I think one of the most noteworthy issues to hit recently has been the banning in France of hijabs or headscarves in public schools. In addition it seems as though Britain may be moving towards the same thing as well. State interference with religious practices is nothing new, but I think it's incredible that a Western state is imposing the form of dress that its citizens may or may not wear.
I think it's difficult to view the ban as being anything but a thinly veiled (no pun intended) shot at Islam itself. It is nothing but an explicit statement of the general sentiment of many "natives" feel towards new immigrants: they don't look or act like Us. As such the natural instinct is to make them conform to our norms.
Now the hijab ban in particular is interesting because I could go a lot of directions that sound appealing on the surface but are spotty at best when you look deeper. For example, I could make an ill-fitting analogy of a headscarf being like a yamaka and show the severity of France's ban by saying "What if Jews were banned from wearing yamakas in public?" While that argument would easily elicit support, it's biased because it fails to take into consideration the underlying gender roles that a hijab represents versus a yamaka. In other words, some may view the hijab ban as being liberating for women. Any defense for Muslim women to be able to wear their hijab can be countered (rightly or wrongly) by those who feel that it frees them from a sexist and oppressive religion. In this scenario the state actually forces male clerics to enable women to do something they wanted all along. On the opposite side such an argument ignores the fact that women themselves have been a large voice of dissent against the ban. ("oh but it was the male clerics who made them do it!")
That being said, instead of debating the merits of a headscarf it's a bit more fruitful I think to take a step back. At the end of the day the West's engagement with the Middle East, whether it be through war or diplomacy, has been to create a liberal society that in theory is a reflection of our own. In a vacuum you have to think that this is a noble goal. Sure you can argue that we are culturally imposing upon others but it's awfully enticing narcotic to think that in the end it's better for people everywhere to have the freedom of thought and expression. If we have to impose on other cultures, then so be it ...and therein lies the rub. How can we tell other people to have an open society when we ("we" is used loosely of course) ourselves do not foster one? What kind of example is that?
I will never be able to fully place myself in the shoes of a woman who has to make the decision of wearing a hijab or not, but I can imagine that when they compare their options of being forced to wear one in their motherlands versus not being able to wear one in the current country, it places them in the exact position: they have no choice. The real breakthrough would be to create a setting where those who want to wear one are free to wear one, and those who don't want to practice their religion in that manner are free to do so as well. But that kinda wishful thinking is a bit too easy for me to try and get away with. Most religions or moral codes, no matter which one you follow, need to be constantly reinforced precisely because they impose upon us a set of norms that are not natural to us. We follow them because the sacrifice we make is the price for a greater good (going to heaven,. making up for the original sin, etc.). At the risk of stating the obvious, while some may say that you should be able to practice your religion any way you want, others would claim that what makes it a religion is the fact that you don't pick and choose how you follow it. [insert a comment here from someone who totally misses my point and the fact that I'm trying to show both sides of the argument]
I don't want to wax poetic about my views on religion, because no one needs to hear that from me, but it just seems hypocritical that we are making the people to whom we're trying to demonstrate the virtues of a liberal society to the most, give up the most freedom.
(please tell me if I'm totally offbase)