“Democracy thrives when it is open-faced”
Michele Alliot-Marie French justice minister
The lower house of the French Parliament, today, voted overwhelmingly (335 to 1) to approve a bill proposing to ban wearing the full Islamic veil in public. Both the Niqab and Burka would be banned under the proposed law – which still needs to pass the upper house of the French Parliament in September.
Even now, opposition groups have vowed to begin a legal battle to claim the law as being unconstitutional in Europe. So far as the women in question have been heard to speak or address the issue in France, they have stated that they wear the Islamic head-dress willingly and voluntarily. Indeed, most practicing Muslim women who live under Hijab voluntarily will tell you that they do not perceive their coverage as a limitation.
That said, it is undeniable that the full forms of the Islamic veil for women have struck and offensive chord with Westerners. France has just been the first to pick-up the gauntlet. Although the proposed bill banning the Niqab and Burka, Islam’s most debilitating covers, makes no reference to Islam, it has been compared to a “walking coffin or a muzzle”, by Andre Gerin of the Communist opposition party.
The Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, warned in March that the law could be found unconstitutional on the grounds of limiting freedom of religion. What proponents will likely argue is that the Niqab and Burka are only worn by an estimated 2000 women in France. This makes it a minority practice that does not reflect the standard practice of Islam. It does however, limit the state’s ability to identify the women when need be and it flies in the face of the principles of France and French living.
I have to wonder aloud: why would people who feel the need to follow the strictest strictures of Islam want to live in the West where, although Islam may be welcome, its extreme form is not?
The French, it seems to me, have worked and fought hard to create a secular society that they covet. Who can blame them for wanting to protect that secularism? For many French people, it is that secularism - that freedom – that allows, indeed enables, them to be on the forefront of technology, industry, economy and the arts. To them, limiting their secular ways is tantamount to limiting their progress and their life-style.
Though Belgium and Spain are considering similar legislation, it seems for now that France’s Parliament has taken on one of the thorniest issues facing European countries today. These nations have offered generous immigration and asylum policies to the influx of Muslims in their midst, and while Europeans near and far will be watching to see where the trend takes them, the Muslim world will watch to see how to react. Likely, the Muslim world will not simply turn a blind eye to this law, once it passes.
The Bill, as it is currently proposed, will levy a fine of 150 euros ($190) for women who break the law and 30,000 euros (roughly $38,000) and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burka. Clearly, France wishes to put the onus on the men. According to a BBC report, France has determined that the majority of the estimated 2000-3000 women who wear the Burka or the Niqab in France are young women, and many are converts. The assumption is that the men are exerting a great deal of control over these young and perhaps vulnerable, newly minted, Muslim women and the State is stepping in to protect them. It can legitimately be argued that the State does have a duty to protect its citizens and that the control Muslim men exact over their women is a form of coercion and abuse. Under French law, as in most Western legal systems, that conduct – if proven – would be punishable by law.
The battle is likely to wage for years. Muslims will not turn away from this as a battle lost and a chance to learn and move on. From faith-inspired men acting alone to State’s whose legitimacy rides on their ability to coerce women into coverage, the wheels of establishment Islam will begin to turn toward the undoing of a law legally passed by a sovereign nation’s Parliament. They will mount a virulent opposition campaign against the French and the Parliament, and they will likely issue Fatwa’s (recall Salman Rushdie) and call for the heads to roll (recall the Dutch Cartoonist who dared to satirize the prophet Mohamed). No doubt, this will only enrage the French, and indeed any other country that dares to take on the issue, and harden their stance against allowing full face veils in their communities and societies.
…And once again, we will have a cycle of hatred and violence with no end in sight.