In a Christian society, the above clothing is acceptable; a veiled face is not. There is room for both modesty in clothing and being identifiable. Reject the extremists on both sides of this issue. Indeed, in most Islamic societies, women do NOT veil themselves. Don’t let the loud loony fringes on either side fool you.
The law against wearing the veil in France, apparently, will not be the “last word” on this subject. It may even lead to an even stronger legislative ban. Meanwhile, the French debate over Muslim clothing and the general display of religious symbols in society go far beyond the issue of the veil, a cross, or a yarmulke. We are speaking of the fundamental basis of social order, and it causes great interest not only in France itself, but, also, far beyond its borders.
Recently, this summer, the French Parliament formed a special commission specifically to address this issue. Its 32 members concluded that a complete ban on the wearing of the veil and the niqab (completely conceals not only the face, but, also, the face of a woman) would produce an unfavourable reaction in society. it was, in practise, simply unfeasible. Some legal experts pointed out that such a ban could even be unconstitutional. Communist Deputy André Guérin, chairman of the commission, reluctantly admitted that it plans to prohibit by law the wearing of the veil. The law will, in general terms, reaffirm the right of women to freedom and self-determination; administrative regulations will implement the actual bans on clothing hiding people’s faces. Recently, at the Assemblée Nationale, police denied entry to a group of women in burqas. A case exists where a Moroccan woman resident in France was denied French citizenship because she wore a veil.
Actually, the commission considered a very narrow issue, not all veils, but, only those that completely cover a woman’s body from head to toe. Evidence presented by the police show that only 367 women all over France wear such clothing. According to other sources, their number exceeds a thousand. Amongst Muslim people, one mainly sees it in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. In France, approximately 10 percent of the population, totalling more than five million people, are immigrants from Muslim countries or their children. Mostly, they are from North Africa, where Islam exists in a milder form. In any case, the veil is not particularly popular amongst them. So, we ask, what’s the fuss all about? Of course, it is not merely an issue of female attire. Rather, it is a bitter debate focused on how people of different views, philosophy, religion, and culture can live in peace in the same society, and how such a society can evolve.
Before the committee met to discuss this issue, French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered a major speech in which he reiterated that the burqa “has no place in a country such as France”. M Sarkozy, who represents the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), no doubt, had in mind a belief blessed by two centuries of French democracy, the principle of laicism (laïcité), a fundamental separation of church and state, secularism in its strictest interpretation. The roots of this idea lie in the fight against the dominance of the Catholic Church during and after the French Revolution. In 1905, laicism became part of the French statutory law. However, in today’s France, with its growing Muslim population, politicians and public figures both on the right and left see it as an important tool to preserve national unity.
In 2004, the French parliament overwhelmingly banned the wearing of headscarves (hijab) by Muslim students in public schools. This decision, however, applies not only to Muslim symbols, but, also, to those of the Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and other faiths, as well. Both left- and right-wing parties support this law. The ultra-right-wing National Front opposes this law. The ban was a success, not least because young Muslim women supported it. They really did not like wearing grandma’s scarves. A study this year showed that all educational institutions in France respect this ban. Moreover, the vast majority of Muslims in France support it.
The new campaign against Islamic women’s clothing is somewhat different. M Sarkozy not only wishes women to drop the veil. Within four months, he plans to conduct a national debate on the topic, “What does it mean to be a Frenchman”. In his speech, he talked about the need to affiliate oneself to its great civilisation and culture, to learn its values and traditions. The discussion should end in a conference shortly before the regional elections in France in March 2010.
In the presidential elections of 2007, the approach of the hardliners on the issue of Islamic dress pulled to M Sarkozy many who otherwise would have voted for the far-right National Front. In elections to the European Parliament this year, for the first time in 30 years, the ruling party in France won, which means the electorate approves the approach of UMP to the “Muslim issue”.
In November, in a speech at the Palais de l’Élysée, M Sarkozy spoke about republican ideals and the protection of the significance of French civilization. He said, “France does not require that you abandon your history and culture. France, however, demands that all those who link their fate with its destiny, must share its history and its culture. France is not a hodgepodge of communities and individuals. To become French… it means that you accept this form of civilisation, values, and customs”. To leave no doubt about his position on the origins of the threat, he added, “France is a country where women are free. France is a country where church and state are separate and we respect everyone’s beliefs”. The President said that, as in the Second World War, France could lose “its soul”, unless we address it. “I do not want to see [in France] areas that look more like Kabul or Tehran”, he said.
Martine Aubry (1950- ), First Secretary of the French Socialist Party.
Even critics and scoffers viewed M Sarkozy’s turn to “national values” as a masterful political move. He drew attention away from scandals in his own government, which resulted in his approval rating falling below 40 percent, to a topic where you can quickly earn points. The ruling party not only takes the “national” platform from the right, but, also, exploits the splits within the Left. Disagreements about how to deal with cultural and ethnic integration have long bedevilled French liberals. For example, Communist Deputy André Guérin is an implacable foe of Muslim symbols. He said, “The veil is a walking coffin and a mobile prison”. However, according to Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, a ban on Islamic clothing will only lead to the fact that Muslim women are forced to stay home.
There is no consensus amongst French Muslims themselves, who consider their faith “open”. Many Muslims in France believe that only about 5,000 adherents of Salafism, a version of Islam that came here from Saudi Arabia, support the wearing of the veil. Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the Council for the Muslim Faith, spoke against any ban, but, Dalil Bubaker, the head of the Great Mosque of Paris, appears to support this step.
However, things are rarely so simple. M Sarkozy is known as an ardent admirer of the Anglo-American or, as the French say, “Anglo-Saxon” economic and social model. He approves of its dynamic and economic liberalism, the willingness of people to rely on their own resources, and the taking of risks in business, rather than relying on the assistance and protection of the state. That is, he gives his backing to those ideals that are more associated with the Protestant branch of Christianity. There is, however, one significant difference. It concerns the so-called “multi-cultural” approach taken in England and some other Western countries to the coexistence of different religious and ethnic groups in society. There, demonstrations of atypical public behaviour not only do not cause a negative reaction, they are positively encouraged. In France, religious and national identity is a person’s private affair.
Many laughed at President Sarkozy in France and abroad. His speech in defence of “national values” may seem much too pompous. Yet, he based his approach on republican secularism, a public policy that is widely popular amongst the masses. Most consider interference in the spiritual affairs of their neighbours an indecent thing. Over all the years I lived in France, no one ever asked explicitly me about my political views or faith. One close friend asked, “Are you proud that you are a Russian?” “Of course”, I answered, and that was that. Recently, Le Parisien released a poll in connection with the presidential campaign. 60 percent of those surveyed, half of this number being the supporters of Left-wing parties, backed laicism, calling it one of the most important elements of national identity.
Grande Mosquée de Paris (Great Mosque of Paris), located in the 5th arrondissement, is the largest Mosque in France. It was founded in 1926 as a memorial to Muslim colonial troops who fought in World War I.
In France, the guarantee of equality resides in the lack of outward signs of religious affiliation, not in encouraging demonstrations of faith per se. This French approach differs sharply from that found in many other countries, where many see political correctness and multiculturalism as promoting diversity. “As for me, I am a rock-ribbed leftist”, wrote the French journalist Agnes Poirier, “The protection of secularism is the only way to ensure cultural diversity and national unity. One without the other is impossible. However, when I ride the Eurostar train to London, I suddenly become a stranger amongst my own. To my horror, my liberal friends in Britain see such a position as a right-wing view”. In the UK, according to a recent poll, 77 percent of those polled oppose a ban on wearing Islamic dress. In Denmark and Belgium, a Muslim woman wearing a veil is already a member of the government…
For a long time, England, and other leading Western countries regarded the French experience in dealing with national and religious issues as an aberration, a departure from the general trend. However, present developments, not least the protracted war in Afghanistan and the continuing terrorist attacks in various regions of the world, led many to think again about it. We now talk of crisis, even about the end of multiculturalism. “Rebooted” President Barack Obama also touched upon relations with the Islamic world. This year, in a speech in Cairo, he criticised the French principle in regards to Muslim dress, saying that the state should not tell people how to dress. The recent tragedy at Fort Hood, where Muslim US Army Major Nidal Hassan shot dozens of American soldiers, called into question political correctness.
The famous Anglo-American journalist, Christopher Hitchens, whom Forbes Magazine includes amongst the 25 most influential liberal journalists in the USA, in a recent article directly called on President Obama to follow the French example and ban the wearing of the veil. “Our president produces a depressing impression when he selects one of the most reactionary religious traditions as a symbol of rights and identity in reference to the Muslim world,” Mr Hitchens wrote in a recent article. “The cape of the Ku Klux Klan, let us remember, too, is a symbol of a religious movement of white Protestants for ‘identity’. Constitutionally, we may hesitate to prohibit the robes of the Ku Klux Klan by law, but, we may refuse to associate with those who decide to assert themselves in that way. I shudder to think about any country in which such condemnation would weaken it”.
25 November 2009
Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Religii (The Independent Newspaper-Religion)
As quoted in Interfax-Religion