Published: 11 April 2011
Region: France & Worldwide
Gary Herman for Media Diversity Institute
On April 11, 2011, the French state introduced the ‘Burqa Ban’, criminalising the wearing of traditional Muslim full-face veils by women.
Many people find this law a mystery.
First, there’s the question of its targets.
Despite having the largest Muslim minority in Europe – around five million - the numbers of women who wear niqabs or burkas in France is tiny. Le Monde has estimated the total at less than 400, while the Ministry of the Interior estimates 2,000. In any case, this is far fewer than the number of veil-wearers in the UK, for example, with a Muslim population less than half the size.Then there’s the strange history of the law itself.
It was initially proposed by a Communist MP, adopted by right wing President Sarkozy and his party, the UMP, and rejected by UMP Prime Minister, François Fillon. Now it has had to be modified to avoid accusations of racism, so that any face covering may be banned in public unless, of course, it is one of the growing number of exceptions.
Thirdly, there is the question of enforcement.
If a veiled woman is spotted in public, it will be necessary to call a policeman to deal with her. The police have been instructed to refrain from public unveilings and the enforcement procedure is labyrinthine. Women must be requested to unveil in order to check their identity for the purpose of issuing a fine. If they refuse, they can be taken to a police station but not formally arrested. If they still refuse, the public prosecutor should be called. In all cases, persuasion should be used rather than force.
A veiled woman may be fined up to €150; husbands and fathers found to have forced the veil on women or girls can face up to two years in prison and a fine of €60,000. But the law does not apply to women at home, being driven in a car, and in or around mosques. It is not meant to be interpreted, say the Government, “as an indirect restriction of religious freedom”. Instead, it seems likely to become a direct restriction of freedom of movement. Veiled women will be able to drive from their homes to their mosques and back again with complete impunity.
Actually, these things should not be a cause of confusion or amusement. The rationale behind the law is clear. It is a political instrument pandering precisely to the prejudices of the French public, most of whom appear to approve it. The growing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front has reinforced Sarkozy’s commitment to the law. It, and the President’s hasty embrace of the Libyan uprising, are plainly intended to enhance his party’s poll ratings.
Incidentally, it is hugely ironic that the rebellion based in the part of Libya once known as Cyrenaica uses the flag of the former monarchy as a symbol of its liberation. The Kingdom dates from 1951, when the Cyrenaican Emir, Idris al-Sanussi, became Libya’s only-ever monarch thanks largely to the intervention of the British, French and Italians. In the 19th century, the Sanussis founded an eponymous Sunni sect combining mysticism with fundamentalism. The chances are that the people who wave their flag will turn to radical Islamism should they successfully topple the Gaddafi regime.
So Sarkozy’s realpolitik encompasses proto-Islamism and anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s aposition of breathtaking contrariness, although the media tend to concentrate only on his growing repression of France’s domestic Muslim culture.
The UMP’s attempt to cast itself as the poster-child of secularism has led it to push further and faster into the territory of a narrow form of religious intolerance. From banning all “ostensible” religious symbols in schools in 2004 - during Jacques Chirac’s presidency - the UMP under Chirac’s successor, Nicholas Sarkozy, has homed in on the Muslim symbol of the veil, and promises to target mosque-building, halal food in schools and demands for women-only hours at public swimming pools.
Does this mean that “the French are racist”, to quote one of the UK’s best-known popular journalists, the Muslim Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who debated the French law with the leader of Britain’s small left-wing Respect party, Salma Yaqoob, also a Muslim, in early April?
French racism is, of course, a stereotype – and one that a journalist like Alibhai-Brown ought to have thought twice about using. After all, it is only a few weeks since the French court levied fines of thousands of euros on the professional media controversialist, Éric Zemmour, for “provocation to racial discrimination”. Zemmour’s crime was to argue in a televised debate that the French police were illegally profiling minority groups in pursuit of drug gangs “because the majority of traffickers are black and Arab”.
And perhaps Alibhai-Brown should have remembered that bans on the veil exist or are being considered in Albania, Belgium, Italy, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain – Belgium being the only country before France to impose such a ban nationwide. By contrast, few countries with Muslim majorities make the wearing of the veil compulsory and a number actively discourage it or – in the cases of Syria and Turkey – impose partial bans. Are they all racist, too?
That said, the debate between Alibhai-Brown and Yaqoob is instructive. It sums up most of the attitudes surrounding the issue of women who wear the veil, and it was brave of the UK’s Guardian newspaper to reveal the differences of opinion within the community of Muslim women themselves, even if these differences seem to revolve around specious interpretations of the idea of personal freedom. Yacoob argued that women should be allowed to choose what they wear, presumably regardless of whether it’s a full burqa or a mini-skirt. Alibhai-Brown countered that women ought to be allowed to define themselves as Muslim regardless of what they wear; they shouldn’t be forced to adopt the veil.
The idea that wearing a niqab is like a fashion choice is plainly absurd - it's an expression of an ideology, and one that many people find repugnant. But the idea that women ought to be able to define themselves as Muslim without wearing the uniform is only valid if it possible to separate the uniform from the ideology, which many Muslims reject.
In other words, the two arguments may be couched in terms of freedom, but actually they're about ideology.
In any case, we do not have absolute freedom, we may never have had it, and we wouldn't want it anyway. In any society that believes in civilisation and mutual respect, freedom has to be curtailed. So the question is, how do you decide what bits to curtail? Which is where the ideology comes in.
The French argument is that wearing the veil in public runs counter to the ideals of a secular society, because it is an expression of an anti-secular culture. This idea is based in the French concept of laïcité, which is rooted in the separation of church and state and was set down in law in 1905.
For all its weighty history, the argument is not a good one for two reasons: i) secularism is more of a goal than a fact in France, and ii) freedom of worship/belief is one of the corner stones of our view of civilisation. Civilisation – embodied in legal systems based on the Golden Rule - is generally considered a greater good than secularism (in other words, France should not deny people the right to express their own beliefs unless the expression of those beliefs is harmful to others). Actually, there's a third reason why it's not a good argument and that's because it appears to be partial. Personally, I'd ban all religions on the grounds that religion is itself a cause of great harm, but I also accept that people use religion as a means of political and cultural expression and that therefore you don't ban religions but you do police them, in much the same way that you police political action.
This means that the policing should start from socially accepted perceptions of threat. Sothe question comes down to this: what is the threat posed by the veil that requires it to be banned?
In all honesty, I can't come up with a good reason - apart from the rather tired cliché that people in niqabs or burqas might be carrying bombs, to which the obvio us answer is that people with rucksacks could be carrying bombs, but that's no reason to ban rucksacks.
If the threat posed by the veil is that it may drive certain people and political groups to hurt Muslims, that makes Muslims potential victims, not perpetrators. You may find the veil offensive; you may find Burberry raincoats or Chelsea football strips offensive. You may not, in any civilised legal system, beat up the wearers of these items.
This doesn't solve any problems at all, of course, and I can certainly see situations in which a society might want to insist on people uncovering their faces - for example, in a doctor's surgery or a court of law, or when having to show a passport or similar document. But a complete ban seems disproportionate, counter-productive and possibly unenforceable, too.
The tragedy is that, once again, a real and difficult problem is being treated to simplistic, short-term and ill-conceived fixes. Sarkozy’s approach to France’s Muslim minority will only compound the problem, and our only hope is that informed political debate will force reconsideration and avert disaster. The media and media personalities have a responsibility in this; the responsibility to avoid simplification and promote educated dialogue. Unfortunately, they are too often attracted to what British journalist Nick Davies, author of the 2008 book Flat Earth News, describes as “crunchy” news. This is simple, highly flavoured and easy to digest as opposed to the more difficult and considered truth that Davies describes as “chewy”.
When it comes to the question of how a society treats its minorities and its faith groups, we desperately need more chewiness in our media.
Gary Herman for Media Diversity Institute London