Even though the “burqa controversy” affects several European countries (some of them having already passed a partial ban), France took the lead by voting for a total ban on burqas in October 2010. The ban has just recently come into effect and as of last Monday, a woman covering her face in public places (streets, shops, restaurants, parks, etc.) is liable to pay a 150 Euro fine or may have to undertake a “citizenship internship.” How the ban is going to be enforced has revived the heated debate on religious censorship.
The “burqa controversy” was launched amid discussions over the place of Islam and the Muslim community in French society. The underlying question was: Is Islam compatible with France’s republican cultural values, those of the famous slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, and brotherhood)? Safeguarding secularism à la française -- a strict separation between state and religions -- was the understated goal.
In this specific context, the burqa ban is all the more inadequate and even counterproductive. Presenting some 2000 face-veiled women as a top concern for society is simply a strategic mistake when public worries should focus on unemployment, declining purchasing power, and social reforms of the education and pension systems.
The six-month dialogue period before the implementation of the law has not produced the expected outcome, even though funds were allocated to charities to try to reach out to the Muslim communities. Misunderstandings and prejudices still prevail both among them and among non-Muslim French; for instance, most people still confuse the niqab (face veil), the burqa (long robe with face veil) and the hijab (headscarf).
Inappropriate tools have once again been used to tackle a crucial issue. The more unwelcomed and prosecuted these women will feel, the more they will persist in wearing their niqab, supported by extremist voices that will only become stronger. Politicians should have learned the lesson: forbidding and imposing instead of explaining and educating is likely to backfire at them.
Ignoring the issue is never the right remedy. The failure of the French integration model – which urges to maintain religious and cultural specificities in the private sphere while promoting a wide set of shared values - is a diagnosis that cannot be challenged, just as wearing the burqa or the niqab cannot be tolerated in Europe. However, banning it is like treating the symptoms instead of the disease itself. It transforms a minor problem into a burning society issue, while turning a blind eye to the real challenges: unemployment among the second generation of immigrants, discrimination in every aspect of their lives, and lack of security and of public involvement in the “suburbs” that burned up in late 2005.
Even though responsibilities are shared regarding the failure of the French integration model – and ideal – the right-wing, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement), has played a major role in provoking irrelevant and fruitless debates, taking France down a dangerous path.
Front National (National Front), the main voice of the extreme right-wing, can only benefit from these debates about immigration and Islam, which it defined as the core themes of its electoral campaign. Its relatively good result during the latest local elections and its rise in opinion polls confirm that these debates were a pitfall for the right. A year ahead of the 2012 presidential elections, it might be too late to fix the damages that have been done. Pursuing the debate, now with the “sacred concept of laicité” (secularism), may only generate further harm.
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