Every summer, the police in Iran crack down on “bad hijab”—flimsy veils and skimpy headscarves. All women are required by law to cover their heads and to wear a coat that conceals their bodily form.

This is a blatant violation of freedom—freedom of expression (to choose your clothing) and freedom of religion (to define for yourself how God wants you to behave).

But consider the fact that in some democratic countries today the law is just as severe because it forbids Muslim women from covering their heads in public places. In 2004, France passed a law prohibiting Muslim schoolgirls from wearing veils or headscarves in public schools. Jews are also prohibited from wearing yarmulkes and Christians from wearing ostentatious crosses. It’s a general ban on religious symbols, but former President Chirac made it clear that Islamic head coverings were the main target when he said that most French people saw “something aggressive in the veil.”

Iran has a theocratic government, France has a militantly secular democracy. The two extremes meet in the sense that each can be repressive. At first glance, it looks like we have the ideal situation in the U.S. because we don’t force women to wear a veil, and we don’t force them to take it off.

But things are not so simple. The current American concept of “free exercise of religion” (a phrase from the First Amendment of the Constitution) is also problematic. We are forced to recognize that there’s an inherent tension between religion and democracy, a tension that can be treated in different ways but that can’t be entirely eliminated. Most commentators on the French headscarf ban portray it as sheer bigotry and excessive state intervention.

I propose instead that we look at the ban as a thoughtful effort to frame religion in democratic terms. Once we see the underlying logic in France, we will not want to copy it—but we will have a better understanding of the logic governing the relationship between religion and democracy in the U.S. today, and we will have a clearer view of our own excesses.

What is going on in France? Many have said that the French just don’t like Muslims, that the headscarf ban reflects nationalist prejudices against immigrants. But this can’t be the reason. First of all, the French Left, which is committed to egalitarian ideals and is sympathetic to immigrants, supported the ban. Secondly, about half of French Muslims, of both sexes, supported the ban. Finally, there is a more draconian ban on the headscarf in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country.

The willingness of Muslims themselves to implement a headscarf ban suggests that the source of these laws is not hatred of foreigners but an abstract theory: a democratic philosophy that idealizes the citizen, the member of the whole nation, over the particulars of ethnic and religious background. Many people in both France and Turkey argue that the sentiment of citizenship is a precondition of democracy. In other words, citizenship must come before religion. If people flaunt some other form of identity in public institutions—their religion, their ethnicity—it will tend to destroy the sense of equality and solidarity. Religion is especially suspect because each of these countries has a long history of religious conflict, and religion was a buttress of absolute monarchy before these nations became democracies.

In France and Turkey the Muslim veil has become (not for everyone but for a substantial part of the population) a symbol of separatism and the primacy of religious law over democratic equality. I realize that this view of the veil does not do justice to all the reasons that lead Muslim women to wear it. I am not advocating that we adopt a headscarf ban here in America either.

But I do believe that the debate about the veil has to be a serious intellectual discussion of how much religious expression a free society can sustain. We can’t just say, “Oh, those socially prejudiced French people!” We have to try to think about where we ourselves would place the limits on religious freedom—because there can be no democracy without some limits on what religious persons desire.

So now I come back to the U.S. As I said, it looks great that we don’t require women to wear the veil or to take it off. But our “free exercise of religion” has its own anti-democratic dimensions. In many states in America, religious parents who believe in faith healing do not have to provide medical attention for their sick children—and many kids have died. In most states, religious schools and daycare centers do not have to meet the basic educational standards that non-religious educational institutions have to meet. In the U.S., you could get out of a military draft as a conscientious objector—if you have a religious conscience. If your reasons against fighting are not religious, if they spring from a secular philosophy of peace, you probably get no exemption.

Today, imprisoned convicts who claim to be religious often get special food, study time, and other privileges. Members of religious sects who wish to use illegal drugs in their ceremonies are often permitted to do so. A schoolgirl can certainly wear a headscarf in a public school, but she may not be free to wear a T-Shirt expressing a provocative political opinion. This is not theocracy like in Iran, but it does show that in the U.S., religion is elevating people of faith above the laws that everyone else has to follow. (For a full discussion of this problem, see Marci Hamilton’s book, God vs. The Gavel, Cambridge University Press, 2005.)

The “free exercise of religion” now means that religious persons have more rights than unreligious persons. A Frenchman or a Turk would probably be quick to point out that this violates the principle of equality before the law. Personally, I wear a religious symbol—under my shirt because I don’t wish to announce to my American fellows that most of them don’t belong to my group. I choose to act as if I belong to the whole. That’s the logic of Rousseau’s 1762 Social Contract, which underlies the French and Turkish visions of democracy. I see more and more students, and even university colleagues, wearing ostentatious religious symbols on campus. Our society respects their religious passion. It does not give enough consideration to the integrity of those who make a point of keeping their religion private.

It’s easy for us to see how coercive the headscarf bans are in France and Turkey. It’s harder for us to focus on the price we are paying for our religious exhibitionism. The lack of universal co-feeling in our society may well be the root cause of much mutual disrespect and violence. From this perspective, America is struggling with the relationship between religion and democracy as much as France and Turkey—we just don’t have the kind of explicit popular discussion about the tradeoffs that you find in the other countries.

If France and Turkey need to lighten up their attitude toward religion and become more tolerant of the veil, we in the U.S. need to look more acutely at the cost of permitting religious persons to be exempt from the law.

–Daniel Gordon, Professor of History, UMass Amherst