July 16th, 2010
02:12 PM ET

A French fairy-veil, sans happy ending

Jocelyne Cesari
Special to CNN

Examining France’s decision to ban Muslim face veils

Europeans are more sensitive than Americans when it comes to religious expression in public spaces. Many Europeans are averse to any public showing of religion. Nowhere is this more true than in France, where the lower house of parliament just made it illegal for Muslim women to wear face veils in public, and where Muslim school girls have been forbidden since 2004 to don headscarves.

These measures, which target Muslim women, are the product of three cumulated reasons; the first one specific to French politics, the other two shared by Europeans.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/07/16/cesari_jocelyne_web.jpg caption="Cesari: Only when we listen more and dictate less to Muslims will we achieve better relations with Muslims, including better integration in the West, and more progress abroad." width=292 height=320]

The first reason is the radical character of French secularism that has been hardening with the presence of Muslims. Democracies require certain secular principles, including the neutrality of public administration and the freedom of religious expression for all faiths. Of course, the legal and institutional arrangements of these principles vary greatly from country to country, but in France, where the French democratic State and the Catholic Church have competed against each other for power for centuries, people distrust religion and its influence in public space. Indeed, many French interpret Laicite – the concept of a secular society – to be a philosophy designed to ban public affirmation of religion.

With the growing visibility of Islam and Muslims in France, this view has become dominant in French political and media circles, pervading public opinion, and fueling the 2004 public school prohibition on head scarves, and this week’s niqab ban.

Such laws, however, reveal an authoritarian conception of secular principles that requires modern citizens to reject all public signs of religion. This authoritarianism cites protection of individual freedom, even against individual will, while imposing one definition of freedom of conscience that is based on a homogenous vision of society. In the French case, decision-makers impose a homogeneous view of freedom that seeks to “liberate” young Muslim women from the “oppression” of religious symbols, but fails to recognize another view, that of Muslim women who say headscarves and veils liberate them from sexual objectification and ogling. In other words, these laws decide what is good or bad for citizens, including the content or shape of their religious beliefs – something alien to the average American. Ironically, such an authoritarian style of secularism puts France in the same league as those Muslim countries that force all women to wear the niqab or the burqa.

There is more to France’s niqab ban, however, then an excess of authoritarian laicite. Similar debates and actions are found all over Europe. Some local municipalities in Belgium and Spain have already implemented burqa bans while some in the The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are weighing similar steps (see www.euro-islam.info). This highlights the two Euro-wide reasons that are behind such measures.

The second reason is a tendency in Europe today to see Islam as a security issue. However, not one French parliamentarian provided proof during debate that the niqab represents a danger for public order. Europeans view Muslims as threats, so their states respond with measures purporting to rid their lands of terrorism. The banning of scarves and veils, as well as the recent Swiss decision to ban the construction of new minarets, is based on an assumption that conflates Islamic religious symbols with terrorism. But by painting enemies in religious and cultural terms, these measures expose an incapacity to identify the enemy in political terms.

The third reason is a simplistic view of why some Muslim women wear headscarves and veils. Opponents argue that the burqa and niqab cut-off women off from social contact and undermine their integration into society. There is no doubt that, sociologically and culturally speaking, such a dress code suggests an attempt to be separate from mainstream society. At the same time, it confounds European notions of modernity which tend to associate progress with a decline of religion and sexual liberty. But is complete prohibition the proper response to this separatism? Unlikely. Furthermore, the niqab ban breaches gender equality because it deprives women who want to wear it from their right to do so.

Sadly, what has been lost in the commotion over France’s decision are the society-changing debates in the Muslim world over female dress. How many people know that scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the pre-eminent Islamic universities in the world, have publicly condemned the niqab as an imported religious practice, while other Egyptian universities won’t pass female students who wear the niqab during exams? (see www.islamopediaonline.org). Only when we listen more and dictate less to Muslims will we achieve better relations with Muslims, including better integration in the West, and more progress abroad.

Editor's Note: Dr Jocelyne Cesari is director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University and John Hopkins University. (see http://www.islamopediaonline.org/content/jocelyne-cesari).

Her most recent book is Muslims in the West After 9/11: Religion, Politics and Law (2009, Routledge).

Filed under: Islam • Jocelyne Cesari • Opinion
July 16th, 2010
12:40 PM ET

Still Bill: Part two

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/POLITICS/07/15/bill.clinton.campaigning/t1larg.billclintonmic.gi.jpg caption="Nothing helps an elected leader more than someone else who has been there/done that and is not afraid to lend a little muscle of experience." width=300 height=169]

My older brother was outrageously tough when we were growing up. He never looked for a fight, but he never walked away from one either. And he never lost. Accordingly, I did not worry when the school toughs were trolling the halls for someone to slap around. The risk of running afoul of “mon grand frère,” kept them at bay. Of course, his protection would have been unnecessary if I just avoided throwing around French class phrases like Urkel on his way to chess club, but you get my point: Having a big brother can be good.

And what’s true in Junior High is true in politics, too. Nothing helps an elected leader more than someone else who has been there/done that and is not afraid to lend a little muscle of experience. That’s why Bill Clinton is hanging around the White House these days.

This week it was for a meeting with the bully boys of Wall Street. As President Obama and Vice President Biden sat down to talk job creation with the business community, there was former President Clinton lurking in the corner; ready to pat shoulders or twist arms, and bring a little of that “uh oh, the guy who knows what’s what is here” quality.

As my colleague, CNN correspondent Dan Lothian noted, the former prez is also working the campaign trail for Congressional candidates more than expected; a move that helps the sitting president if they win, and helps just as much if they lose by keeping President Obama clear of the collapse.

And on it goes. From demanding more help for Haiti from the world community, to rescuing those two journalists from North Korea, the former president has stepped up time and again to crack his knuckles over White House efforts.

President Clinton plays all this casually, as if he’s just pitching in to help a neighbor put up a fence. The White House Press Office plays it all down. Their line goes something like, “Sure, he’s a valuable asset and we appreciate all he does, but you know we could do all this without him. Really. Seriously.”

But you know, it just seems like they protest too much. When it comes to the White House, Big Brother is not just watching these days; he’s hanging around the water fountain, and heading off trouble on an increasingly regular basis.

Filed under: Bill Clinton • Tom Foreman
July 16th, 2010
11:50 AM ET

Robbers pose as FBI agents


Police are looking for 3 men who posed as FBI agents during an attempted home invasion in Cooper City, Florida.

Surveillance video recorded the suspects wearing shirts with the letters “FBI” on the backs.

The incident happened shortly after 4am on July 12, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office said.

On the videotape, two of the suspects try to enter the home by prying open the front door with a crowbar.

See the video here

They also tried to gain entry through a front window, the police said.

According to investigators, the homeowner confronted the fake FBI agents. Armed with a .40 caliber pistol, he fired the gun at the men, police said.

The suspects ran back to their SUV and drove away, police said. The vehicle is described as a newer model mid-size silver Mercedes Benz.

Police have released security tape of the attempted home invasion. Authorities

The 3 men were wearing baseball hats and t-shirts. They also had badges around their necks, police said.

Anyone with information should contact the Broward County Sheriff’s Office at 954-321-4270.

Follow the Falcon File on Twitter @FalconCNN

Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Gabe Falcon
July 16th, 2010
10:21 AM ET
July 16th, 2010
10:20 AM ET

Video: How the new oil cap works

Chad Myers
CNN Meteorologist

Filed under: Gulf Oil Spill
July 16th, 2010
10:18 AM ET
July 16th, 2010
09:56 AM ET

Pressure rising in cap at BP's undersea well, a positive sign

CNN Wire Staff

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/07/16/gulf.oil.disaster/t1larg.oil.cap.bp.jpg caption="Rising pressure is indication of no damage to well" width=300 height=169]

Pressure was rising Friday as BP continued testing its breached Gulf of Mexico well with no evidence so far that other leaks exist, said BP's Senior Vice President Kent Wells.

Wells said pressure was up to 6,700 psi (pounds per square inch) inside the well's capping stack. BP was looking for an optimal 8,000 psi, which would indicate that no oil was being forced out through a leak and that the well was undamaged and able to withstand the pressure of the cap.

The "well integrity test" began Thursday after two days of delays, first as government scientists scrutinized testing procedures and then as BP replaced a leaking piece of equipment known as a choke line.

Keep Reading...

Filed under: Gulf Oil Spill • T1
July 16th, 2010
09:51 AM ET

Letter to the President #543: 'And now the airing of grievances'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/POLITICS/07/15/republicans.democrats.election/smlvid.obamawed.gi.jpg caption="President Obama must have plenty on his “To do” list every day, but I am writing my daily letter about another kind of list which might actually help him cut down on the problems that confront him." width=300 height=169]

Reporter's Note: President Obama must have plenty on his “To do” list every day, but I am writing my daily letter about another kind of list which might actually help him cut down on the problems that confront him.

Dear Mr. President,

My vacation continues to be lovely, thank you so much for asking, which I am sure you would do if we happened to speak. But since we haven’t, I guess I should also say thank you for not calling while I’m trying to unwind. Nothing ruins an afternoon nap more than hearing, “Oh Honey, the Leader of the Free World is on the phone. Something about Iran.” Don’t get me wrong. If you need to talk, feel free to dial me up, but if it can wait then I can too.

All of that said, with the news of the day on something of a back burner for me, I’m feeling rather philosophical and I wanted to tell you about an excellent idea I came up with a couple of years back, which often helps me through hard times even when vacation seems very far away. I call it the “listing of grievances.”

It happened like this. One of my daughters was having a teenage meltdown; an evening where everything in the world seemed to be going wrong. Friends, school, her hair, the weather, the color of her room, you name it. We had talked it all over for a while and the more I tried to tell her to put aside her concerns, the more she latched onto them like a tick on a hound. Suddenly inspiration struck.

“You’re right,” I said, “Your life is awful! It’s so bad I’m going to grab a piece of paper and let’s list all your grievances.” Which is precisely what we did. Nothing was too big or too small to leave out. In we had a list that went something like, “My clothing is not right. The teachers are unfair. I don’t like carrots in Jello. My favorite TV show is not on. It’s raining. My shoes are missing. The dog seems moody.”

On and on it went. No matter what she mentioned, I wrote it down and assured her that I too thought it was a travesty that she should have to put up with such things, periodically tossing in a “And those children in Darfur think they have problems! Ha!” In a very short while, the silliness of it all began to sink in. Her complaints took on the proper proportion, and while she was not utterly cured of the blues, she was considerably more subdued and thoughtful about her circumstances; ready to start working toward better feelings again, instead of just wallowing in the bad ones.

I have found it to be a useful tool many times since. When things appear to be going very badly for you, and you can’t just naturally lift yourself out of them, make a list. Give yourself five minutes to write down every gripe you might have, without regard for their legitimacy or weight. Then look at the list. Chances are, most of the items will look much less important in black in white, and the rest will then be lined up for you to tackle.

Hope it helps, and I hope your week is going well. Speaking of troubles, my brother and I were rained out of golfing again today! That makes three times in a row that we have been unable to finish a round. Hmmm. Maybe I should start making a list. Ha!


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.