It is rare to find a contemporary Western nation pass legislation that is so lacking in redeeming social and moral value that almost nothing can be said in its defense. In my mind, France’s recent ban on the Muslim burqa represents such a rarity. In my more than 25 years as a Muslim, I have never known a single woman who wears the conservative face veil–not one. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout the world do not believe the burqa is a mandated Islamic prescription. Not only is there a remarkable absence of textual evidence in the Qur’an and prophetic traditions for this heightened brand of religious modesty, but many Muslim scholars go so far as to discourage wearing the burqa because of its alienating effect vis-à-vis non-Muslims. Few are aware that the conservative Damascene jurist, Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), discouraged Muslims living in majority non-Muslims lands to dress in a manner that was distinct from their compatriots. In his mind, conspicuously religious garb could prejudice non-Muslims towards a true understanding of Islam’s universal message. Likewise, conservative Muslim scholars today are increasingly found saying that, despite their belief that the more liberal head veil (“hijab”) is an Islamic prescription, even it has been alloted an exaggerated importance in modern Islam. I have written about this elsewhere (“Chasing Muslims Out of Islam“).
Nevertheless, there are Muslim women today who choose to wear the burqa on account of a sincerely held Islamic belief. Whatever my personal opinions, it is a choice that I must honor and respect.
It is no doubt true that in parts of the post-colonial Muslim world, there has emerged an increasingly puritanical interpretation of Islam, the most grotesque of which can found in Afghanistan where women are often forced to wear the face veil under the threat of state molestation. This, of course, represents an illicit form of religious coercion, one that has quite rightly elicited moral condemnation from all quarters of the world. Indeed, it is precisely this kind of backwardness (I’m afraid there is no other word) that must be condemned and actively resisted by Muslim men and women, both within Afghanistan and without. I suspect many Muslims would be far more sympathetic to a democratically-enacted law that–were it to contain a sunset provision—put restrictions on the wearing of a burqa in country like Afghanistan, assuming it was passed with the express intention of countering the deeply-ingrained misogyny that has plagued the nation for more than two decades. That said, France’s ban on the burqa represents something altogether different.
In what amounts to childish posturing, much has been made of the fact that the law does not explicitly single out Muslim women or the burqa itself. However, it is matter of common knowledge that laws that are facially neutral can have a “disparate impact” on a particular racial, religious, ethnic, or gender minority. This was the case with voting laws in the 1960’s in the United States in which, under the pretense of neutrality, legislation was passed to deliberately disenfranchise black Americans, even if the laws made no explicit mention of race. In light of the lengthy debates that preceded the law’s passage within the French Parliament and society, it is beyond argument that this ban was enacted to specifically criminalize the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women.
In a nation of 65 million people, an astonishingly small number of women wear the burqa in France, with estimates ranging between 350-2000 women. Among this almost invisible subset, no evidence has been furnished that the burqa is being worn out of a sense of compulsion. Indeed, Human Rights Watch, the foremost defender of human rights throughout the world, has consistently opposed the ban in France, Belgium, Turkey, and other nations with a strong secular tradition, despite leading a worldwide campaign against forced-veiling in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Likewise, the Open Society Foundation recently undertook an exhaustive study of 32 Muslim women who wear burqa in France. In addition to finding zero instances of forced-veiling, the Foundation noted that the majority of these women were educated, gainfully employed, lived active social lives, and, depending on the environment, sometimes even chose not to wear the burqa. Due to the dearth of evidence that would sustain a finding of coerced-veiling in France, supporters of the ban have adopted a remarkably condescending attitude toward Muslim women who choose to wear the face veil. No matter how articulate, solemn, and emphatic a Muslim woman is in asserting that her decision to wear the face veil was the product of free-choice, detractors insist that she is prevaricating, too brainwashed to know what she is really thinking, or simply unable to comprehend the disservice she is doing to fellow Muslim women throughout the world. In my mind, it is hard to conceive of a more patronizing attitude towards members of the fairer sex.
Another common justification for the ban is that the burqa would make personal identification for “security purposes” impracticable at airports, banks, courts, etc. Here again, the purported justification is farcical. Several of the most prominent female supporters of the burqa in France, some of whom have appeared in public debates, have been clear in stating that every Muslim woman has a civic duty to abide by the laws of her country and must accommodate security-related concerns, as in the case of removing the face veil upon entering a bank, or providing live testimony in court. Not only is this a common-sense requirement, but also an essential element of Islamic law, which demands that Muslims obey the law of their respective countries. There is simply no reason to believe that a woman in France donning the burqa would refuse to comply with French law enforcement when the occasion demanded–it is an “argument” designed to contrive controversy where none exists.
Supporters of the ban have further pointed to legal precedents that give states’ license to regulate one’s manner of dress, as in this case of banning nudity. However, this argument too rests on sophistic reasoning: nudity is banned on account of it lewd and lascivious character, one that all reasonable adults agree would have an insidious effect on children and the general moral culture of a nation, if left unregulated. In obvious contrast, the burqa in France is worn by Muslim women on account of a sincerely held religious belief, the expression of which does not promote a moral hazard except under the most prejudiced understanding. Commenting on both the issue of security and public welfare, Human Rights Watch states, “There is no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatens public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others – the only legitimate grounds for interference with fundamental rights.” Thus, if a person wishes to express a sincerely held religious belief that produces no discernible harm to others, why should the State be empowered to suppress that natural right?
In short, the arguments put forward in defense of the ban again-and-again do not withstand basic intellectual scrutiny. Commentators appear to be nearly unanimous in their belief that, under the aegis of Nicolas Sarkozy, and despite the incessant moralizing about preserving “French culture,” this burqa law was enacted to placate right-wing elements within France. There is indeed emerging within Europe as well as the United States an increased hostility towards Islam and Muslims, championed by the likes of Peter King, Caroline Fourest, Geert Wilders, and others. One should not exaggerate the plight of Western Muslims but, particularly in the case of Europe, the burqa ban and related anti-Islamic measures speak more to fear of the increased visibility of Islam in the West than a genuine desire to preserve enduring “Western” values. As reported by the New York Times, Switzerland imposed a ban on the construction of minarets on mosques in 2009 under circumstances the bear a remarkable resemblance to the present controversy. In the United States, politicians vied with one another in expressing opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque,” with even purportedly liberal politicians falling prey to the extreme hysteria perpetuated by the American right. The Pew Research Center found that mainstream news outlets covered the mosque controversy more than any other religious story in 2010, outstripping the Catholic Priest abuse scandal. Why, then, did coverage come to an abrupt halt following the mid-term congressional election? If this was a story of such vital importance to the “national conversation,” why was the controversy abandoned in almost-perfect sync with the completion of the 2010 election cycle? Moderates in both Europe and America must recognize that, with increasing frequency and shamelessness, ideologues in the West are politicizing Islam and treating Muslims like chattel simply to gain short-term political momentum. This very same ruse has been employed with impressive facility against minority groups throughout American and European history. Strangely, while going to great lengths to distance themselves from Sarkozy, some Muslim supporters of the ban such as Mona Eltahawy insist that law represents a first-step towards liberation of Muslim women throughout the world. Among other things, this view reveals a profound inability (or unwillingness) to contextualize the controversy and consider the political environment in which the law was enacted. Any decent citizen of a democratic nation ought to remain deeply suspicious of laws that single out a minority group for discrimination, particularly if that group has faced increasing prejudice and marginalization from within.
In assessing the solemnity of those who continually interject themselves in public controversies that implicate matters of “individual liberty” and “human rights,” I always find it useful to juxtapose their views alongside those organizations that have committed themselves to defending the lives of men, women, and children throughout the world. To date, every mainstream secular human rights group, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International, has actively opposed the ban on the burqa—are we to really believe that these entities have conspired to tell a lie designed to perpetuate the exploitation and enslavement of Muslim women? Or that these professional organizations are too incompetent to recognize that this law is an vital first-step towards their emancipation? Whatever one may wish to say about this controversy, if there is indeed a valid justification for France’s ban on the burqa, the world’s most competent authorities on human rights seem unable to apprehend it.