Thursday, July 15, 2010

Burqa Ban in France: A Sign of Things to Come?

France’s National Assembly – the lower house of Parliament – voted on Tuesday 336-1 in favor of a ban on burqas worn in public. The vote will now proceed to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily in September. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a major supporter of the bill, said in June of last year that burqas and similar dress are “not welcome” in his country, and that women must not be “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

The vote comes in the midst of a heated debate in France and across Europe regarding social identity and the competition between secularism and religion. In 2009, France launched a nationwide initiative to define “what it means to be French,” according to the AP. The country has a long history of secular pride, and critics of the burqa contend that public dress that connotes a specific religious affiliation is an attack on French values.

Muslim advocates both within France and abroad have expressed strong disapproval of the movement to ban burqas and other face-covering veils. While such veils are not required by the Qur’an or by traditional Islamic jurisprudence, French Muslim advocacy groups fear that the ban will serve to stigmatize the Islamic community further. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and while fewer than half of one percent of Muslim women in France are believed to wear veils that are made illegal by this law, prosecuting Muslims (or any religious group) in secular courts for their religious dress is treading a slippery slope, according to many watchdog groups.

The bill does not make any specific reference to Islam or to burqas, but some French lawmakers worry that passing the bill will serve to revive tensions between native French and the masses immigrating to France from Muslim-majority countries. There have also been fears that terrorist groups will begin targeting France because of the decision on the burqas. Algerian-based terrorist organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement warning that it will “seek vengeance against France” in response to Sarkozy’s support for the bill.

France is not the only country which is considering such a ban; both Belgium and Spain have expressed interest in similar votes within their parliaments. The issue at the root of the headscarf controversy seems to stem from an influx of Muslim immigrants into the heart of Europe. Some experts contend that by the year 2100, a full one in four Europeans will be Muslim. The enormous growth rate of Islam in Europe has created cultural and religious tensions which are being manifest by riots and civil unrest in places such as Paris, London, and Dresden, Germany.

Peter Osborne, a leading scholar on Islam-European relations from the University of Exeter in Great Britain, says that the media and certain politicians in Europe have given rise to an “atmosphere where hate crimes, ranging from casual abuse to arson to even murder, are bound to occur and are even in a sense encouraged by mainstream media.” Given the overwhelming public support for the anti-headscarf law just passed in France, it seems likely that this atmosphere of public indifference toward Islamic values will continue, and possibly be made worse by the influx of more Muslim immigrants in the coming years.

The Muslim community in France and across Europe will undoubtedly face many hardships as attempts at reconciliation and cross-cultural acceptance continue in the next few decades. The law passed Tuesday in France’s National Assembly, while not entirely inflammatory or outrageous, is not a good sign of what is to come as far as Euro-Islamic relations are concerned. Combined with the ban on mosque-building recently passed in Switzerland, this law and others which are likely to be passed in Belgium and Spain, there seems to be growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. (Although, to be fair, this sentiment might better be characterized as anti-Muslim symbolism or perhaps pro-secularism movements). However you characterize it, the movements resisting Muslim “encroachment” on traditional Christian, western European values are not likely to cease anytime soon.

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