The Magazine

Veiled Threat

France against the burqa.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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Indeed, even conservative Muslims are not exempt from the wrath of the extremists. One imam close to the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the UOIF (Union des Organisations Islamiques de France), was recently assaulted by two radicals for failing to defend Muslims with sufficient vigor on a TV talk show. The imam had clearly stated he opposed banning the burqa and had sharply criticized secularism. But that was not enough for his assailants, who insisted he should have actually endorsed the burqa.

Of the major Muslim organizations in France, the UOIF comes closest to doing so: It acknowledges that some religious leaders call for the wearing of the burqa. While other groups note that such covering is not required by the Koran, none goes so far as to condemn the burqa. Interestingly, all the Muslim organizations agree that the state should not get involved in the issue. The president of the French Muslim Council said he was shocked by the debate, which he regarded as stigmatizing Islam. As for French Muslims generally, a large majority of them are secular and therefore are not represented by the organizations participating in the French Muslim Council. Most do not expect women to wear even the hijab, much less to cover their faces.

For now, the matter is in the hands of the 32-member parliamentary commission created by Gérin's resolution, which is due to report its findings on the burqa and the niqab in January 2010. It is surprising that the issue has generated so much controversy, considering that others in Europe have paved the way. In Holland, face coverings are forbidden in schools and public transportation; in Sweden, Italy, Luxembourg, and some Belgian cities, the burqa is banned.

The Arab media, especially the Saudi press, have provided obsessive daily coverage of these developments. Every commentator concludes that France is a dreadful, bigoted place. One column in Al Riyadh depicted France as a land of Crusaders propagating an ideology of racism and hatred of Islam and the Koran. To prove his point, the columnist noted that the French government had been harassing "its good citizen" Roger Garaudy, an infamous Holocaust denier who converted to Islam. The writer took comfort only in the thought that this France won't be around much longer, since it will have a Muslim majority by 2050.

Olivier Guitta is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant.