Discussing Toleration After Susan Mendus
Roberta Sala, University of Milan San Raffaele 26 June 2014

Mendus remembers, in her famous 1989 paper entitled Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism, that religious controversies appeared to have definitively been managed on the basis of the acquisition of the right to religious freedom, at least by democratic and liberal institutions. Rather than discussing religious toleration, it therefore made more sense to speak of each person’s freedom to profess his or her own faith.

In her discussion Mendus also addresses the well-known ‘paradox of toleration’; the question is how can it be possible tolerate what is evil, and even consider this toleration a virtue. The unstated, but implied answer is that toleration implies a sort of passage from the theoretical to the practical level. It is people, not ideas or behaviour that are tolerated – hence mention of toleration having a “rejection component” – on the basis of an “acceptance component.” The paradox expresses a conflict of duties; the duty of coherence and integrity, hence loyalty to one’s own values, and the duty to respect others. The outcome of conflict is toleration of what others do and say on the basis of their right to be respected. Respect for others is toleration’s moral reason. That said, Mendus, unlike what she wrote in 1989, believes that it would be appropriate to return to speak of religious toleration in view of a number of changes that have taken place in the meantime. A first change is conceptual; speaking of toleration as non-interference in what we judge as evil has the characteristics of sufferance, which is also negative. To avoid this Mendus writes, a “new toleration” has been proposed, a more welcoming notion than the previous one and one equivalent to “acceptance” and “acknowledgement.” A second change is of a practical nature. The events of September 11th, 2001 and July 7th, 2005, the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and London’s Underground, favoured a return to religious toleration since these events were categorised as being attacks of Islamic origin. Mendus states that these are examples of religious toleration’s modern problems, as well as empirical examples of how religious toleration is far from being guaranteed.

Mendus then analysed a far less dramatic but equally eloquent case, the so-called affaire du foulard, which started in France in 1989 with a lengthy public debate after three Muslim girls were expelled from school for wearing the headscarf, all in spite of an agreement having been reached between the school and their parents concerning their attendance without covering their hair. Behaving in this manner, the girls intended to exercise their religious freedom as French citizens, exhibiting their Islamic beliefs in a context conforming to an egalitarian secularised ideal of citizenship. In discussing this case, Mendus invited reflection on two positions distant from her own; that of those against the headscarf (or in favour of banning it) and those in favour of the headscarf being allowed. It is curious that both positions are assumed in the name of equality, albeit with opposing results. The respective interpretations of religious diversity are also opposed. Basically, according to those against the headscarf, these are ‘uncomfortable’ diversities because they imply elements of intoleration (from this point of view, religious diversity assumes a supposed truth and would tend to reject other beliefs as false. Those in favour of the headscarf instead believe that religious diversity is understood as diversity among others, and thus, like others, should be treated politically with acknowledgment.  Let us analyse in greater detail the two positions.

(a) Reasons linked to state neutrality have been adopted by those in favour of banning headscarves (against them). Since the public sphere is secular (especially so in light of French laicité), it is effectively compulsory for all citizens to not wear obvious signs of their belonging to a given religious community. In the eyes of secular institutions, citizens are citizens and not ‘believers’, or in any case, primarily citizens. The principle of equality is applied. It is to defend equality that differences must be neutralised, de-politicised, made publicly invisible. Everyone must be rigorously equal in the eyes of the law; everyone must be equal and just citizens. The visibility of religious symbols would supposedly violate the principle of secularity, a social conquest that, on one hand, protects the public sphere from religious interference and, on the other, protects religious differences from the possibility that one may impose itself on the others claiming to be the only true one. The controversial issue, in the affaire du foulard, is that ostentatious religious symbols are banned, as if size might represent a greater or smaller threat to order and stability.

(b) Justice is instead invoked by those in favour of “headscarf freedom.” This, because in order to achieve equality it is necessary that equal visibility be acknowledged for those who are different. Reasoning states that to be equal everyone must be treated as equals, and not obliged, when different, to abolish such diversity by seeming to be the same as others. Claiming the right to visibility means demanding to be acknowledged. The differences one has must not be privatised (hence tolerated), but must be made visible to everyone. The predicament that must be remedied is precisely the perverse effect of this neutralisation, in spite of being the result of demands for equality. Abolishing all differences (different to the majoritarian identity) means denying to those who are different the source of self-recognition. The line of reasoning is very simple and leads to just one question; Why should I, just because I am a Muslim, seem different to what I am, all the more so since denying what I am by removing my headscarf would mean dissimulating my religious identity, which is part of who I am? Preventing Muslim girls from wearing a headscarf, in the name of neutrality, in reality becomes a form of discrimination. For other students, whose religious (or non-religious) identities require (or do not require at all) different dress codes, the prohibition to exhibit religious symbols does not involve any discrimination. Briefly, allowing girls to wear a headscarf means treating them fairly, at the same level as other students, without prejudice for what they are or what they believe in. Being fair does not at all mean treating everyone in the same way, it means treating them as equals on the basis of the same rights.

Now, faced with these two interpretations of equality and the two theses presented in points (a) and (b), Mendus believes that the question of headscarves should not be treated at a matter of recognition, but rather as a classical question concerning religious toleration. According to Mendus, recognition demands too much and envisages religious diversity as simple diversity, like all other forms. Recognising this diversity would instead mean tolerating intoleration and this because defending a religious belief means rejecting others’ beliefs as mistaken. This also involves awareness that the conflict is basically irreparable. So we cannot recognise the girls’ right to wear headscarves, because, if we did, we would acknowledge their right to be intransigent, because of the choice they make in wearing them. All we can do is tolerate them. Furthermore, not tolerating headscarves, but also making them an object of recognition, implies an assimilationist logic that in the end appears to downplay pluralism as one of society’s permanent features. The real value of toleration lies in a commitment to coexist with diversities, neither denying nor assimilating them. To a certain extent I do not agree with the manner in which the problem is posed, and will state why.

My first consideration is that acknowledging freedom to wear headscarves does not mean one accepts a diversity that does not tolerate mistakes. It does not mean sentencing ourselves to eternal conflict. Moreover, the recognition of differences does not involve the duty of judging what is true or false in the reasons underlying the behaviour one intends to “acknowledge.” Truth and mistakes have simply nothing to do with recognition. It instead means remedying a discriminating situation arising from the perverse effect of applying the liberal principle of neutrality. “Recognition” corresponds to a compensatory attitude regarding the outcome of the adoption of universalistic measures. When faced with identity differences – since headscarves represent an identity as well as a religious choice – it is best to adopt universalism sensitive to differences specifically on the basis of equal respect. What recognition intends to achieve is to turn attention to individuals, not to their differences, specifically because it is individuals we are interested in and their right to be treated with equal respect and this acknowledges their right to make their differences publicly visible. This is what Muslim girls are asking for; to be accepted not in spite of their differences, but because of their identity. What they claim is the right to exhibit their truth in public, a truth others may also judge as false. For them it is the truth, just as the truth of others is wrong, in their opinion.

A second consideration is that publicly affirming one’s truth does not necessarily imply that one demands to impose it on others. The truth is one thing, assuming that this automatically results in a publicly important decision is another. Hence, this issue is not to reject the truth or the persuasion of believers that they possess the whole truth, but rather to forbid access to the public discourse to all truths that are authoritarian. Not all truths are bearers of conflict simply because they reciprocally reject one another as mistaken.

The third consideration is that, what is required of everyone in a democratic and liberal context, is to renounce basing political choices on the ‘truth’, while acknowledging that in the eyes of those who disagree, the truth could simply be a mere belief. There is the need to acknowledge the limits of reason being exercised in freedom. It is this same freedom that generates pluralism. To use the same example mentioned previously, allowing girls to wear the Islamic veil in schools, does not in any way mean one shares the reasons for which they do so (be they true reasons as they are for girls or false as their detractors believe), nor does it mean renouncing one’s own truth to defend theirs. It means everyone leaving aside the truth when deciding what should be done so that all citizens, whatever their beliefs may be, can enjoy the same freedom on condition no damage is inflicted. There is no damage inflicted by wearing a headscarf, not to other citizens nor to society in general and not to anything threatened by this choice.

A fourth and final consideration is that if anything I would say that this means acknowledging that all citizens have the right to be identified with their beliefs and to defend the faith they belong to. We are not disembodied selves, we are real selves and on the basis of this reality we favour recognition. This right is applicable also when the differences involve lifestyles or the idea of good, as well as religious matters. The fact that we do not choose certain lifestyles for ourselves is not enough to say they are wrong, or are endured by those who also share them. No one can prejudicially assume that girls choose to wear headscarves as the result of oppression imposed by the context they live in. To do so would be an unsustainable form of paternalism for a context that describes itself as liberal.

Having made all these considerations, the conclusion Mendus reaches and the one reached by the supporters of “new toleration” as recognition, do not really produce different results. In practice the solution is one and the same, following a different path to achieve it. The objective is the same – peaceful coexistence of differences in the pluralist sense – but different strategies are implemented to achieve this. If toleration allows the survival of differences we may disapprove of, as the expression of a ‘mistake’, recognition acknowledges the right of differences to ‘err’, not in order to share the mistake or because of scepticism as far as the truth is concerned, but because of the equal respect we owe their bearers, aware that in the public sphere, even one’s own truth is judged by others who do not share it, considering it a mistake.

Translated by Francesca Simmons