived in houses that the wind howled through at night, places with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. They did usually have a wooden floor, though. Great-grandmother share-cropped for money among other things, and since child labor laws didn’t seem to apply to agricultural labor, Dad started picking and chopping cotton, picking potatoes, etc. at the tender age of 6. In the 50s and 60s even younger children would follow the adults through the cotton field to get little bits stuck in the bolls that adult-sized fingers couldn’t remove. Dad had to work in the fields, or he and Great-grandmother would have had no place to live and little food to eat. There were times when there wasn’t enough food to eat, too. One thing my great-grandmother did absolutely perfectly was make sure that no matter where they lived, Dad was always in school. She wouldn’t let him leave to get more work to feed the family. When my great-grandmother died, Dad’s aunt took him in, again, making sure that he stayed in school. Dad graduated from high-school and, after working a couple of years at a factory, tried to enlist in the military. This was during ‘Nam, but they wouldn’t take him because he had an enlarged heart. Though he never made it to college, Dad joined the merchant marines and received excellent on-the-job training. He went to trade school and got a job that enabled him to provide a middle-class life for my brother and me. Though they’re important privileges (even more so back then), the only privilege my dad had was being a white man. Incidentally, Dad’s an atheist, too.

    Mom was born in ’46 to my grandmother (born 1913) who dropped out of school to support her family in the seventh grade and my grandfather (born 1911) who dropped out in the sixth grade for the same reason. During the Great Depression, when the boll weevil destroyed the local cotton crop, Grandma travelled a couple hundred miles, alone, to get work and send money home to her mother and siblings. Grandpa was drafted in ’42, but didn’t benefit from the GI Bill because he didn’t have enough education to get into college. Mom grew up, like Dad, doing agricultural day labor to help provide the family with food. They didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing until Mom was 9. The only reason she always had enough food was my grandfather’s hunting and Grandma’s garden. Life was very, very hard, but Mom was smart, motivated and encouraged by her parents, so she graduated from high school. Thanks to LBJs Great Society programs, she got enough aid in grants and loans to go to college and get a degree to be a teacher. Grandpa was so worried that she would meet some farmer and drop out to get married that he made her take summer classes, so she would be removed from temptation. Again, her only privilege was being white (though, as I said before, it’s an important privilege. Black women were much worse off).

    So, here I am, having grown up in the middle-class, but with parents who made sure I had the cultural memory of poverty. We’re solid liberals who support welfare and other aid because my parents lived the life of the truly poor. They lived child labor in a time that most Americans today think of as idyllic. They made me remember. Incidentally, both of my parents have rather vivid memories of Jim Crow in the South. They’re both pro-civil rights for that reason alone.

    BTW I mentioned the years of my parent’s, grand-parents’ and great-grandmother’s birth to show the long generations in our portion of the family. Most of my friends’ grandparents are members of the generation born between the World Wars, and their parents grew up in the middle class because of the post-war boom. It’s a different experience because they didn’t necessarily hear about poverty in their family first-hand. Also, the American South had much higher poverty rates than the North at the same points in time, so many of my Yankee friends just don’t understand that my parents had to labor in the fields when they were kids just to put food on the table.

    Sorry about the long post, but I just wanted to explain why I came to my liberalism early and defend it so forcefully.

  15. Pygmy Loris says:

    I just thought of how my tone came off, so I wanted to make sure I was clear on something. White, male privilege is a huge thing, and in the time and place of my Dad’s younger days, he would never have been able to achieve what he did without it. Similarly, Mom would have had a much harder time is she wasn’t a white woman. I, too, benefit from white privilege, in addition to my previously mentioned middle-class privilege.

  16. KOPD says:

    So does this mean I have to wear sleeves in France? I have a tattoo on my arm that is a stylized version of what could loosely be considered a religious symbol, a little over 3″ tall. The religion hasn’t been seriously practiced in a couple thousand years, though.

  17. Jadehawk says:

    at the moment, only if you wanted to attend a public school (and even then it might only be “on principle”, since most likely no one would care to notice that it’s a religious symbol), though there is, IIRC, a law being planned that would ban it in all public places altogether

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, though that proposal is already very controversial and likely unconstitutional. As far as I can tell it’s just Sarko trying to stay in the media (…with something else than, for instance, his son’s little corruption scandal).

  19. monado says:

    It seems like anti-“foreigner” prejudice to me. France has been festooned with crosses and crucifixes for centuries. Let someone appear wearing the traditional dress or symbols of another religion and all of a sudden it’s a big offence. And that crap about “you can’t wear a veil because we need to see your face for ID”–which they’re going to pull in Canada, too. For goodness, sake, let people use a thumbprint as an alternative. This is just going to drive some religious women back into concealment. It’s much better to have them join in to activities as much as they want. The next generation won’t be so patient with covering up. And of course there’s no official punishment in the new country. Sheesh.

  20. monado says:

    Walton, I think that a feature of youth is gullibility or non-assertiveness. Part of an education is learning that experiences and standards differ, and growing older helps one to get more assertive, to ask more questions, to be less trusting. A further big step for me, much later in life, was learning how much pain many people carry around inside and yet function as seemingly untroubled human beings. (Truly, some people should never be parents.) We know our own weakness & doubts but not others’. So we must balance a necessary caution against a general fairness and kindness. Does that make any sense?

  21. David Marjanović says:

    France has been festooned with crosses and crucifixes for centuries.

    Not in public buildings anymore, since 1904.

    I think that a feature of youth is gullibility or non-assertiveness.

    Dawkins, of all people, put that in much nicer words (in Unweaving the Rainbow) :-þ

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