France has created a parliamentary commission to consider banning the burqa, a garment worn by some conservative Muslim women. Though the move could well anger Muslims in both Europe and abroad, the ban and other steps like it could be adopted by other European governments seeking to distract the populace from angst spurred by the global economic crisis. Whether such moves will prove sustainable in the long term is another question.
Speaking to a joint session of both houses of France's parliament June 22, French President Nicolas Sarkozy outlined both an updated economic policy and his approach to the contentious issue of the burqa, a garment that covers women from head to toe worn by some conservative Muslims. (By contrast, the hijab covers only the head.) In his speech, Sarkozy said that the burqa is "not welcome" in France, and rather than being a sign of religious observation, it is a marker of subservience. Following Sarkozy's speech, the French government announced June 23 that it would create a parliamentary commission to consider the issue. Lawmakers, led by Communist member of parliament Andre Gerin, for months have called for such a commission to consider whether the burqa challenges the core French republican values of laicism, or state secularism — and egality, — or social and/ or political equality. The group will be composed of 32 parliamentarians who will conduct a six-month study into the burqa issue to determine whether to ban it in France. The burqa issue has crossed party and ideological lines, with left-wing feminists and others joining conservatives in their opposition to it. The move by France to consider a burqa ban could have wide implications, particularly if Muslims in Europe and abroad perceive it as an affront, or if conservative Muslim groups use it as a wider rallying cry against the West. This is by no means assured, since only a minority of Muslims wear the burqa. (In France, only an estimated 100,000 women wear the garment out of approximately 5 million Muslims.) Still, Muslims could conceivably see it as an unnecessary provocation of their religion by the West. The burqa has entered French public discourse before. In 2008, a Moroccan woman was denied French citizenship because she wore a burqa, something the French government perceived as contrary to the French principle of equality since it displayed "submission" to her husband. In 2004, France enacted a controversial ban of headscarves (and other "religious symbols") in public schools. Several groups and individual politicians have protested the president's recent speech and subsequent creation of the commission. Notably, the head of the French Council of Muslim Faith (created in 2003 by the government to increase contact with Muslim leaders), Mohammed Moussaoui, has said there are ways other than passing laws to tackle this issue. He added that a burqa ban would further stigmatize the Muslim population in France, as well as the French reputation abroad. That a moderate, government-backed Muslim leader in France opposes the ban stands as a warning that more conservative groups in France and abroad are likely to be quite vociferous in their opposition. Indeed, reports are already surfacing of foreign criticism of Sarkozy's speech. These have included a statement from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an organization representing the interests of more than 500 Muslim groups across the United Kingdom (but not as linked to the British government as the French Council is to the French government). The MCB said Sarkozy's comments that women are forced to wear the burqa were offensive and that governments should not determine what individuals wear. The MCB also said that France should take the lead in enhancing cooperation among Muslims and non-Muslims rather than increasing the rift. Outside Europe, Sarkozy's statements have met with opposition from Muslim countries, particularly those with conservative Muslim populations. The Saudi press has openly expressed its distaste with Sarkozy's policy. Meanwhile, The Times of India has reported on Indian women speaking out against the idea of the ban. While only a small percentage of Muslim women wear the burqa, which moderate Muslims consider a repressive garment, Sarkozy's tone could make Muslims see the step as the beginning of more anti-Muslim moves. Sarkozy's comments will find a lot of sympathetic ears across Europe, however. Sarkozy fits within the wider trend in Europe toward more center-right politicians taking up the banner of defending "liberal" societies against "illiberal" cultures that refuse assimilation. This trend is distinct from the European far right's anti-immigrant rhetoric (which has thus far been discredited through electoral defeats almost Continent-wide) in that it uses the perceived intolerance of the Muslim migrants, not their difference, to appropriate the anti-immigrant vote during election times — and is therefore much more palatable to the wider European voting public. This stance is particularly beneficial during elections in the midst of economic recessions, when anti-immigrant rhetoric heats up due to the cuts in social welfare and rising unemployment. Success has been almost uniform, with center-right parties sweeping into power and maintaining popularity despite the recession, as seen in the early June European Parliament elections. Sarkozy's rise to power has in fact tracked the expanded prominence of the issue of immigration and Muslim minorities in France. He stood out for his "zero-tolerance" policy during the banlieue riots in 2005 as interior minister, giving him considerable clout with the right. Sarkozy then campaigned on the platform of curbing immigration during the 2007 French presidential elections, and remains comfortable reverting back to the issue as his country faces sharp economic decline, growing debt and a mounting deficit. Indeed, his most recent speech played up the immigration issue, conveniently distracting attention from other problems facing the republic — something that may become the strategy of choice for Sarkozy's colleagues in other European states as well. While this strategy does risk increasing social tensions between the majority and the Muslim minority, European governments might prefer this to protests and strikes spawned by the economic recession directed against the government. Nonetheless, while Sarkozy may see such a move as integral to his short-term present political success, France — and indeed the rest of Europe — will continue to struggle with issues of immigration and the integration of their Muslim populations in the long-term. Tensions have risen in recent years between Paris and this large immigrant population, as Muslims living in France tend to be younger, unemployed and marginalized. Whether the statements prompt more riots in the banlieues or anything more than critical words from Muslims abroad remains to be seen. Given that most Muslims in Europe and worldwide do not closely identify with the burqa, center-right European governments will probably be emboldened to enact similar policies. It is dubious, however, whether these policies will be sustainable in the long-term, given Europe's notorious demographic problems and need for immigration in light of slumping birth rates.