Sunday 2nd of October 2022
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Lifting the veil on Europe

The wearing of headscarves and face veils has generated much controversy in Europe in recent years.

Here in France, the government this week approved a draft law to ban the wearing of full face veils in public spaces, opening the way for the text to go before parliament in July.

The bill calls for $185 fines and, in some cases, citizenship classes for women who do not comply with the ban.

Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear a veil could face a year in prison and a $18,555 fine.

Similar legal processes are being considered in other European countries.

Many consider the targeting of face veils to be part of the same cynical and populist anti-Muslim campaign that has also taken aim at the wearing of headscarves, the building of minarets and Muslim reactions to 'blasphemous' cartoons.

They suspect that a populist European Right will continue to exploit the 'Muslim card' regardless of the actions of Arabs and Muslims.

But while this may be true to a large extent, the face veil is not the same as the headscarf and banning new minarets is nothing like rendition, torture and the invasion and occupation of Arab and Muslim nations.

The challenge now facing Muslim and non-Muslim European social activists is to win over a majority by NOT playing into the hands of the xenophobic Right.

Banning headscarves

When the French government decided back in 2003 to devise a law which took aim at headscarves I wrote the following in the International Herald Tribune:

In a landmark speech on secularism, President Jacques Chirac has called for a ban on "conspicuous" religious signs in schools, thus putting the country's five million Muslim citizens, the largest such community in Europe, on notice.

France's Muslim problem is not necessarily French nor is it particularly religious. It is also a Western phenomenon that requires the utmost cultural sensibility. Actions taken by Paris will influence how its neighbours deal with tens of millions of their own Muslims and other ethnic groups.

France needs to address the culture of despair that is infecting its urban areas - the infamous "banlieue" mentality that has grown out of the decay of the belts of poverty surrounding many of its cities.

Sadly, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has only deployed more police to deal with these problems. The result - slightly less crime but much more tension and hostility.

This is taking its toll on French Muslim women in more ways than one. The banlieue is witnessing an increasing number of attacks and rape by young Muslim men against unveiled teenage girls, who are seen as outside the community and hence permissible targets.

The sense of being rejected among French Muslims is galvanising a new 'politics of identity' that expresses itself, among other ways, in the headscarf.

That's why France must go beyond the use of coercive state tools in dealing with identity politics. As an influential shaper of the European Union, it must work hard to end all discrimination against Muslims across the continent.

After touring and speaking in two dozen French cities over the last two years, I have felt firsthand the bitterness and alienation of many French Muslims. But I have also witnessed the sophistication and commitment of France's civil society in dealing with the social and economic disparities that cause them.

The French government would do better to concentrate its efforts on empowering parents' associations and educators to deal with the identity politics of a minority of their students and their families, instead of distributing and enforcing school manuals on how to measure ostensible religious symbols.

Now the veil

As president, Nicolas Sarkozy has continued on the same path - warning against the threat that Muslim extremism and fundamentalism pose to France.

Several months ago, he began the process by making grandiose speeches in which he targeted the wearing of burqas/niqabs (face veils). 

By doing so, France has followed in the footsteps of Belgium and the Netherlands. More countries are likely to follow.

After the draft law passed, Sarkozy said: "Nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I'm thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected."

But in reality very few women in France wear the face veil - just a couple of hundred or so - and this hardly justifies a protracted nationwide campaign as if the country was besieged by some imminent threat, when, in fact, there is little evidence of extremism among French and European Muslims.

Rather Muslims are increasingly demonstrating greater awareness of their status, rights and freedom of expression - political, religious and social.

While much of this takes the shape of social and political activism, some also takes the form of a 'politics of identity' - which results at times in ghetto-like attitudes.

While it underlines a cultural almost folkloric distinction of sorts at times, it de-emphasises or sets back the central struggle for social and political equal rights in Europe.

But that does not deter populist French and European politicians from practicing a 'politics of fear' by continually warning against the spread of radical Islam and refer to Muslim Europeans as foreigners, when in reality a new generation of Muslims are either secular or integrated into their communities.


It is clear that the fight for the right to wear the face veil per se is neither considered desirable by most Muslims nor winnable among most Europeans.

Unlike the headscarf, it is too difficult to defend covering the face on security, civic and even religious grounds.

I am no religious scholar, but it is clear from my reading that the absolute majority of Muslim scholars and citizens consider the face veil a matter of personal choice not religious duty.

Instead of concentrating their energies on defending the right to wear the face veil - which is hardly defensible in Europe - Muslims and non-Muslim Europeans alike need to prioritise and realign their energies and activities towards the bigger questions affecting their common future on the continent.

Reducing continent-wide challenges of coexistence, equality, development and freedom to the right of wearing the face veil will prove self-defeating at best. Only cynical populists from both sides would stand to benefit.

source : http://blogs.aljazeera.net/imperium/2010/05/23/lifting-veil-europe
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