Diversity is all very well – but only up to a point. This is the contradiction at the heart of many western liberal democracies. So-called secular values are not always as inclusive – or neutral – as they are made out be, especially when veiled in political rhetoric. So how do we guarantee equal respect for all? Kwame Anthony Appiah analyzes the paradoxes of pluralism

Diversity and democracy. Toleration and autonomy. Every day in some learned journal, these gleaming abstractions face off on a theoretician’s chessboard, castling and capturing pawns with brisk, baize-on-marble efficiency.

In the real world, the side-taking is always muddier, the rules uncertain, the squares indistinct. The disputes are often over symbols, and the trouble with symbols is that what they symbolize is itself disputed.

Consider the headscarf wars in today’s Europe. Fourteen years ago, when a group of Muslim schoolgirls in Creil, just outside Paris, found their right to wear Islamic headwear challenged, l’affaire du foulard islamique gusted its way through France.

Now, as in some cultural version of the business cycle, the issue of headwear in the classroom has once more erupted into clamorous controversy.

In October 2003, two teenage sisters were expelled from their high school in Aubervilliers, just outside Paris, for wearing headscarves to class.

Nor has the headscarf debate been confined to France. A few weeks earlier, the German Constitutional Court decided that a Muslim teacher could continue to wear a headscarf in the classroom (but only because the state of Baden-Württemberg, where she worked, had not passed a law explicitly banning it).

And in countries otherwise as different as Singapore and Turkey, restrictions on such headscarves – likewise in the name of preserving the secularism of public spaces – have prompted divisive controversy during the past year. (In Singapore, this February, a girl of six was expelled from a primary school for wearing her headscarf.)

The basic issues are no less serious for their familiarity. Is secularism a form of intolerance? What claims can the immigrant legitimately make upon the host country, and vice versa?

Still, a second-time-as-farce air hovers about l’Affaire Aubervilliers. On this occasion, the prohibition was backed not by conservatives, but by leftist teachers, who issued a statement warning gravely of “the growth of communitarianism”.

A curious diagnosis, that. In fact, the girls’ headwear suggests not so much communitarian conformity as adolescent rebellion: neither of their parents is Muslim or even religious.

Their mother is an Algerian and, according to Le Monde, “non pratiquante”. Their father, a left-wing lawyer named Laurent Lévy (who, again according to Le Monde, defined himself as a “juif sans Dieu”) has nevertheless rallied to his girls’ defence, decrying the “ayatollahs of secularism”. (“That the land of Voltaire could show such intolerance!” he exclaimed.)

As the controversy grew last autumn, president Jacques Chirac suggested that he would support a ban on such display of religion in state schools. “Secularism is not negotiable,” he declared. “We cannot allow people to shelter behind a deviant idea of religious liberty in order to defy the laws of the republic or to threaten fundamental principles of a modern society such as gender equality and the dignity of women.”

(But, as a young woman at a protest by the Lévys’ largely supportive fellow students observed, one of their colleagues had been wearing a T-shirt that said “Votez Satan”. It’s hard not to agree with her ironical comment: “Si c’est pas religieux, ça?” It doesn’t look as though secularism is all that’s at stake).

Meanwhile the Lévy family has an unlikely ally in the right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has now declared himself opposed to the ban. After all, he said, the headscarves make it easier to identify the foreigners and show that, in his words, “these people are not like us, and don’t want to be like us”. Such are the cultural contradictions of liberal democracies.

In December, after six months of study by a presidential panel, Chirac said he would push for a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves – and other overtly religious symbols including Jewish skull caps and large Christian crucifixes – in schools. From the perspective of an American jurist, these headscarf cases are not terribly vexing. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, as it has come to be interpreted, requires that reasonable accommodations be made to ensure the “free exercise” of religion, while also forbidding the “establishment”, or official endorsement, of any religion.

This leaves innumerable hard cases; but, looked at from the US, Lila and Alma Lévy don’t look like hard cases.

Suppose, though, that a Somali immigrant community wishes to perform infibulation on its prepubescent girls. Suppose a family of Bengali immigrants wants to compel a daughter to accept an arranged marriage against her will.

Or suppose that a Roma community resists the universal schooling that almost all developed countries now require, perhaps because it doesn’t value literacy, or, anyway, literacy in the official state language.

In such cases, a liberal democracy, wishing to foster the individual autonomy of its citizens, will hesitate about granting such exemption from its rules.

Diversity is all very well, the defender of liberal democracy might say, but only up to a point. To sustain a democratic constitutional order, a state must be able to promulgate certain civic ideals – even if this puts it at odds with ethnic communities that favour theocratic ways of life.

But then how to keep secularism from becoming – this is Laurent Lévy’s charge – just another sectarianism, albeit one with universal pretension?

The principle enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, upholding free exercise but forbidding taking sides in matters of religion, offers one way of sorting through these issues.

It would seem natural to extend the principle to matters of culture and identity more generally. This principle has come to be known as “neutrality”, and in recent years it has been subject to searching criticism.

As the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has observed, you can replace religious oaths in your courts or classrooms with secular ones, but you cannot replace the language of the court or classroom – English, French, German or whatever it happens to be – with no language at all.

Even in the realm of religion, problems arise: the devout may feel that the doctrine of neutrality asks them to suppress something essential to who they are.

Sceptics about neutrality like to recall Anatole France’s famous remark that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.

Certainly Chirac’s remark that “secularism constitutes for every citizen a basic protection” may suggest a similarly specious universalism: here the secular and the religious alike are enjoined not to make a display of religious faith.

Ethnic acceptance, we should admit, is merely an exercise in self-regard if it is predicated upon uniformity. In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a dog is speaking to a cat it has chased up a tree: “Okay, here’s the deal – I’ll stop chasing you if you agree to become a dog.” Is this, finally, what liberal neutrality amounts to?

As tempting as it may be to jettison the doctrine, there’s something that can, and should, be salvaged. But we have to proceed with care.

The state is constantly imposing differential burdens on people of this or that identity: the heir to Anthony Trollope’s fictional Duke of Omnium will rightly see estate taxes as constraining his life as a scion of a landed aristocracy. We cannot demand that state actions be neutral in their effects. And yet we cannot be content with mere neutrality of justification, either. For a law may be unbiased in its rationale, and yet, in its consequences, objectionably and unnecessarily burdensome for certain groups.

When we say that state actions should aspire to neutrality, then, what we really mean is that it should strive to treat people of diverse social identities with equal respect.

Where an act burdens a group of people, they can reasonably ask whether they would have been treated better had they not been regarded as members of that identity group.

The ideal implicit in this test – that state acts shouldn’t disadvantage anyone in virtue of their identity – is that of neutrality as equal respect.

Not every case where a minority is disadvantaged offends against neutrality in this sense. Left-handed people live in a public world where many things – scissors, door-handles, cabinet doors – are configured in a way that suits the right-handed.

They are disadvantaged by this fact; and the fact that they are left-handed plays a role in the explanation of why. But (at least in the industrialized world) the fact that they are regarded as left-handed is irrelevant.

The reason they are disadvantaged is that some things have to be done in either a left-handed or a right-handed way, and right-handed people are in the majority.

Similarly, the fact that, in the western world, the weekend coincides with the religious requirements of the Christian majority doesn’t offend against neutrality as equal respect – provided that what accounts for the fact is that it suits a majority (and that, for coordination reasons, people cannot be permitted to take their two days in seven on whichever days they choose).

Nor would neutrality prevent a state from, say, passing a law that required the provision of blood transfusions to unconscious persons who needed them, even though many Jehovah’s Witnesses think having a blood transfusion will lead to their damnation.

For here, let us suppose, lawmakers are thwarting this religious community for a good reason – having concluded that a policy of requiring us to establish consent would endanger the lives of many, and having reflected on whether they could adopt a policy that did not thwart the aims of this religious minority. The fact that they are Witnesses is not why the state went against their aims.

By contrast, imagine a city council that, worried about incidents of anti-Sikh violence, responded by outlawing the wearing of turbans. The reduction of violence against Sikhs is surely an unobjectionable aim. But that rationale doesn’t satisfy the demands of neutrality.

For, of course, a Sikh would say that the wearing of turbans was too important a matter to be banned for this reason. Why shouldn’t we beef up policing of bigots instead? The Sikh could fairly wonder whether his religious duty (to wear a turban) was ignored because he belonged to a religious group with which others have little sympathy.

Let me caution, again, that the hard problems remain hard. No theorist can give you algorithms for action, a set of procedures that tells you when the attempt to promote autonomy (by creating literate, well-informed, open-minded citizens) ends up diminishing autonomy (by limiting the forms of life that are available).

Prudential considerations, too, must be weighed. The overzealous enforcement of secularity in public schools can have perverse consequences if it encourages the devout to attend religious schools instead.

There are no fixed rules of the game here; no Michelin Guide (secularism: worth a detour; democracy: worth a journey!) to steer us when our political ideals seem to point in different directions.

No institution can decide whether the headscarf represents the subjugation of women or the sanctity of women; an embrace of the Ummah or a withdrawal from the French polity.

No doctrine will settle, once and for all, the difficulties posed by the friction between the democratic ideals of personal autonomy and of social tolerance.

“Secularism is not negotiable,” Chirac insisted. I would rather say that secularism is negotiation – a negotiation between respect for individuals and tolerance of the values and practices through which they give meaning to their lives.

A just political order should not be afraid to promulgate the ideals of equal dignity. But we do well to remember that a claim to lofty ideals itself guarantees nothing.

Sometimes xenophobia conceals its face behind a veil of secularity. Sometimes intolerance hides its true colours beneath the headscarves of liberal democracy.

Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah is the Laurance S Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He has written numerous books, articles and reviews and lectured widely in Europe, Africa and the US on multiculturalism in education, the African novel, race, political liberalism and African philosophy. His new book, The Ethics of Identity, will be published this year.