A French parliamentary commission’s recommendation to ban the burqa, or full veil, from public places such as buses, banks and hospitals, is the most recent skirmish in an ongoing culture war between Islam and the West. But the importance of the potential ban - and the firestorm of debate it has generated - goes far beyond setting sartorial boundaries for the Paris Metro. It also highlights competing views on how best to fight back against radical Islam, the interpretation of the faith that seeks to bend 21st century life to the medieval norms enshrined in sharia law.
By recognising the burqa as not merely an article of clothing but, in the words of French lawmaker Andre Gerin, the “tip [of] a black tide of fundamentalism,” France has signaled that it takes the threat of radical Islam seriously.
Moreover, unlike the Americans under Barack Obama, the French have framed the debate not merely in terms of security, but in terms of fundamental values. In June last year, in a speech to both houses of Parliament, President Nicholas Sarkozy flatly declared that "the burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience." By contrast, in his Cairo address to the Muslim world barely three weeks earlier, Obama took more or less the opposite position. “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal,” he said. Although Obama was referring to the hijab, or headscarf, the French and the Americans are poles apart in terms of the broader principle - whether to take a stand on religiously mandated attire for Muslim women.
On the face of it, the French stand is hard to defend. Fewer than 2,000 women - the barest fraction of France’s five million Muslims - wear the burqa. Taking away their freedom to make that choice contradicts the respect for individual rights at the heart of liberal democracy, argue opponents of the ban. That many women appear to see their decision as a religious obligation - according to orthodox Salafist tradition, the prophet Muhammad’s wives dressed in this manner - only complicates the matter. In effect, it sets up any attack on the garment as an assault on freedom of worship. Identifying the burqa as alien to French culture, say the ban’s critics, also fans xenophobic sentiment. What will be declared un-French next? The sari? The Sikh turban? Day-Glo bicycle shorts?
However, from a broader perspective - based less on theoretical abstraction than on practical reality - the pro-active French approach to the burqa is superior to the hands-off stand taken by the United States.
First, the French parliamentary report strikes a balance between individual rights and the concerns of the larger community. (According to a poll published in the magazine Le Point, nearly six out of ten French citizens support the ban.) It makes no attempt to ban the burqa at home or on the street, but would curtail it at points of public service where citizens can reasonably expect not to encounter a masked stranger. Parliament has not moved to curb the use of the much more widespread hijab, though since 2004 it has been banned in France’s strictly secular state schools, along with other conspicuous religious symbols such as Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, and large crosses.
Most importantly, unlike the Americans, the French recognise that both the burqa and the hijab can be as much a political statement as a personal one.
Islamists around the world - from national governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia to local authorities in sharia-friendly places such as Indonesia’s Aceh province to non-governmental organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami - uniformly demand that women cover their hair. For them, the sight of a burqa on a Parisian bus or in a public hospital in Lyon is a sign that their cause is gaining ground. Like all utopian movements that seek to create the perfect society - in this case by imposing God’s law on earth - radical Islam feeds on symbols that appear to signal its ultimate victory. Rolling back the burqa contradicts this triumphalist narrative.
Furthermore, the philosophical underpinnings of the burqa - and of radical Islam more broadly - genuinely threaten advances in women’s rights made over the last century. Put simply, radical Islamists everywhere make male morality the responsibility of women.
In the West, this attitude was captured most vividly three years ago when Australia’s senior most Muslim cleric, Sheik Taj Din Al Hilaly, dubbed the cat meat sheik by the tabloid press, likened rape victims who dressed immodestly to “uncovered meat”, and the men who assault them to blameless “cats”. In France’s heavily Muslim banlieus, or suburbs, radical youths have at times enforced a de facto dress code by targeting women with uncovered heads for abuse and, in the most extreme cases, physical attack.
Finally, that France - rather than, say, Germany or Italy - is defining the European debate about the veil makes it resonate beyond national boundaries. France has more Muslim citizens (five million) than any other Western country. And though in the post-war period it has lost much of its cultural prestige, or soft power, it remains a principal arbiter of refinement in food, fashion and film. As a birthplace of the Enlightenment, and the principal political architect of a unified Europe, the French example is a bellwether for other countries on the continent struggling to assimilate large communities of recent Muslim immigrants. The Swiss recently voted to disallow minarets on mosques; and Geert Wilders, Holland’s most popular politician and the maker of the polemical anti-Islam film Fitna, faces a trial over his outspoken criticism of the faith. Newspapers report that Italy, Germany and Denmark, among others, are already considering similar anti-burqa laws.
Predictably enough, the potential French ban has been criticised by a wide spectrum of politicians and commentators across the world. A New York Times editorial likened the French to the Taliban. Salma Yaqoob, the hijab-wearing leader of Britain’s Respect Party, called the French move “oppressive”. Hassen Chalghoumi, a French imam who supports the ban, has reportedly received death threats.
But disapproval of the burqa, and by extension the philosophy behind it, will also register with moderates across the Muslim world, and with feminists caught in a struggle against the burqa and hijab in secular-leaning Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Indonesia. In countries like India and the Philippines, non-Muslim lands with large Muslim populations, it will deepen existing debates on integration. In late January, days before the French report was released, the Indian Supreme Court rejected a petition to allow Muslim women to be photographed wearing the face veil in election identification cards.
In the end, though the French brand of in-your-face secularism may come under criticism by both Muslims and Western liberals, the country’s experience holds valuable lessons for the rest of the world.
France has not suffered a major terrorist attack since a spate of bombings in the 1990s linked to the civil war in Algeria. And in a 2006 Pew poll of Muslim attitudes, France was the only major European country where nearly half of Muslims felt they were citizens of their country before being members of their faith. (In Germany, Britain and Spain, overwhelming majorities claimed a primary allegiance to Islam.) Ultimately, this record more than anything else will guide French policy on a sensitive subject.