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Religion and Society

The burqa affair in the international press

In an article titled The many faces behind the veil, The Independent looked at the issue through the eyes of a number of Muslim women from different social and cultural backgrounds, some in favour, others against the full veil. The outcome is a colourful and varied picture of Muslim women, but one that fails to address the deeper essence of the French debate, which is, “Whether or not women should be fined for wearing a veil in public or in the streets? Is such a veil a religious symbol or not? Why does France appear to fear something that has religious resonance? Ultimately, The Independent appears to back the idea that the burqa is more than a symbol of women’s submission, that it might actually be a liberating way to express one’s own identity.

 

 

 

Using its usual hyperbole, The Economist depicts the issue as a war. In The war of French dressing - France's ban on the burqa, the British magazine looks at the intriguing shake-up France’s proposal to ban the burqa in public places has had on American commentators who hitherto thought Europe too complacent towards the spread of Islam. According to The Economist, the issues raised by the would-be burqa ban go beyond secularism. For Sarkozy, but also Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, the veil is not a religious sign or a religious prescription of Islam but embodies an invasion by salafism. The Economist ends its article noting that whilst all liberal democracies have to make compromises to balance freedom and security, an anti-burqa law in France might be seen by some as an attempt to impose Western norms on people who come from other traditions.

 

 

 

In Parting the Veil, the Wall Street Journal backs the view that women should be able to dress the way they want. Otherwise, the state runs the risk of trying to enforce “liberation” on people who do not feel oppressed. “[B]anning the veil is something of a symptomatic cure,” it writes, adding that France will not solve its Muslim question with a dress code. However, for the WSJ, by pushing for the ban, the French are at least forcing open a radically important question, namely “How much tolerance do Western countries owe to a too-often intolerant minority in their midst?”

 

 

 

The NewYork Times jumped into melee with a caustic piece titled The Taliban Would Applaud, arguing that a woman’s human rights are as much violated when the Taliban forced women to hide their faces under a burqa, as they would be if the French ban went into effect and barred them from using public services or public places. “People,” the NYTimes writes, “must be free to make these decisions for themselves, not have them imposed by governments or enforced by the police.” In the end, it argues, “The Taliban would be pleased. The rest of the world should declare its revulsion.” For the newspaper, the burqa debate is but pretext by a government looking for ways to deflect public attention away from problems like unemployment and turn it towards Islam.

 

 

For Laurent Joffrin, editor of Libération, anyone proposing a ban of this kind is a national identity maniac. It is not enough that Muslim women are victimised by having to wear the veil, but now they would also be criminalised and fined in public. Muslims would view such a ban as directed against them.

 

 

 

Le Figaro lets religious groups express themselves. For the latter, a law like this would be neither good nor helpful (Burqa: les religions ne voient pas l'efficacité d'une loi, by J.M. Guenois). It also cites Yazid Sabeg, French commissioner on diversity and equal opportunity, who said that such a law would be a true political mistake. Another paper, Le Parisien/Aujourd'hui en France agrees with this view.

 

 

 

For Le Monde, the Muslim community feels estranged from the ongoing debate (La communauté musulmane entière se sent prise en otage par le débat sur la burqa by Laure Belot and Stéphanie Le Bars), which would only marginally affect it. It points out no consensus on such a law would be possible and that the burqa is symptomatic of some immigrant Muslims’ failure to accept Western norms (La burqa, symptôme d'un malaise by Abdennour Bidar).

 

In the last few months Al Watan, an Algerian newspaper that publishes in both Arabic and French, published a number of articles on the issue. Among them the titles of two stand out as indicative of its position of support for the ban: La burqa emprisonne la femme, by Syrian scholar Randa Kessis, who views the burqa as a threat to the separation of state and religion, and Interdire la burqa pour éradiquer le « cancer » islamiste, by Fadéla Amara, a secretary of state in the French government, whose views were also carried in an interview with Britain’s Financial Times.

 

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