Bigotry dressed as gallantry: Sarko and the burqa

France’s strict secularism, entrenched by law since 1905, keeps religion firmly out of the state sphere. There are no religious studies (let alone nativity plays) in state schools, nor may public workers sport the headscarf. The government denies that such policies constrain religious freedom or are especially aimed at Islam. France welcomes private Muslim schools. Mosque-building is widespread. The 2004 headscarf ban outlawed “conspicuous” religious symbols of all faiths. Yet there are growing worries about the spread of hard-line Islamism in the heavily Muslim banlieues.

Now that Mr Sarkozy has publicly condemned the burqa, the chances of a ban have risen sharply. Parliament has launched a cross-party mission to report back in six months. In fact, few women wear the full garment in France. But mayors of cities with big Muslim populations report a steady increase in numbers, due not to immigration but to its adoption by French-born women—often from North African countries where the burqa is not traditionally worn.

France ponders a burqa ban: No covering up,” The Economist, 25 June, 2009.

The trouble the French may want to worry about is not the burqa as it is worn in France today, but that such a ban, as the headscarf ban has done, will make the garment a greater symbol of Muslim identity and sign of cultural defiance. France has done a good job at finding ways of alienating racial and religious minorities. Indeed, among Western nations it is a leader in this field. This is a quality that does little to further the assimilationist cause the French so actively pursue, though. The proposition comes with other baggage, too. The concern (posed by the Economist piece) that this proposed ban would be might be “misunderstood abroad,” seems foolish. What is to be misunderstood? It is precisely an effort to limit the expression of religion, Islam especially in this case, and follows from the same motivations as the earlier headscarf ban.

It is either naive or disingenuous to pretend that the French attitude towards “conspicuous” religious symbolism proceeds from a genuine concern about the rights of those displaying them in the 21st century. It originates in a desire to limit the expression of difference and to vent the distaste for Islam so rampant in French society. It is rooted in the primal and xenophobic instincts that lunge for similar bans in Belgium and Holland or seek to ban mosques and minarets in Germany and Switzerland or ban the construction of churches in Saudi Arabia. It is bigotry masked as gallantry, so often the case among politicians on the continent when Islam is the subject of conversation. However one views the burqa is beside the point. The effort to ban the burqa is not about the blanket dress itself, and one can quote the tokens picked up by Mr. Sarkozy on his way to office as much as he pleases: it is instead about the resentment a “native” European feels when he sees bundles of little brownskined children running about noisily on the street or an African walking with a European woman or a woman with covered hair and an exotic name at a retail counter. It is a reaction to demography and an act of demagogy. It is not a misunderstanding to call a spade a spade; the hope to ban is the hope to ban and a ban will be a ban and crude populism and bigoted sybaritism.

However sartorially gifted Mr. Sarkozy may be it is still problematic for him to think he ought to direct anyone’s, let alone millions of women‘s, wardrobe. And let it be doubly clear: such efforts will only push French Islam further away from where it ought to be. Let Mr. Sarkozy, for it is known he is without shame, convince a woman whose fashion includes the burqa that she has put herself in a mobile prison. Here we see the poverty and iniquity of chauvinist political will operating on debauched motives moving faster towards the intolerant turpitude that characterizes right wing European identity politics. Whatever one may think of the jejune (though effective) words of the Messiah at Cairo, there is one line that rings clear with regard to Western Islam:

. . . [I]t is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit, for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.

Mr. Sarkozy and others believe they can. They should be told otherwise.

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17 comments

  1. This is unequivocally the best post I’ve read on the topic in awhile – the harder Sarko pushes, the more pushback he’ll get. Better to leave well enough alone and let women dress how they want – whether that’s in a miniskirt or a burqa (of course the same sentiment, in my opinion, should be shown to Saudi Arabia – forcing the burqa, or even hijab, on women is not all that different from forcing them not to wear it).

  2. Bah, I am sorry but this sounds very simplistic. You seem to believe the problem is all these racist right-wing Europeans who don’t like little brownskinned children. I wish it was so simple. In fact, it reveals a dose of prejudice on your part, in my humble opinion.

    Tolerance and universalism have precise cultural roots, and to think that they can be affirmed in the abstract without also making collective cultural choices (even enforced by the state, in some cases) is naive. Is it wise to limit people’s freedom of expression by outlawing holocaust denial, like many European countries do? Should people be allowed to go around in brown shirts or KKK robes? I would say yes, but I also see the other side of the argument.

    And believe me, I have met women wearing burqas as a cultural-political statement, and it was usually a very negative and intolerant statement. Just as an anecdote, last summer my 9-year old son was very distressed when in the street a veiled Moroccan woman spat on him for no reason. As you well know, no ethnic group has a monopoly on bigotry…

  3. I agree, it will certainly backfire politically, become a rallying point. And just as its insulting and naive to assume a muslim woman is a victim b/c she wears a veil, its also naive to believe the opposite.

    If we believe that some women are unwillingly forced to wear a veil, which i think is a very real minority, removing the burqa in no way releases that woman from the control of men in her life. It does not mean she will be able to wear what she wants, see who she wants, do what she wants and b/c she is not covered she might face much tighter restrictions in her activities and choices that are much more important than how she dresses, like attending a distant college or continuing work after marriage.

  4. Wonderful essay. The French right’s embrace of secularism, following 70 years of fire and brimstone condemnation from La Croix et al, is rather more transparent to outsiders than I think Europeans understand.

    If anti-African American racism is so obviously _the_ defining problem of US culture, xenophobia has replaced Anti-semitism as Western Europe’s. The defining of national community beyond skin color/language/stories about Vercingetorix is doomed by modern communications, transport, and demographics. It’s clearly taking some getting used to everywhere.

    The defensive responses show that you’ve struck the correct nerve.

  5. Thank god for the US!! I will never tire from saying that France needs a civil rights movement. I am sorry to break the unplesant news. Your country is profoundly racist. This is not about the burqa, in fact, it is about your dismal failure at integrating in your society any considerable number of colored people.

    It’s prepostrous to have the French of all the people talk about human rights. It strikes me that you have far bigger racial problems than the burqa. Why not deal with those? We know why, your elites are as racist as their forefathers were. The only difference is that the current elite took to couscous.

  6. If you think the elite is at the origin of the debate on integral veils, you are completely wrong. It’s only when Sarkozi realized a ban would be so popular that he took up the idea. And it’s not a right wing vs. left wing thing either.

    First, we (I am French) are more interested in freedom from religion than in freedom of religion. To us, religion is a private matter. The fact is that no religion has more demands than islam. We don’t want to end up like the UK, where sharia courts operate and communities don’t mingle. We don’t want to end up like the Netherlands, where you get killed by some muslim fanatic because you have exercised your right to free speech.

    The law already prohibits what you can and can’t wear anyway. Let’s put it that way: my god is the Pink Unicorn, and I am required by my god to walk around naked. Are you going to let me do that? If your answer is yes, please let me know where. In which country? If it’s no, you’re a racist.

    I don’t care if some women freely chose to wear integral veils. By doing so, they tell us: “We don’t want to have any contact with you”. How come we couldn’t exclude people who willingly exclude themselves from society in the first place? I’m much more interested in preventing women from being forced to wear them. And, by the way, many French muslims are against such garments, and actually ask us to help them resist the pressure of fundamentalists, which can be enormous in some places. Fadela Amara, who is of Algerian extract, and a member of the French government, is one of them. Not only does she approves a ban on the burqa, which she describes as a “coffin”, a “straitjacket”, but also on the hijab. (Pick your muslim.)

    There is another good reason to ban the integral veil. Anybody can hide underneath. One of the terrorists who planted bombs in the London underground flew the scene and then tried to leave the UK wearing a burqa.

    By the way. My husband is a black African muslim, although an atheist, like me. So very racist…

    So maybe, just maybe, this article is indeed a bit simplistic.

  7. A letter on this topic sent to Le Figaro on 9 June after it published a photo of a burqa-wearing woman (presumably) and two Europeans in the street (unveiled but with faces masked to comply with “droit à l’image” legislation)

    Monsieur, Madame,

    Votre photo (publiée dans Le Figaro du 19 juin 2009) d’une femme habillée en burqa, à côté d’un couple dont les visages ont été « voilés » numériquement, symbolise parfaitement l’incompatibilité des arguments en faveur d’une interdiction du port de la burqa en lieu public avec une autre loi, celle du droit à l’image.

    En effet, la notion que le citoyen aurait des droits concernant son apparence physique (au point qu’il est jugé raisonnable d’interdire, sauf autorisation, toute reproduction ou utilisation d’une photo) se heurte aux arguments en faveur de l’interdiction de la burqa, quant à eux fondés sur la notion que l’apparence d’une personne, c’est à dire ses traits et par implication son identité, est « dans le domaine publique » et ne peut donc être caché. Ceci est le fondement des arguments qui invoquent la sécurité, l’égalité entre hommes et femmes, l’oppression sur base de genre, etc.

    D’où la situation absurde que la loi permettrait, sans autorisation des personnes concernées, la publication d’une photo d’une femme habillée en burqa, tandis que les deux piétons pris dans cette même photo sont protégés par (ou bien, dirait-on, soumis à) une « burqa juridique » en forme de masque numérique !

    En fin de compte il faudra choisir entre ces deux interprétations opposées de la personne, son apparence et son image…

    + ++ o o0o o ++ +

    Dear Sir (or Madame, as the case may be),

    Your photograph of a woman dressed in a burqa (Le Figaro 19 Juin 2009) next to a couple whose faces have been digitally "veiled" encapsulates perfectly the incompatibility of the arguments put forward in favour of a ban on the wearing of the burqa in public places with another law, that of the "droit à l’image".

    In fact, the idea that a citizen might have rights over his or her physical appearance (to the point that it is deemed reasonable to prohibit any unauthorised reproduction or use of a photograph) clashes with the arguments in favour of banning the burqa, which are in turn based on the idea that a person’s appearance, i.e., his or her features and by implication identity, is "in the public domain", and should not therefore be concealed. This is the basis of those arguments that invoke security, equality between men and women, gender-based oppression etc.

    Hence the absurd situation that the law permits, without obtaining authorisation from the persons concerned, the publication of a photograph of a women dressed in a burqa, while the two passers-by appearing in the same photograph are protected (or should we say subjected to) a "legal burqa" in the form of a digitally applied mask!

    At the end of the day a choice will have to be made between these two conflicting interpretations of the person, his rights and his image…

    Yours etc.

  8. My apologies, Marie, but I couldn’t disagree with you more. I seriously question your understanding of the veil if you believe that by wearing it (or its various derivatives) women are saying they don’t want any contact with you.

    And really Carlo, likening the burqa to dressing like the KKK and denying the holocaust? That’s appalling and shortsighted.

    Well done as always, Kal.

  9. Well, if I may add a point about the French situation (and the Dutch one, as this debate takes place in several various European states). First, it would be very reducing to state that the potential forbidding of the burqa is only a populist right wing move. The debate is largely multipartisan and the pros and against can be found over the whole political spectrum. Let’s face it, most citizens are in favor of the ban. I am personally against it, but it is irrelevant. I have to admit that at least, this idea had the positive of creating a real debate and very interesting discussions in the media, the public opinion and the Parliament, about secularism, Islam, islamism and the Republic.

    It is important to note that the very few women in France (hardly more than a hundred persons, out of more than 31 million women) who wear a veil covering everything but their eyes are doing so mostly by choice and are “converts”. I think personally that they are morons, but again, this should not enter in the public debate. If women want to degrade themselves and show submission to a particularly retrograde and machist view of religion, they should be allowed to do so. After all, some people are also into SM and stuff like that. Even so, some of them are “forced” by family, husbands and/or brothers. Banning them will only result in forcing them to stay inside, cloistered, where they will have even less chance at integrating in the society than they already have.

    But I have to give a point to the other side too. This was mentioned to me by my father, who is a medical doctor. He said that wearing a burqa (including in a hospital or clinic, with subsequent refusal to be treated by male doctors) is both a safety issue and a public health problem. I have to give him this: it is practically impossible to diagnose or treat a woman who refuses to show anything else than her eyes. It is also impossible to identify this person, which has major consequences for security, social services, regulations and so on. It is clearly a major risk of fraud in the French social system.

    I think these problems could be better overcome than via a total ban, but I have to admit that he has a point.

  10. I see that you’ve upset the bigots. One would think that the President of France would have more urgent matters to tackle, like the pathetic state of the French economy instead of worrying about the clothing a few dozen Muslim woman CHOOSE to wear. The behavior of the idiots in France highlights the inferiority of their petty obnoxious culture. The hysteria over Muslim women’s clothing has nothing to with “secularism,”but everything to do with colonial attitudes of casual racism and control. Carlo, given your ridiculous comment about the KKK, I don’t believe for a second that a woman in burqa spat at your son.
    Marie, you’re just a paranoid and racist idiot. Muslim woman in burqas have no interest in you and just want to go about their business. last I checked the London bombings were done by men in plain clothes, so your argument has no merit. And really you’re in no position to lecture anyone on terrorism, since you people are the experts on it. Get over yourself, we’re not going to change our faith or practice to make you happy. Keep you atheism and other similar narcissistic mental disorders at home and off our backs.
    Putting aside wine, cheese, a 35 hour work week, selective hygiene, braided armpits, the French really don’t have much of a culture. Instead what we have here are a downright nasty bunch, no longer having an empire. These days the cheese eating surrender monkeys get their kicks bullying minorities. Poll after poll shows that it is most racist country in Europe. Now I don’t want to come off as too mean spirited but this obsession with Muslim woman’s clothing has gone far enough. Its time to highlight some harsh truths. Some may consider marinating in a puddle of one’s own vomit at 2 A.M outside of pub “culture,” we don’t. We also don’t think its civilized for grown men to go around stabbing each other in the buttocks after a soccer match. Call us party poopers but we don’t think decriminalizing incest, beastiality, pedophelia is healthy for society. Rest on your faded laurels like an aging has been if you want to, but the rest of the world realises that not everyone wants to eat slugs, diseased cirrhotic goose livers and raw mince meat ….. sorry that would be ‘escargots’, ‘pate de foie gras’ and ‘steak tartare’, saying it with a French accent doesn’t make it any less repulsive.
    Now here’s the bottom line, don’t tell us what to wear, and we won’t tell you go jump in a lake full of crocodiles. No integration or assimilation with Nazi and fascist scum. Est-ce que vous me comprenez?

  11. A recent survey (Gallup) shows that French Muslims are the most secularized of all Europe (no car burning because of the veil ban in school, actually a lot of french muslims were ok with that.)
    So the relative stringency of France works, it’s the only answer in the long term for a better integration and the acceptance of the relative irrelevance of Islam, irrelevant like all the religions in the world. In two millennium it will be pleasant myths and legends nothing more, muslims need to accept it.
    The problem of the Arabo/Islam world is not the western culture and hegemony but the fact that others powers which have been colonized and wich are not muslim (not even monotheist!) emerge with a incredible force : China, India etc. It’s the principal reason of the mental crisis today, they have the feeling they’re not going to be a part of this new world and suffer because of that.
    Mulsims need to stop hating themselves (I know more easy to say…).

    Sorry for my poor english

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