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.