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Face veils and secular values

Monday April 18, 2011 08:08:14 AM, Iman Kurdi

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It is now illegal for me, or anyone else for that matter, to walk down a French street wearing a Mickey Mouse mask. If I did so, if I appeared in a public park or a train station or a town hall wearing such a mask, I could be arrested and fined 150 euros. If, on the other hand, I wore a surgical mask to protect myself and others from spreading disease or if I wore a Father Christmas beard, that would be OK, that would not be breaking the law.

The law in question came into effect last Monday and makes it illegal to hide your face in public spaces. It points out that hiding your face withholds your identity and as such presents a security risk. So no more Mickey Mouse masks; I will have to resort to wearing large sunglasses when I want to walk around incognito.

It's a silly example for a silly law. Though you might a get one or two raised eyebrows for disguising yourself as a Disney character, you would not be subject to hostility. However, if instead of a funny mask you wore a black face veil, you know the one, certain Muslim women wear it as part of a dress code sometimes called the burqa or the niqab, you would be looked at with abhorrence by many of your fellow French citizens. It is this antipathy that has led to this law. But is this antipathy aimed solely at the 2,000 or so Muslim women who wear a face veil or is it part of a more general antipathy to Muslims in general?

The phrasing of the law carefully avoids reference to religion or Muslim women. A law that targets Muslims would be clearly interpreted as discriminatory. It's rather ironic, is it not, that a law that aims to banish the hiding of faces hides its true aim beneath a security blanket.

Coincidentally, the number of French Muslim women who choose to cover their face in public matches the number of mosques in France, 2,000 or so, that is for a Muslim population of 4 or 5 million depending on estimates. Admittedly, not all French Muslims practice their religion sufficiently overtly or whole-heartedly to wish to attend Friday prayers but enough of them do to mean that some mosques overflow and people end up praying in the street. This has caused a scandal almost as big as the Mickey Mouse women. Marine Le Pen, an unsavory character who is not very fond of Muslims, referred to it as “an occupation.”

That the leader of the far right should make such a comment goes with the territory, but it resonated wider within the voting public leading President Nicolas Sarkozy to call for a debate on the role of Islam in French society. This widely hailed debate created such a storm of controversy and such division within Sarkozy's own party that it was shortened from two weeks to one afternoon and renamed a debate on secularism. In the end it wasn't even a debate, since a debate requires the discussion of differing points of view rather than the tepid rubber-stamping exercise that took place. It is all rather farcical.

What is sad about all this is that there are genuine issues that should be debated. The reasons Muslims pray on the street is not because they want to take over a Christian land (which is what I presume Madame Le Pen meant by her comments), but because there is not enough space in mosques and prayer rooms; and the reasons for the shortage of places to pray are closely linked to the debate on secularism that did not take place.

France instituted a law in 1905 which established it as a secularist state. This law formally separates religion from the state but it goes a little further as it removes religion from any activity that has state involvement. For example, schools must be entirely religion-neutral. This, theoretically at least, protects the children of religious minorities from discrimination as all children are treated equally. Essentially, the law moves religion strictly into the personal realm. You are free to practice your religion, and that right is enshrined in the law, but it must be done outside of the public sphere.

The law also states that: “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion.” Effectively this means that local councils facing the problem of a shortage of mosques for their Muslim citizens are prohibited from giving state subsidies to help build new mosques. There is also a law in France which limits foreign donations to a maximum of 20 percent of any given project. Given the price of real estate and the cost of constructing even a modest mosque, this puts the building of a mosque out of the reach of many Muslim communities. Add to that the reluctance or objections of some local councils and inhabitants and the construction of new mosques becomes a Herculean task.

But back to the law banning face covering. It is largely symbolic. Though the first fine for wearing a niqab has now reportedly been issued, on the whole the police are expected to turn a blind eye to a law they deem unenforceable. On the day it came into force several protesters went out of their way to try to get arrested for wearing it, to no avail. Some were arrested for holding an illegal protest; others were simply moved away or had the law explained to them.

The law reflects not so much an antipathy to Islam as an antipathy to extreme visions of Islam and more importantly reaffirms French republican values. However, the political context in which it has been framed serves to stigmatize Muslims.

It is a real shame that a country that prides itself on its secularism has fallen into the populist trap of using religion for political ends. President Sarkozy faces a presidential election next year. His poll ratings are dire and some even predict that Marine Le Pen may beat him into the second round. The knee-jerk reaction is to court her voters, but it may end up splitting his natural constituency. Moreover, France is giving itself a bad press. It is the home of Europe's largest Muslim population, a population that is largely well integrated and proud to be part of the French republic. French Muslims do not see being French and being Muslim as a problem, until now.

The above article first appeared in the Saudi leading English daily Arab News. The writer can be contacted at




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