Muslims in the Arab world are incensed and Muslims in France are walking a delicate line after President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for an all-out ban on full Islamic veils.
“Ridiculous” and “misplaced,” said a Muslim vendor Thursday at an outdoor market in a working class, ethnically mixed Paris suburb. “Racist,” said a Sunni Muslim cleric in Lebanon.
Sarkozy upped the stakes Wednesday in France’s drive to abolish the all-encompassing veil, ordering a draft law banning them in all public places–defying France’s highest administrative body, which says such a ban risks being declared unconstitutional.
Such a measure would put France on the same track as Belgium, which is also moving toward a complete ban amid fears of radicalism and growing Islamic populations in Europe. Sarkozy says such clothing oppresses women and is “not welcome” in France. French officials have also cited a concealed face as a security risk.
“France is addressing a very strong message. It is a message on an international level to women. How can we explain that while women are fighting in Afghanistan for their freedom, for their dignity, in France we accept what they are fighting against?” Morano said on France-Info radio Thursday.
Key questions are how the bill will be phrased–whether it will contain exceptions for face-concealing costumes at a Carnival parade, for example–and how a ban would be enforced. The Justice Ministry said Thursday it will write the draft law in the coming weeks.
Muslim countries, too, have struggled to deal with the niqab. Egypt’s top cleric recently decreed that Muslim women should not wear the niqab inside offices but he said they can wear it in public.
In Lebanon, Sheik Maher Hammoud, a Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern city of Sidon, called the French actions racist.
“Whenever Islamic thought and culture clashes with Western democracy, racism rears its head and under various names,” he said. “Muslims do not need lessons from Sarkozy or anyone else to teach them about human rights or the rights of women.”
France drew similar criticism when it outlawed Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.
Politicians in Brussels are attempting to ban women wearing Islamic veils that cover their faces in public.
If successful, the veil would be outlawed in Belgium–the first European country to ban the niqab and burkha.
The garments, though traditionally worn by some Islamic women when in public, are not a mandatory religious requirement for Muslims.
But if passed, the law would mean that anyone wearing a face veil or full body garment in the street could face a 15 to 25 euros fine (£13 to £21), or even a week in jail.
Nicolas Sarkozy has also called for a similar ban on veiled women in France despite opposition and advice that such a ban may be unconstitutional.
A spokesman for the French government said: “Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and of a rejection of our values.”
Mr Sarkozy, who is married to former model Carla Bruni, told his Cabinet the veil was an “assault on women’s dignity”.
Abdellatif Lemsibak, a member of the National Federation of Muslims of France, said: “It’s a transgression, an aggression even, on the level of personal liberty.”
Though there have been suggestions of implementing veil bans in the UK the idea has so far been rejected.
When asked about a ban earlier this year, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: “I do not believe that this is a matter which should be the subject of the criminal law in which we were expecting the police to remove these items of apparel from women who choose for religious or cultural reasons to wear them.”