To Ban or Not To Ban the Burqa
Tuesday, July 20,2010 11:10

By 335 votes to one, last week France’s National Assembly gave a first reading to a bill to ban the full-face veil, or burqa, in public places -- such as the street, shops, government offices and hospitals. The Socialists, Communists and Greens boycotted the vote. The Minister of Justice, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who presented the bill, described the vote as a victory for democracy and for France’s Republican values.

Among the bill’s provisions is a fine of 150 euros for those caught wearing a burqa, and/or a course in citizenship. Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear a burqa could face a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in jail.

The bill, however, is a long way from passing into law. It must first be approved by the Senate in September and satisfy France’s Constitutional Court, by no means a foregone conclusion.

Last March, another judicial body, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) -- an ancient French institution dating back to medieval times, whose prime function is to advice the government – reported to the Prime Minister that “a general and total ban” of the full-face veil could face legal challenge in view of the provisions of France’s Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The Council of State did agree, however, that in certain circumstances, for reasons of security and for the fight against fraud, it was necessary to insist on uncovering the face.

The issue of the burqa has aroused tremendous controversy in France. Those in favour of a total ban -- and they tend to be on the political right or militant feminists -- advance four main reasons: that a full-face veil poses problems of security; that it degrades women by denying them their rights; that it is an affront to France’s Republican values; and that it is a symbol of Islamic extremism, which has no place in secular France.

On the other hand, those who oppose the proposed legislation argue that the ban would offend against a woman’s freedom of choice and freedom of conscience; that it would make nonsense of France’s tradition of religious tolerance; that it is a shameful surrender to racism and xenophobia and, indeed, is nothing but a crude attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his governing UMP party to capture votes from the National Front, a party on the extreme right of the spectrum, which has recently made significant gains at regional elections.

In any event, the proposed bill makes a big fuss of what is a small, even a negligible, phenomenon: It is estimated that the number of women in France who wear a full-face veil lies somewhere between 400 and 1,900 -- out of a Muslim population of around five million.

The more fundamental criticism of the proposed ban is that it distracts attention from the real problem of French society, which is the discrimination suffered by immigrants, particularly those from North Africa and Black Africa, with regard to housing, jobs and social advancement in general. The outlying suburbs of French cities -- the notorious banlieues -- are where this discrimination is most apparent and where the torching of cars and other violent acts of delinquency by idle youths is a regular occurrence. Unemployment in these suburbs is said to range from 20 to 40 per cent.

France is by no means the only offender. The truth is that Europe’s indigenous population has, by and large, not yet fully understood or accepted that society in future will be mixed-race -- indeed, that this has already happened, owing to large-scale immigration and a movement of population from one continent to another. The clock cannot be turned back, however raucous the demands of populist politicians.

Rather than a legal ban on the burqa, what is required is massive investment in jobs, housing, infrastructure, and especially education, in deprived areas of France, to give young people of the second and third generation of immigrant families the chance to become fully integrated into French society.

Education is, of course, the key to social integration and social promotion. Once educational opportunities become truly universal, a tiny minority of ultra-pious Muslim women may still want to shield themselves from head to toe from public gaze. That must be their free choice. But, as several Muslim authorities have pointed out, there is no mention of the full-face veil in Islamic jurisprudence.

Until this is more widely understood, Western society should be tolerant of diversity – whether in belief or in dress – because that is the only way to ensure social harmony. Banning the burqa merely contributes to mutual incomprehension, to social disharmony, to alienation – and eventually to violence.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

© 2010 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global

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