So Much for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: France’s Relationship with the Islamic Veil

Neil Thomas on the banning of the Burka in France.

A law came into effect on April 11 in France that bans the covering of the face in any public place. This general rule has a very specific effect; Muslim women wearing a face-concealing veils such as those part of the niqab or burka (the general term ‘veil’ will be used henceforth for the sake of clarity) in public can be fined up to €150 by the police and forced to attend citizenship classes. Exceptions to the rule are made for such things as motorcycle helmets, health-related face masks, sporting equipment, sunglasses that do not completely hide the face, and masks that play a role in ‘traditional activities’ such as religious events and carnivals. People forcing others to cover their faces in public are subject to a fine of up to €30,000 and possible imprisonment. France has thus become the first country in Europe to (indirectly) ban the wearing of Islamic veils in public, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy stating they are ‘not welcome’ in French society. The French government justifies the restriction on the basis that such veils destabilize the basic values inherent to living in a shared secular society, undermine the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity by demoting wearers to a state of social inferiority, and most directly that face-coverings in public places present a security risk. This article seeks to critically assess the validity and motives behind the justifications for its banning.

The many varied branches of the Islamic religion all generally mandate modest standards of dress for both men and especially women, who are generally required to cover their skin and wear a headscarf (hijab) to cover their hair. Most branches do not consider a veil (most commonly worn as part of a niqab or burka) to be a mandatory part of Muslim faith, and the French legislation does not have the effect of banning the hijab as this does not cover the face. Hence it is estimated that the new ban will actually only affect about two thousand women out of France’s total population of five million Muslims. But the Muslim community is divided on the issue. Some Islamic scholars and believers support the ban because they consider the veil (and even the headscarf and other bodily covering) to be a significant barrier to the acceptance of Islam in the Western world, making it inappropriate in this context as it reduces the possibility of attracting new believers. Others consider the veil to be a cultural rather than a religious statement. Conversely, some sections of the Muslim community believe the covering of women’s faces to be a compulsory tenet of their faith, and an important assertion of identity in a Western society that may not be especially welcoming towards ‘outsiders’.

Already there has been resistance mounting from elements of the French Muslim population, with calls for women to ignore the ban and wear the veil as an act of civil disobedience and cultural resistance. A French Muslim businessman has stated that he is creating a fund from which to pay women’s fines, legal action in the European Court of Human Rights to repeal the law is being considered, and demonstrations were held on April 11 at which Muslim women wore veils and were detained by police, though leniency was exercised on the first day. Instead of a fine, protestors were issued with a leaflet bearing the message that ‘the [French] Republic lives with its face uncovered’.

The theme underlying most of the justifications for restricting the wearing of Islamic veils in France is that of societal values. The growing social consensus in France is that multiculturalism has failed and led not to a more tolerant and harmonious society but to the emergence of segregated ethno-religious communities and shadow societies subversive to the order and structure of Western-Christian ‘French’ society. Basically, non-assimilated immigrants are being perceived as a threat to French socio-cultural values.

Many factors contribute to Muslim inhabitants and immigrants being singled out for special attention; for example, the historical context of warfare between Christian European states and Islamic Ottoman and Moorish empires, the increased association of Islam with terrorism and threat against the West following 9/11, and the overt nature in which the Islamic faith is expressed by many of its followers.  The key debate that has arisen is whether French values demand that all immigrants adopt the French way-of-life or place more importance on tolerance and respecting diversity. Sarkozy’s conservative government has become increasingly culturally assertive and endorses and promulgates the latter interpretation, stressing the need for minorities to assimilate into mainstream society rather than living as they may have done before.

The government has mobilised the rhetoric of France’s fierce state secularity, the national motto being ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, to argue that Islamic face-coverings are oppressive to women and present an obstacle to integration by separating Muslims from non-Muslims and obstructing mutual understanding between different sectors of the population; the wearing of such veils is a threat to the secular (but in the Christian tradition) Western values of French society. In my opinion this justification is flawed in a number of respects, and Islamic dress should only be able to be banned as part of broader bans on religious symbolism being worn by judges in courtrooms or politicians in Parliament, the loci of society where a separation between church and state really matters.

The recent French legislation is very popular, with an approval rating of around eighty percent, and thus from the perspective of democracy it is entirely valid. Whilst philosophically this may be true, this very result points to inherent shortcomings in French (and generally European) socio-political and value-defensive responses to the growing presence of Islam.

I argue that this law goes against the ‘European’ values of personal freedom and social tolerance that the public support it to protect. The none-too-obviously targeted nature of the face-covering ban compromises the freedom of expression of those Muslim women who ascribe to a strand of Islam that regards the veil as either a mandatory or desirable component of Islamic faith. The French government has effectively decided to determine what does and does not constitute proper Islamic practice, significantly compromising its claim to be using the new law to uphold France’s secular values.

In my opinion, the law is in fact a manifestation of conservative and deep-seated intolerance of outsiders in French society, which has needed such explicit endorsement and legal affirmation due to the bigoted perception that growing Islamic immigration into France poses a threat to its socio-cultural values. This is in fact false in many regards; a secular state should permit freedom of religious expression, and liberty, equality, and fraternity should permit individuals the liberty to act in any manner that does not harm others, equality in their legal ability to choose and express a religious belief, and a social fraternity that tolerates difference and diversity. Thus it can be seen that such value-laden justifications for the face-covering ban mask darker motives reflecting Islamophobia and latent racism in French society that has been brought to the fore of popular consciousness as a symptom of increasing cultural insecurity in the face of the growing cosmopolitanism present in a French society affected by globalisation and historically mismanaged immigration. Indeed, it has been claimed that one of Sarkozy’s key motivations in supporting a ban on Islamic veils is to lift his floundering approval ratings, as he knows that playing up the issue of the need for greater Islamic integration will be an easy vote-winner.

Sarkozy also claims that the Islamic veil is a visible symbol of the subjugation of women by the Muslim faith. However, whilst this reasoning is arguably valid in many instances, it is by no means absolute and if a liberal state such as France endorses freedom of religion (even if the state itself is secular) then people should have a right to carry out the faith of that religion in public so long as it does not cause harm to other people (as opposed to causing resentment), including wearing a veil in public. This is necessarily true even if such an expression of faith as the Islamic veil is deemed by others to be ‘oppressive’; people have the freedom to believe in ideologies that may oppress them. The alternative is to ban religion, as all religious doctrine may be regarded as oppressive to some degree. And while the law purports to be non-discriminatory towards any religion, the exemption of masks used in ‘traditional’ religious festivals contains an element of bias in that it is slanted towards the acceptance of the Christian traditions and values that have played a major part in the formation of French (and Western) thought and society. Hence this justification of the face-covering ban is hypocritical and it can thus be seen again that there is a distinct Islamophobic slant to the French legislation.

Reacting to social changes in a negative fashion by limiting the space available for human and cultural self-expression does not represent social progress but is rather a regressive step towards cultural authoritarianism that will only increase anti-Western sentiment in France (and around the world), and may in fact worsen the very problem of ‘social integration’ that the law is purporting to address.

The law can also be seen as a step in the direction of social engineering, as the French government is trying to impose an acceptable standard of public appearance on its citizens that reflects Western and thus predominately Christian notions of society and the individual (note again the exceptions granted from the legislation). The very perception of integration as assimilation is a problematic one in this regard as it automatically assumes the dominant norms of life in one’s own country are superior to others and that outside influence diminishes an imagined ‘purity’ of these ideals. Whilst some degree of assimilation with regards to respect for the rule of law and engaging with civil society is desirable, a more inclusive definition of social integration balances these basic necessities with a fundamental respect for diverse interpretations of ‘the good life’ and is upheld via tolerant social attitudes. The one-dimensional pushing of the integration-as-assimilation approach by the French government is a reaction to the historical failure of France to provide adequate support and integration services to migrants, leading to the social ostracism and mutual mistrust underlying supposed ‘value-defensive’ responses to integration today.

In conclusion, the justifications used by the French government for indirectly banning the Islamic veil are flawed in that they undermine the very ‘French’ values they seek to protect and carry ominous overtones of Islamophobia and socio-cultural authoritarianism. Thankfully, the law will probably be mainly symbolic. Police have been urged to show restraint, there will not be many prosecutions, and it will be very hard to prove a woman is being forced to wear a veil. Some shops have already stopped stocking affected garments and over time some women will choose or will be allowed not to wear it. But not all Muslim women want this. The principles tied up in this legislation go far beyond its tiny practical effect.

The law should be repealed as soon as possible.


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