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