Jocelyne Cesari, Harvard University, Islam in the West Program
The ban of Muslim face veils voted last July went into effect in France on April 12 and two women have already been arrested by the police and one fined.
Muslim school girls have been forbidden since 2004 to don headscarves and it would be tempting to see the anti niqab law as an expansion of the previous law prohibiting religious signs in public schools.
But it is not the case: the 2004 law concerns all religious signs and public schools while the niqab law explicitly targets the face veil and applies to all public spaces.
Most importantly, while the ban of religious signs in pubic schools can be attributed to a very restrictive conception of French public space, there is more to France’s niqab ban, however, than an excess of authoritarian laicite. Similar debates and actions are found all over Europe. Some local municipalities in Belgium and Spain have already implemented burqa bans while some in The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are weighing similar steps (see www.euro-islam.info). This highlights the two Euro-wide reasons that are behind such a measure.
The first reason is a tendency in Europe today to conflate security issues and Islam. Although, not one French parliamentarian provided proof during debate that the niqab represents a danger for public order. Europeans view Muslims as threats, so their states respond with measures purporting to rid their lands of terrorism. The banning of face veils, as well as the previous Swiss decision to ban the construction of new minarets, is based on an assumption that conflates Islamic religious symbols with terrorism. But by painting enemies in religious and cultural terms, these measures expose an incapacity to identify the enemy in political terms.
Nevertheless, the niqab does represent a challenge for secular democratic spaces. There is no doubt that, sociologically and culturally speaking, such a dress code reveals an attempt to separate from mainstream society. It is as such incompatible with the face- to- face encounters that are constitutive of the citizenship status: when you vote, when you take part in a public debate or mobilization, when you pass an exam. Therefore, it can indeed be questioned and its use rightly restricted when such civic encounters occur.
It is regrettable that by linking together Islam and security, the real issue of integration of Islamic practices within secular democratic spaces are not really addressed. In this sense, a complete prohibition may not be the most efficient response to the few Muslim women who choose to adopt an illiberal life style in the midst of our liberal democracies.