Last month, in Tablet Magazine, Paul Berman attempted to mount a defense of the French prohibition of Muslim veils (the infamous "Burkini" ban, or, earlier, forbidding headscarves in schools). There is a faint bit of cheekiness to it, in its appeal to French cultural as the be-all-end-all of the argument. Why don't we respect their culture? This is just the way the French do things! Maybe it is time to check our American egos, and acknowledge that other countries have valid ideas of governance in their own right? To ban the veil is, Berman argues, simply an example of the French value of secularism -- sometimes referred to be its French term, laïcité
If his is meant to be a subtle jab at the lazy invocation of cultural relativism that some members of the left regularly indulge in, then well done. If it is meant to be more than a satire, though, there is a problem. The French ban on the veil is indeed an example of laïcité, though Berman actually objects to the use of the term since for him laïcité is nothing more than "the Jeffersonian principle of a wall between church and state, in its French version." This is true, in the same sense that the Revolutionary Courts are the "Marbury principle of judicial review, in its Iranian version." It may fill a similar niche, but it is shorn of all the limitations and checks that make the concept worth emulating. Laïcité is "separation of church and state" in the exact way that hyperbolic American conservatives have breathlessly condemned it: taking out the "state" and substituting in "public life." A ban on headscarves in public schools (or kippot -- oddly unmentioned by Berman given that they too are covered under the French law) would not be an example of separating church from the state --it is an effort to excise religion from public life. It does not govern statecraft, it governs individuals exercising their religion as individuals on those occasions where they step outside the home.
The reason why American (and French) liberals object to the ban on religious garb worn by private citizens who have the temerity to enter the public square is that this sort of compulsory secularism is not liberation even (in Berman's oh-so-vague clawback) "in principle". It is not compatible with religious equality for anyone, and in practice its burdens fall heavier on minority groups whose religious practices will always seem louder simply because they are different (notably, crucifixes are not banned so long as they are not "obtrusive"). If secularism takes this form, it is simply a different form of theocracy -- our personal rights stop to the extent they offend the (ir)religious orthodoxy.
If Berman is looking to build opposition to the veil, a misshapen argument that butchers liberal values of secularism is unlikely to do the trick. Perhaps he would do better to make common cause with an Egyptian MP who is pitching a veil ban on the grounds that it is a "Jewish" practice. After all, just as in certain circles it is sufficient to argue against a practice by labeling it "Islamic" (or "Islamist", which -- whatever merits it might have as a carefully-used term, here is not being used with care), in others there isn't any more powerful argument against a given behavior than persuading everyone that "its Jewish".