Is it appropriate to wear such obvious religious symbols as a hijab (a Muslim headscarf), a skullcap, or a large Crucifix, at schools, government offices or other public premises? This issue, which is being widely debated in western Europe today, was a burning one many years ago in the USSR. I remember very well how Soviet children were not allowed to wear their crosses to school, not just by teachers: there was a campaign against those crosses in the national media at the time. In 1980s, when I went to school, one no longer could be sent to GULAG for wearing a crucifix, but it was nevertheless clearly indicated that by professing your faith in public you were making yourself an outcast of society, an enemy of the generally accepted totalitarian atheist ideology.
It is painful to think that such problems could still await countries that have never known totalitarianism. I do not think they would benefit from stringent regulation of what schoolchildren, teachers, or civil servants should or should not wear. Naturally, a police officer would look ridiculous wearing a large cross on top of his or her uniform, preaching in the street instead of enforcing law and order. But we still must not forget that many religions and faiths prescribe their followers certain lifestyles, which are reflected in specific symbols. "Barbarian" in the eyes of Western peoples, they look perfectly natural and habitual to their adherents, who see the ban on their lifestyles as both a form of cultural and philosophical aggression.
Each ethnic group must understand that their concepts of what is appropriate or inappropriate in public are not necessarily universal and acceptable to everyone. Moreover, the interdependence of religious norms and social order is different for different traditions. In Western society, which is referred to as post-Christian, religion is becoming more of a private business, whereas for most Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and many others, religion cannot be separated from the social structure.
I once read in one airline's in-flight magazine which topics are considered to be inappropriate for discussing over a mobile phone in public: sex, politics and religion. It seems that the religious element in a person's life is viewed as indecent these days. One is allowed to be religious, but it is best not to talk about it outside one's home or religious community. Faith should not find its way into public debates, mainstream media, education, and even the social services. In other words, it should not be let outside "the walls of churches and apartments." This, in fact, was the requirement of the communist authorities in the USSR.
Still, religion's social role does break through, just like grass grows through concrete. The current hijab debate is an eloquent example. It may even appear that the advocates of radical secularism are already short of arguments, as they increasingly prefer to resort to the "not allowed, and that's that" reasoning, which sounds so similar to that of the decrepit Soviet regime in the 1980s. Now that one comes to think of it, what are the advocates of secular social order so scared of? Of the day when it becomes clear that all the talk about humanism and its "neutral world outlook" is nothing more than a hackneyed political and journalistic metaphor?
To my mind, secularism is a religion, too - one believing in Man, and putting Man into the centre of the universe. For a consistent follower of that religion, a heavily made-up woman and a man sporting a bow tie are also displaying their "faith" in public. Is it not time different lifestyles based on different outlooks are given equal rights?
Headscarves are also widely discussed in modern Russia. Women have to cover their heads in Russian Orthodox churches during services. Many of them, even young ones, have started wearing headscarves elsewhere, even at home. Muslim women have stood up for their right to wear hijabs in photos on identification documents, and the Supreme Court granted this right after a long hearing.
Many liberally minded journalists and officials did not approve of this, of course. But their reasoning was weak, just like in the West. Their key anti-hijab argument was that "any explicit manifestation of religion will split society." However, no inter-religious clashes have so far been provoked by hijabs. Moreover, followers of orthodox Islam have been living in Russia for centuries along with those of no less stringent Orthodox Christianity. Islamic laws were even in force in certain parts of Russia before 1917, and it never affected the lifestyles of the majority of the population.
I am deeply convinced that adherents of different religions and world outlooks can and must coexist in peace. To do this, all of us - Christians, Muslims, Jews and Humanists - must first learn to respect each other. We should recognise the right of each religious group to its own "sub-space", and more, to a part of the public space, including school, politics and the media. It is the only way for people with different convictions and different lifestyles to feel like full-fledged citizens of their countries and of the world. Only then will they be able to regard themselves as masters of their own fates, not "tolerant" marginals. This way we shall avoid a conflict between civilisations.