Veiled truths: Europe, the burqa and the myth of cosmopolitanism

Reid Smith Contributor
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The burqa is many things to many people.

For those who wear it, it’s the ultimate demonstration of modesty and adherence to faith and family. For others, it may be disturbing. By design, it tells strangers to “keep out.”

For me, it’s far less dangerous than many would have you believe.

President Nikolas Sarkozy of France would disagree.

On Wednesday, the French president announced that he will advance a law that would prohibit Muslim women from wearing the burqa in nearly all public places. Choosing to ignore the fact that the ban is almost certainly unconstitutional, the French president has declared war on an emblem of Islam.

The issue has been simmering in France for years, although Sarkozy’s campaign to ban the burqa formally began just last summer. As the first French president since Napoleon III to address the nation’s Parliament, Sarkozy seized the moment and surprised his audience with a blistering condemnation of a garment that is hardly worn in France. In fact, fewer than 2,000 French women wear the full burqa.

The president—himself a Frenchman of mixed national and ethnic ancestry—declared that the burqa “is a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women,” before adding that the garment was “simply not welcome in France.” Wednesday, he echoed those sentiments, telling his Cabinet that the burqa “hurts women and is unacceptable in French society.”

Under the proposed law, shops and public services would have the right to refuse entry to any woman wearing the burqa. Police would have the authority to see that the veil is removed. Refusal could lead to a fine of €750 or arrest. The law would apply to everyone—from an Algerian immigrant living hand-to-mouth in La Courneuve slum outside of Paris, to a Saudi princess shopping along the Champs-Élysées.

While I’m not an expert on France, I’m well aware that la Douce France demands a certain nostalgic patriotism. I’m also familiar with the country’s republican concept of laïcité which insists that religion is a private matter. This might explain why the proposed ban is popular with the French people.

But this wasn’t an attack on yarmlukes, saris, tzitzis or turbans. This was aimed at Islam and the millions of Muslim Arabs and Africans the French government has failed to integrate into society.

The French are afraid that visible signs of Islamic identity undermine national cohesion. Fear is mounting that Muslim immigrants are stealing jobs during this global downturn. Now, with his own approval ratings languishing between “dismal” and “utterly depressing,” Sarkozy has decided to play the role of fear-monger. What’s worse, he’s hidden behind the false veil of liberator.

I wish I could have opened this article with “Only in France would a nation declare war on its own women” but, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

In Belgium, a similar ban is the works. Politicians in Germany, Spain and Italy have also toyed with the idea of outlawing Islamic garb. Swiss voters recently voted to ban the construction of new minarets. Beyond the ballots, new mosque and minaret construction in many European countries, including Sweden, France, Austria, Italy, Greece and Germany, have generated protest, some of which has turned violent.

These fears are misplaced. Although growing in number, Muslim communities comprise only small minorities in Western Europe. According to the Pew Research Center in Washington, France has the largest Muslim population of an estimated 5 million, or 7.5 percent of the population, followed by the Netherlands with 6 percent and Germany at 5 percent. Muslims immigrate from all over the globe and do not arrive on Europe’s doorstep as a cohesive political faction bent on establishing a new caliphate. By and large, these émigrés do attempt to integrate into European society, both politically and socially. This transition is not always smooth.

A quick glance at my name and headshot will tell you two things: I’m not a Muslim and I’m not a woman. However, it’s obvious to me that fining and arresting women who dress differently does little to assist their assimilation.

It is just as obvious that in recent years, the world has put forward a galaxy of questions about Islam, its code of laws and customs, and those who follow the faith. In Europe, these matters have been compounded by a growing Muslim population, several appalling terror attacks and some old-fashioned political propaganda. With that said, I would hesitate to say the prevailing questions have been approached responsibly.

Of course, Europe has had a complicated relationship with Islam since long before the Ottomans threatened to overrun the gates of Vienna—and the better part of Christendom—in 1683. Grasping at the past in an attempt to “defend” their future, many Europeans are anxious to take a stand in what they perceive to be a new stage of a very old war. Whether real or imagined, this conflict between Europe and Islam will pit faith against politics and reason against cultural intolerance.

When you get right down to it, this isn’t an argument about Europe’s cosmopolitanism and enlightened social conscience. Nikolas Sarkozy cannot convince me that this is a matter of women’s lib and he didn’t even have the decency to pretend it is a national security issue.

It’s about stoking people’s fears to generate political support.

Can’t happen here, you say? Well the Islamophobic fantasy has spread to the shores of the North America. Proposed legislation in the Canadian province of Quebec would deny all public services to women who choose to wear the niqab (a facial veil) or the full burqa.

The challenge in this global age is to adjust our own heart and minds. Clinging to antiquated and exclusive identities will not solve any of society’s issues. Like it or not, Islam’s expansive population, political reach and religious customs will continue to exist in Europe. Banning the burqa will not stop this.

Besides the fact that the proposed ban on veiling is likely unconstitutional and virtually unenforceable, it will not free a single woman from repression. Rather, it will rob many of their expression. Some may become prisoners in their own homes. For these women, clearly the burqa is not the problem.

Politicians who seize on anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim rhetoric can easily provoke tensions between a secular majority and a religious minority. But further estrangement will not ease social frictions.

In fact, if Europe is hell-bent on clinging to its Islamophobia, it may well pay for its suspicions by discovering what it expects. That would be most unfortunate.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. He will join the University of Delaware’s Department of Political Science and International Relations as a graduate associate and doctoral candidate in fall 2010.