French Muslim communities torn over potential veil ban

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.

The rector of the Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque, however, held off on harsh criticism, saying only that any ban should be properly explained, and noting that the Qur’an does not require women to cover their bodies and faces.

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.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, had a cautious response Thursday. “Muslims in France … are respectful of national law,” he said, but added that any law should allow “a reasonable period for education” about what it is for.

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. 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.

Full-veil ban likely coming to France in May 2010

The French government will seek to ban Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public despite warnings from experts that such a law could be unconstitutional. A spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government said a bill would be presented to ministers in May and would seek to ban the niqab and the burqa from streets, shops and markets, and not just from public buildings.

“We’re legislating for the future. Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and of a rejection of our values,” Luc Chatel told reporters, on leaving a Cabinet meeting chaired by Mr. Sarkozy. Prime Minister Francois Fillon insisted the government would go ahead anyway, taking the risk that the eventual text would be struck down by the constitutional court, because of the importance of the issue.

There is strong support in parliament for such a ban and the government is determined to press on with a law, which it says would affect about 2,000 Muslim French women who cover their faces. According to Mr. Chatel, Mr. Sarkozy told his Cabinet the veil was an “assault on women’s dignity.”

French Gerin report recommends full-faced veils to be banned

A 32-member multiparty panel led by Andre Gerin presented a panoply of recommendations aimed at dissuading Muslim women from wearing full-face covering headscarves. Another recommendation: denying resident cards and citizenship to women who wear all-encompassing veils.

The panel was bitterly divided over recommending a ban on face-covering veils on the street, and that was not among the 15 recommendations retained after a vote. President Nicolas Sarkozy put the issue before the French in June when he told a joint gathering of parliament that face-covering veils “are not welcome” in France.

Only several thousand women in France are thought to wear burqa-style garments, usually pinning a “niqab” across their faces to go with their long, dark robes. Such veils are widely seen as a gateway to extremism and an attack on gender equality and secularism, a basic value of modern-day France.

“The all-enveloping veil represents, in an extraordinary way, everything that France instinctively rejects. This is the symbol of the enslavement of women and the banner … of extremist fundamentalism,” said Bernard Accoyer, president of the National Assembly, the lower house, after being presented with the report.

Despite the acrimony, the recommendation to ban the veils in public sector facilities could be in place “before the end of the year,” conservative lawmaker Eric Raoult, the panel’s No. 2, told The Associated Press. “We need maybe six months or a little more to explain what we want,” he told The AP, adding that “by the end of 2010” there could be such an interdiction.

Hours after the report was presented, President Sarkozy visited a Muslim cemetery in northern France that has been desecrated twice. Secularism, he said in a speech honoring Muslims who fought and died for France, “is not the negation of religion.” But it is “an essential component of our identity.”

The president of the parliamentary panel, Andre Gerin, has stressed that the goal of any ban is not to stigmatize women with face-covering veils but to rout out people he calls “gurus” who indoctrinate and force even young girls to cover themselves.

The recommendations show attention, too, to public sector employees dealing with women in full veil who refuse to remove it. In particular, there have been reports of confrontations in hospital settings in which a husband refuses to allow his wife to be treated by a male doctor. Also among the 15 recommendations that passed a panel vote is one calling for special training by state employees to manage such confrontations and another to “systematically signal” when minors are seen wearing full-body veils.

Neither the parliament nor the government is obliged to act on the panel’s recommendations. No action is likely before March regional elections.