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The French Burqa Ban: Culture Clash Unveiled

France’s recent proposal to ban the burqa from public places suggests a conscious decision to engage with Islam over values as well as security. In contrast to other Western nations, the French government believes that the burqa represents not just a personal choice but also a symbol of a fundamentalist political agenda that endangers women’s rights and sometimes their personal safety. Many criticize France’s response as contradicting Democratic ideas of individual rights. Moreover, critics say it could set a bad precedent in the battle for integration of Muslim populations in other nations. While there is a chance the move could radicalize some moderates, it could also create a strong statement against fundamentalism across the Muslim world. Ultimately, however, the proof of the effectiveness of these measures might be found in France’s own Muslim population: the only one in Europe in which almost half ranks its attachment to France above its attachment to Islam. – YaleGlobal

The French Burqa Ban: Culture Clash Unveiled

The burqa is a political garment
Sadanand Dhume
YaleGlobal, 8 February 2010
 

 Unveiling a ban: French government’s proposed ban on the burqa in public places sparks debate: an Islamic couple near Eiffel Tower.

WASHINGTON: 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 recognizing 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.

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.

On the face of it, the French stand is hard to defend. Fewer than 2000 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.

Fewer than 2000 women – the barest fraction of France’s five million Muslims – wear the burqa.

Most importantly, unlike the Americans, the French recognize 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 organizations 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.

Most importantly, unlike the Americans, the French recognize that both the burqa and the hijab can be as much a political statement as a personal one.

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 criticized 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.

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.

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.

Sadanand Dhume is the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, a book about the rise of fundamentalism in Indonesia.

Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

25 February 2010
IT IS VERY BAD SITUATION . ITS MAY LEADS TO CRITICAL SITUATION. THERE IS FREEDOM OF THEIR OWN BELIEVES.
-NOOR AHMED , INDIA
24 February 2010
I hope she don't smell because is summer.
Medic
-Vera , Tirana
24 February 2010
It not the problem with that women but it is with her husband, anyway you don't understand.
Dating Secrets
-Abron , Belgium
24 February 2010
In don't know but how that women can keep that black thing :)
Fuel Saving
-Besa , toronto
20 February 2010
This is a great article, I wonder how the problem will be resolved. The older generation feels frightened by them as "intruders" while the young feels they are a an interesting new cultural experience. A clash of the old with the new?
Alternative Energy
-Don , Paris, France
19 February 2010
How can they say this??!!!Facilities management jobs
-Allah , Iran
17 February 2010
A very good article, Mr. Sadanand Dhume!
-Marie-Luise , Germany
17 February 2010
Love Gurqa.
mens clothing
-Helen Lewis , Canada
17 February 2010
I think it's wrong, people should be free to wear what they went, no matter what it is. Whatever they are comfortable in, whether it be in their religion or otherwise.
Webmaster Forum
-Jack , UK
15 February 2010
Sadanand Dhume's article; The French Burqa Ban: Culture Clash Unveiled is a classical example of intellectual dishonesty which is so prevalent among Western neo-cons and Indian born scholars who are dead set to see anything relating to Muslim communities or Islam from a certain perspective – militancy, violence and medieval reference often leading to demonization of the whole religion. The irony of the situation is that most of these Islam experts, writers and commentators have very little knowledge of Islam as a religion or the diversity found and practiced among 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Here I wish to comment Mr. Sadanand Dhume’s two false assertions. He claims; "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". Well dear Sadanand Dhume, there is no global war going on between Islam and the West. It may be going on in the minds of people like you or Daniel Pipes, but fortunately, majority of the Muslims and non-Muslim populations are sane enough to avoid painting such foolish scenarios. Then Mr. Sadanand Dhume calims; "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". As far this French opportunistic position is concerned, let me quote International Herald Tribune. In its editorial on 28th Jan, 2010 hits the nail by saying; " President Sarkozy is inciting anti-Muslim prejudices as a way to deflect public anger over unemployment. No political gain can justify hate-mongering." I think, Muslim communities are also waging a struggle for a decent life, social equality and justice in their own countries - mostly through existing systems while a fraction of them though violence. But it is worth remembering that there is no Global movement among Muslims which is planning to conquer the world, destroy the Western civilization or who hate; "Our way of life and values", as Tony Blair so fondly repeated all the time. Such terrible scenarios are the imaginative non-sense, conjured up by people like Huntington, Daniel Pipes, Neo-cons lobby and Moral majority establishment. What is the proof of what I am saying? Well, I know three recent surveys done by PEW, Gallop and World Economic Forum which clearly shows that 91 percent Muslims condemned 9/11 attacks, 93 percent reject violence against civilians, over 65 percent Muslims admire democracy, human rights, progress and rule of law and want good relations with the west. The Gallop Survey which is the largest and most comprehensive was published in 2008 and covered 6 years period, involving 50000 Muslims and 39 Muslim countries. Compare that to three recent survey in EU dealing with Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims. 2006 EUMC survey, 2009 FRA survey and 2010 Open Society Institute survey. An over whelming majority of Muslim communities experience and feel discrimination in work, housing, social life, in the media and by the political establishment. Kind regards Bashy Quraishy Chair-Advisory Council-ENAR - Brussels Chair-Jewish Muslim Co-operation Platform - Brussels Senior Advisor - COJEP International- Strasbourg Mobile; 0045 40 15 47 71 Phone; 0045 38 88 19 77.
-Bashy Quraishy , Brussels