If you thought the Danish cartoon controversy and the Swiss minaret ban meant trouble, get ready for the next flashpoint between Islam and the West. After months of hesitation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally made good on an old promise and has asked the National Assembly to debate a new law banning the wearing of the Islamic niqab, burqa, and other face-covering attire in public. According to the president, such full-body garments “do not pose a problem in a religious sense,” but they "are not in keeping with French values.” The president continued: “The full veil is contrary to the dignity of women. The response is to ban it. The Government will table a draft law prohibiting it.” In January, the 32-member government panel Sarkozy had set up last summer to investigate the issue completed its report, declaring veils to be incompatible with the egalitarian values of the French Republic. It recommended that women be forced to show their faces on public transit and in public spaces such as post offices, government buildings, universities, hospitals, and particularly airports. The new legislation will likely be introduced in May. The French government already banned veils and head scarves from school classrooms in 2004.
It’s still unclear exactly what the lawmakers have in mind. One member of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, Jean-François Copé, has called for a complete ban and a € 750 ($1,000) fine for violators. The final law is unlikely to be as draconic as that. But France already has legal precedents for a ban. In 2008 a court denied a Moroccan woman’s application for naturalization because it regarded her burqa as a violation of France’s secularist principles. This year, the French government denied French citizenship to a Moroccan national married to a veiled French wife.
If you listen to the European Right and their Neocon American echo chamber, you’d think the continent had long since succumbed to “Islamo-fascism.” But how serious is the “problem” anyway? France has approximately five million Muslim citizens and resident aliens, constituting around eight percent of the total population. It is estimated that fewer than 2,000 women – most of them living in isolated housing developments far from urban centers – wear veils outside the home. (In Holland, an estimated 100 women regularly wear burqas; in anti-Muslim Denmark the number is estimated at less than a dozen.) So we are clearly not dealing with a simple piece of cloth (and a relatively rare one at that), but with a symbol – and it is a symbol of immense power for both radical Islam and its European critics.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has described what he sees as being at stake in this controversy:
The burqa is not a dress, it’s a message, one that clearly communicates the subjugation, the subservience, the crushing and the defeat of women….
I am not Islamophobic. I am far too concerned with the spiritual and the dialogue among spiritualities to feel any hostility towards one religion or another. But the right to freely criticize them, the right to make fun of their dogmas or beliefs, the right to be a non-believer, the right to blasphemy and apostasy -- all these were acquired at too great a cost for us to allow a sect, terrorists of thought, to nullify them or undermine them. This is not about the burqa, it’s about Voltaire. What is at stake is the Enlightenment of yesterday and today, and the heritage of both, no less sacred than that of the three monotheisms. A step backwards, just one, on this front would give the nod to all obscurantism, all fanaticism, all the true thoughts of hatred and violence. …
For all these reasons of principle, I am in favor of a law that clearly and plainly declares that wearing a burqa in the public area is anti-republican.
Critics of the burqa point out that the Koran makes no mention of full-body garments and that women who wear the veil belong to the strictest sects of fundamentalist Islam. But are these women really being oppressed? Is the burqa a “prison” or does it represent "liberation" from what many Muslim women regard as the oppression of the modern secular world? While these questions might sound like no-brainers to most non-Muslims, the answer isn’t quite as clear-cut as Sarkozy and Lévy would like us to believe. According to French Islam expert Bernard Godard, “The majority have voluntarily assumed this garb. Many of them have French nationality. And not a few of them are converts.” If the ban goes through, fundamentalists will likely feel justified in asserting that their women are not being oppressed by Islam but by the French state, which wants to deny their right to exercise their religion in line with what they believe to be the will of Allah.
But by no means all Muslim women support the wearing of the burqa. French politician Fadéla Amara, the daughter of Algerian immigrants and former president of the Muslim women's advocacy group "Ni putes ni soumises" ("Neither Whores Nor Submissives") explains that in French Muslim culture "today it's not fathers, but eldest sons who impose authority. Daughters, sisters, cousins, female neighbors must either act like submissive but virtuous vassals, or be treated like cheap whores. Any sign of independence or femininity is viewed as a challenge and provocation." Women in such communities who do not wear the veil in public or simply stay home are abused and frequently raped to prevent them from aspiring to a self-determined, Western way of life.
So whatever happens in the National Assembly next month, Sarkozy’s “war on burqas” will continue to receive plenty of ammunition from both sides of the religious and philosophical divide. But it is not clear whether the law will go through in the first place. While the French public is largely in favor of a ban, France’s State Council stated in March that such a law could violate both the French constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The latter states very clearly in Article 9:
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
This means that the French legislation will represent a test case for all of Europe. Belgium is already preparing a similar ban. Last summer, Holland banned the wearing of burqas at schools and now plans to ban them in universities. Denmark, still seething over the Muslim reaction to the cartoon affair, is pushing for a ban as well. Spain is heading in the same direction, and the global backlash could be intense. If Sarkozy has his way, Europe’s “culture wars” may only be just beginning.