Burqa ban turns a right into a crime

Editor’s note: Sarah Joseph OBE is the CEO and editor of emel Media. She is a regular contributor to public and governmental discussions pertaining to Islam and was listed by Washington’s Georgetown University as one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims.

London, England — The ban imposed by French President Sarkozy on wearing a face-covering veil, or niqab, is simply dangerous gesture politics, representing little more than pandering to the far right in France.

The full force of the state is coming down on fewer than 2,000 Muslim women out of a population of 6.5 million French Muslim citizens. For what purpose? We are told it is for security, the preservation of “French values” and to alleviate the oppression of women.

For security purposes, women who wear the veil should be ready to remove their face covering in places where security and identity checks are necessary, such as airports. The argument that criminals could abuse the niqab is not compelling enough to deny the fundamental freedom of religious expression to a group of French citizens — or indeed visitors to France.

I find it startling that a country of 65 million people with strong democratic traditions is so threatened by a tiny number of women that it chooses to engage the might of the state to criminalize their apparel. And the irony and hypocrisy of claiming the ban protects women from oppression is glaring: Freedom must be “protected” by denying women their freedom to choose how to dress. Patronizing at best, but more like doublespeak. Has anyone asked these women whether they are oppressed, or is the state, in some grotesque Hobbesian way, imposing what it knows best?

Some will say the state already dictates what we wear in certain situations. That is correct; indecent exposure is a crime in most societies. But the French are banning over-dressing. It is not the function of the state to prescribe how its citizens dress; thus the saffron robes of the Buddhist, the turbans of the Sikh, the yarmulke of the Jew are — and should be — permitted in a modern liberal democracy, along with the Mohican of the punk, the black dress of the Goth and the leathers of the Heavy Metal enthusiast.

The plurality and liberalism prized by Western societies requires all citizens to accept behavior that doesn’t conform with a single perspective. The argument has to rise above whether I, as an individual, approve of or understand something, and has to revolve around principles: the fundamental principle of the right to choose. Now, whether that’s on the streets of Tehran to choose not to wear a chador, or the streets of Paris, to choose to wear a niqab, we have to give credence to a woman’s ability to think for herself.

The authentic narrative in the Quran is that “there can be no compulsion in religion,” and it is our freedom to choose that gives our actions validity in the sight of God. There is no moral validity in an action that is not freely made.

Some people might believe that fanatical husbands and fathers force the veil on women. But evidence exists that English soccer fans engage in greater domestic violence after England loses a match, so should soccer be banned? How absurd that would be.

In a case when dress is enforced on a woman, we must support and empower her, just as we would a victim of domestic violence. In the case of the niqab, the women whom I have talked with over the years who choose to cover in this manner are articulate and headstrong and cover, often despite opposition from their families. It is part of their religious journey, an expression of their sense of piety and their relationship with their creator. Their decision has little or nothing to do with sex, fear of men or any of the other stereotypes thrown into this debate. Should we deny the right of a Carmelite or Benedictine nun to wear her habit or to take a vow of seclusion?

Most of us do not choose to honor our faith in this way, yet that does not diminish the sincerity of those who do. Such choices might seem strange, but discomfort on our part does not justify a draconian ban. Such a ban institutionalizes anti-Muslim discrimination and panders to far right, xenophobic and racist discourse. That discourse does not have a future for the Muslims in Europe, which is of course what many feel is the ultimate aim of this ban.

State power, unless wielded with discretion and wisdom, can be brutal and tyrannical. Many Muslims believe the West is always lecturing them about freedom and liberal values, as in the case of the Danish cartoons, but then denies them their own free choice. The consequence is a feeling that such freedoms are not universal, but are reserved for the selected; that such freedoms are actually fragile and perhaps even a lie.

The French ban feeds the extremes and does nothing for the center ground. The ban will increase the polarization of opinions and the isolation of Muslims. This is the last thing that should happen if France truly wants to enable its Muslim citizens to become engaged in society. European politicians have got to stop pandering to the far right to prop up their fading parties. Such cynical politics is dangerous; it has done Europe no favors in our history, and it will do us no good in our future.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Sarah Joseph.

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