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Wearing the burqa in France: questioning integration models for Muslim communities in Europe?
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June 8th kicked off a new public debate in France: Is the wearing of a burqa a personal choice or need it be outlawed? The topic has divided political forces over the last few years. This piece of clothing, controversial in itself, has become a stand-in for issues that go well beyond than a mere clothing debate. The entire French model for integration, based on assimilation, is in question. Since June, some sixty representatives have asked for a commission to study the state of burqa-wearing in France. Wearing the burqa, the part of clothing that conceals a woman’s head entirely, proves itself to be disturbing for a Nation built upon secularism. Coming from all parties, thirty-two elected representatives started to work in the newly established commission on “secularism and women’s freedom”. Eric Besson, former secretary of immigration in France, has affirmed his will to battle the burqa “through dialogue and education”. French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared himself opposed to the wearing of the burqa, explaining that it was not “welcome on the Republic territory” and that “in our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” For many politicians, France’s commitment to secularism and women’s dignity are the main points against the burqua which, as critics point out, is not actually a religious piece of clothing. But beyond this political façade lurks a clear cultural dilemma that raises important issues. If, in France, politicians tend to consider the burqa firstly as a threat to women’s freedom, it de facto focuses the public opinion’s attention on the “radical” aspect of this practice, feeding anti-muslim feelings and fear among French citizens. Politicians involved in the special commission tend to perceive the burqa as a threat to women’s emancipation, an essential liberal value France stands for. Seen in the public space, the burqa can look as a form of submission, a form of hidden identity. Applicants for French citizenship have been refused because of wearing a burqa. No matter the grounds for wearing it, the French public tends to consider the burqa as a threat against women’s freedom. However, isn’t freedom of religion another essential value that France stands for? In a free country like the French republic, Muslim women who wear the burqa might think of this as their own form of dignity, as a way to protect their identity. According to this understanding, wouldn’t a ban on the burqa be a discrimination based on personal beliefs? As Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party in France, explained, banning the burqa won’t prevent women from wearing it, but will force them to stay home and further marginalize them from the rest of the society. Most recently, many testimonies from Muslim women wearing the burqa reported it as a choice, as the real expression of their own beliefs. There might be a cultural clash between two different perceptions of the burqa: a radical instrument of submission for some politicians, or matter of choice for women deciding to wear it in France. How to reconcile this cultural dilemma? Are these different perceptions incompatible? This leads to a discussion over issues of integration for the Muslim community in Europe. Even without questioning the burqa, why does the Muslim minority seem to experience such difficulties adapting, especially in France? Since September 11, 2001 and the following attacks in London and Madrid, Europe increasingly experiences open anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiments, exploited and perpetuated by right wing parties like France’s Front National. In this context, rife with generalizations, European Muslims are depicted as being more and more radicalized. They are being seen as outsiders. Public reactions to Muslim practices such as wearing the veil, or, more radically, the burqa, have been quite negative. Islam expert Olivier Roy explains that ten per cent of the Muslim population is considered “radicalized” in Europe.. However, one also has to take into account the growing part of the Muslim population living within the European territory. Nowadays, 23 million Muslims reside in Europe. According to the UN, they will represent up to 20% of the European population by 2050. With Islam being the second major religion on the continent, its mere presence is not something we can deny. In this demographic framework, shouldn’t Europe accept more Islam as a part of its identity? If we follow Catherine Wihtol de Wenden argument in “Islam, Immigration and European Integration” (2002), there is a clear need for a more inclusive integration of Muslims in Europe. The idea would be, within Europe, to create an Islamic practice more seen as compatible with values of the old continent, such as a form of “Euro-Islam”. According to Bassam Tibi, from Germany’s University of Göttingen, this would consist in the commitment, for European Muslims, to embrace values of pluralism, tolerance, and separation of church and state. In that sense, one could justify the ban of the burqa— if perceived as disrespecting values of secularism. But assuming that an independent choice of a free woman who wants to express her own beliefs, how is wearing the burqa incompatible with these values? And who decides the limits of freedom of religion in a society committed to tolerance and pluralism? According to Tariq Ramadan, bans create segregation. There is a need for a two-way street integration: On one side the respect of the Islamic faith, more understanding of European values on the other side. In 2004, in “ Foreign Policy”, he declared how “You don’t have to be less Muslim to be more European. You can be both.” Maybe Europe should look at Islam from a more pluralist view. More recently, President Nicolas Sarkozy joined Barack Obama’s view over the burqa, claiming how it still should be authorized if clearly proved as a free and independent choice. Muslim traditions and European values may not be as incompatible as we think. A ban on the burqa might be understandable in our secular culture, but could also lead to more discrimination and segregation than there already exists. Then again, it is true that one can hardly prove that wearing the burqa is the result of a free choice. These issues raise a complex cultural debate that must, foremost, promote a better understanding of the Islamic culture. If the burqa could be more easily considered as the chosen expression of religious beliefs, might it help to prevent more radicalism? In a Europe where Muslims are increasingly a part of the future, this debate needs to happen, to foster tolerance and diversity… two core European values.

Comments in Chronological order (2 total comments)

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Fri, November 13, 2009 02:20 PM (about 127992 hours ago)
Cada persona es libre de elegir lo que está bien para ella, claro si esto es impuesto ahí si tendríamos un problema.
Fri, November 13, 2009 02:20 PM (about 127992 hours ago)
Cada persona es libre de elegir lo que está bien para ella, claro si esto es impuesto ahí si tendríamos un problema.
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