While Muslims have recently made significant gains in advancing political freedoms in countries ruled by authoritarian leaders, the struggle for equal rights has faced a setback in France’s supposedly free and open society, where the government has passed a law criminalizing the wear of the Islamic face veil.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has approved a law that “benefits” more or less 2000 burqa-clad women, who were (according to some) subjected to patriarchal oppression. Much to my surprise, the law is being rigidly enforced, with French policemen having imposed a fine of 150 euros on two burqa-clad women last week. It turns out that face veiling is more pressing an issue in France than the miscarriage of justice in serial rape cases due to administrative oversights, the call for harsher punishments for domestic violence offenders, and the combating of school violence, all of which are seemingly second priority.
The niqab is erroneously seen as a manifestation of oppression, but when not imposed, Muslim women wear it for a variety of reasons—some for religious reasons and others to inhibit harassment. The prophet’s wives were ordained to cover their faces in public, a ruling unique to them. And some wear it just to follow in their footsteps to the letter. Having said that, not all Muslim jurists say the niqab is mandatory.
“The fact that other women imitated the blessed wives is a manifestation of female solidarity—as witnessed, for example, by female students shaving their own heads in support of a female classmate who lost her hair to chemotherapy,” explained Shaykh Abdallah Adhami, a leading scholar of Islam. “The judicial positions concerning women in niqab within Muslim society, as well as its ancient and universal prevalence predating Islam, along with the profound mythic symbolism surrounding it, remain to be fully explored,” he added.
Whether or not you identify it as a symbol of oppression, the question is not about why women choose to wear the niqab. The right question is: why make a law concerning 2000 citizens in a time of global recession when there are many more pressing issues at hand? I concur with NiqabBitches, a pair of Frenchwomen opposed to the burqa ban, who say, “it’s more of the government’s policy of stigmatization,” adding, “France is currently leading a very racist policy and they try to hide it behind the holy secularism.”
In addition to Muslims who feel that their rights are being infringed, many non-Muslims feel that this buqa ban is as ludicrous as the ban on minarets in Zurich. DeMarus Allen-Batieste, an American musician at Opernhaus Zurich, commented, “I think the underlying issue is discrimination.” He added: “I am not religious but people should be allowed to worship anyway they choose as long as they are not hurting anyone.”
In my reckoning, the ban is a political stunt to attract voters in the 2012 presidential elections. It is yet another tactic to lure one-issue voters by targeting a highly visible minority and capitalizing on the volatile social climate. As NiqabBitches convincingly stated, “Sarkozy is doing his best to seduce the extreme right wing voters.”
This politics of fear has followed a similar progression in the Netherlands. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, has incited anti-Muslim sentiment for his political gain by saying “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” and proposing a 1000 euro yearly license fee for women wanting to wear the Muslim headscarf. As University of Groningen professor Marjo Buitelaar noted, “Wilders’ party is a one-issue party, with no other answers to social, economic and political issues than that Islam is the cause of it all.” Such politics feeds hatred that goes far beyond its country of origin, as lunatics like Gaddafi, al-Qaeda, and bloodthirsty terrorist groups cash in on hate speech to feed their own agendas. One such example is Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran in Florida, with effects reaching as far as Mazar-e Sharif, where angry demonstrators killed 10 UN workers. It’s a vicious cycle.
In this environment of mutual hate, one can blame the other ad infinitum. There is a need for people to accept and embrace those who hold competing views. Leaders can foster a sense of inclusiveness, or they can endlessly obsess about a piece of cloth for political gain. The choice is with the leader. No wonder Plato, in The Republic, favored a “philosopher king,” a lover of truth, who could lead the “ship of state” in the right direction.
The oppressive nature of this recently passed French law, aimed solely at ensuring that the incumbent leaders remain in power, is more akin to Mubarak’s ordering of the camel charge in Tahrir square and Gaddafi’s aerial bombing campaign than the actions of a leader of a free society. People deserve, and must demand, better leadership.
Fahad Faruqui is a journalist and an educator. He read Philosophy of Religion (with a particular interest in Sufism) and Middle Eastern Studies as an undergraduate at Columbia University and then pursued an M.S. in Journalism from its Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/fahadfaruqui.