Veil not welcome

Print edition : May 21, 2010

A woman wearing a niqab at a protest in Tours, France.-ALAIN JOCARD/AFP

THE government of France has for some time been trying to formalise a ban on facial veils (niqab) worn by a small minority of its Muslim citizens. President Nicolas Sarkozy told his Cabinet in the third week of April that he favoured a total ban on the veil and that the government was on the verge of passing a law prohibiting the wearing of the niqab and the burqa. He told his Ministers that the veil hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society. His spokesman said the Bill would be introduced in May.

The veil is an iconic part of Islamic culture, especially in many parts of the Arab world. Many Muslim women wear it as a sign of social modesty and religious piety. Others, such as the noted Malayalam writer, the late Kamala Surayya (Das), have said that the burqa offers a sort of freedom in male-dominated societies. This correspondent has observed that in westernised cities such as Damascus and Istanbul, the use of headscarves and loose-fitting dresses by women has increased in recent times. After the United States-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi women have been left with little option but to wear the burqa as they come under attack from fundamentalist groups. Iraq under Saddam Hussein had the most progressive laws for women.

Many French legal experts have ruled that the Bill violates the cardinal principles of the French Constitution, which guarantees liberty, equality and fraternity. The 32-member Constitutional Council committee has refused to support the Bill. In fact, Members of Parliament belonging to the Socialist Party have alleged that Sarkozy is focussing on the veil issue for partisan purposes. However, the parliamentary panel, in a report submitted in late January, recommended that the government refuse residence cards and citizenships to those who engaged in radical religious practices. Parliament members, ranging from communists to the conservatives, are in agreement that wearing the burqa is contrary to the values of the Republic. Sarkozy had warned that the burqa is not welcome in France.

A survey had shown that 42 per cent of French Muslims described themselves as believers who do not practise; 16 per cent of them identified themselves only as citizens of Muslim origin. According to French government statistics, only an estimated 2,000 French Muslim women have chosen to wear the niqab in public. Others say that the numbers are even smaller, but the state chooses to portray the wearing of the niqab as a subversive act and a security threat. Memories of the Battle of Algiers still seem to be resonating in the French national psyche. Women wearing Islamic garb played an important role in the bloody guerilla war that won Algeria its independence. Grenades and guns hidden under the loose burqas helped the FLN (National Liberation Front) guerillas in urban warfare.

The majority of the French populace supports the ban. In any case, for all practical purposes, a ban has been in force in France since 2004 when the government passed a law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public places.

France has the largest Muslim minority population in Europe. Ten per cent of the countrys total population of 62 million is Muslim. The majority of the Muslim population hails from Algeria, Morocco and Senegal and other former African colonies of France. Many of the Muslim citizens are second- and third-generation French children of immigrants who had fought on the side of France in its colonial wars. Others belong to families of the menial workforce that France, like other Western European countries, had imported in the 1950s and the 1960s, to overcome an acute labour shortage.

Belgium seems to be on its way to becoming the first European country to ban items of clothing worn by Muslim women. The federal governments home affairs committee voted unanimously on March 31 to sanction a ban on clothing that does not allow the wearer to be identified. There is complete unanimity on the subject among all the major political parties.

In February, the French government announced that it had refused to grant citizenship to a Moroccan married to a French citizen on the grounds that he forced his wife to wear the veil. His wife had denied the charge.

Many secular Muslims in Europe have actually supported the French governments move on the niqab and the burqa. Shaaz Mahboob, vice-chairman of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy, told the AlJazeera network that it is a security issue, it is a communication issue and a barrier to integration in a lot of ways. But Maleiha Malik, who teaches law at Kings College, London, speaking on the same programme, said that the key issue is one of religious freedom. She was of the view that the French state could not use coercive power to force Muslim women to take off the niqab. The vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium cautioned that the governments move could set a dangerous precedent. Today it is the full-face veil, tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans and then perhaps it will be mini skirts, she said.

Most civil rights activists are of the view that the wearing of a full-face veil is a fundamental right that is protected by French, Belgian, European and international laws. The Catholic Bishop of Tournai in Belgium said the state had no right to regulate the symbols of personal beliefs. A leading European official, Thomsas Hammarberg, who is the Council of Europes Human Rights Commissioner, said the banning of the burqa and the niqab would be an ill-advised invasion of individual privacy. He went on to add that banning the niqab would not liberate oppressed women but would lead to their further alienation from European societies. The problem of alienation for French Muslims is compounded by the fact that most of them live in impoverished neighbourhoods that have a high crime rate.

The Catholic Church in France has also warned the government against banning veils. A statement issued in February said that France must respect the rights of Muslims if it wanted Islamic countries to do the same for their Christian minorities.

Islamophobia has been rampant in many parts of Europe since the events of September 11, 2001. Right-wing parties have exploited the latent fears and prejudices of native Europeans to their advantage. In countries such as France, Holland and Denmark, xenophobic and racist parties have emerged as major players able to determine the outcome of tightly fought elections. Their views have started having an impact on government policies. Geert Wilders Freedom Party, which runs on an anti-Islamic platform in Holland, has been making steady gains in municipal elections.

Frances openly anti-immigrant National Front (F.N.) Party, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, came second in the 2002 presidential election. His electoral base deserted him in favour of Sarkozy in the last presidential election. Now there is a danger of the F.N.s views on immigrants and Islam becoming official French government policy. In February, Marine Le Pen, the F.N. leaders daughter, protested against a fast-food chain distributing only halal meat. Many ruling party members, including Ministers, joined the fray, asking for action to be taken against the fast-food chain. France is among the countries vehemently opposing Turkeys membership of the European Union. Many European governments fear that the entry of Turkey will change the religious demography of the E.U. Turkeys population is larger than that of France. Islam already is a European religion as it has the second biggest following on the continent.

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia had in a 2006 report warned that Islamophobia was on the rise across Europe. The report said Muslims routinely faced physical attacks and discrimination in the jobs and housing markets. It concluded that since 9/11, Europes 13 million Muslims had been put under a general suspicion of terrorism. Sections of the influential European media have taken to caricaturing Islam. The cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 had set off a firestorm in the Muslim world.

The worst illustration of Islamophobia is that of the ban last November on the construction of minarets in Switzerland. The ban came after the countrys leading party The Swiss Peoples Party forced a referendum on the issue. The ban on minarets is now enshrined in the Swiss Constitution. In the whole of Switzerland, where Muslims constitute 6 per cent of the population, only four minarets exist. All the leading newspapers condemned the Swiss ban in their editorials.

Enlightened Switzerland has now become part of enlightened liberal Europe that is increasingly not all that liberal, wrote John Esposito, an authority on Islam and the author of many scholarly books on West Asia.

Multiculturalism as state policy in Europe seems to have been sacrificed after 9/11.

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