The French government has officially started enforcing a ban on the wearing of veils (burqas and hijabs) by Muslim women (the measure was actually passed last year). The new law has enraged some Muslim groups who claim they are being “stigmatized,” while supporters of the ban say it is needed to better integrate foreign immigrants into the broader society.
International Business Times spoke to Mideast expert Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., about this subject
IBT: Does this measure surprise you? Why do you think President Nicolas Sarkozy is so adamant about doing this?
ACHILOV: It is not that surprising given the current trajectory of European politics. This controversial burqa ban has three dimensions within French politics: First, France’s strong secularist traditions. Second, immigration (and migration) is a major political issue in all of Western Europe. Third, integration (or synchronization) of ethnic and religious minority groups (mainly descendants of immigrant families) with French national values (language and cultural norms).
What unites these three dimensions is political discourse.
Most political parties in Europe, if not all, are seeking to use this popular dissent against immigration for political gain. This includes measures to curtail the influx of immigrants (and migrant workers), intensify immigration laws (e.g., road to citizenship) and increase pressure on migrants to fully integrate with European values.
Unquestionably, there is high public support for these policies in France.
In addition, secularism is deeply ingrained into the French social fabric. Considering these variables together, Sarkozy views it as a “victory” to have taken concrete steps to bolster European secular traditions through which he also appeals to French voters.
Given that this controversial policy is supported by an overwhelming percentage of French population, Sarkozy is adamant and confident.
IBT: Is Sarkozy somehow trying to consolidate his support among France’s far-right ahead of next year’s presidential elections?
ACHILOV: Yes, indeed. Undoubtedly, Islam and immigration will be two key issues in the French Presidential elections of 2012. Sarkozy and his center-right (UMP) party are not doing well. According to recent polls, Sarkozy’s party is losing ground to a far-right National Front party. Therefore, Sarkozy has brought more debates on Islam to appeal to French voters.
IBT: The French government even admitted that they think only about 2000 Islamic females wear veils (out of a population of about 5-million Muslims in the country). So, is it simply a symbolic gesture?
ACHILOV: I would say “yes” and “no.” It is symbolic in practical sense. That is, this ban would not apply to the large majority of Muslim women, but only to a small minority.
Only a very small minority of Muslim women wear Burqas (Islam does not even mandate wearing Burqas).
At the same time, this ban implicitly reasserts the superiority of Western values which could further isolate the Muslim minority in France (who account for 10 percent of population).
While some French politicians defend this ban as an act of safeguarding the freedom of women from unfounded “oppression,” in reality, most women who wear the burqa do so because of they choose to.
From this perspective, this legislation may defeat its purpose: instead of promoting integration, it may encourage further isolation.
IBT: Do you think this law is designed to “intimidate” Muslims in France?
ACHILOV: I would be cautious to use the word “intimidation.” Rather, I would say that this law is designed to “re-assert” the French secularist values over religious traditions – mainly Islamic conservative lifestyle.
IBT: Are other religious symbols also banned in France from public view (like the Catholic cross, the Jewish Star of David, the Sikh turban, etc)?
ACHILOV: Religious expression – in general terms - was banned in public schools in 2004. The ban on wearing religious symbols includes hijab (headscarf that Muslim schoolgirls wore), large catholic crosses, Sikh turbans and other vividly religious icons. Most pundits agree that this ban mainly targeted the hijab. Students who wanted to maintain their religious expression had no choice but to opt for non-publically funded schools.
IBT: Do you expect other European countries with large Muslim populations (UK, Holland, Germany) to follow France’s example?
ACHILOV: A domino effect is possible. Let’s recall that even a highly tolerant Swiss society approved a ban on minaret construction in Mosques in the 2009 national referendum. In terms of the burqa ban, it depends on the “support” level of the public for this issue.
Islam is a key issue in European politics today. On the premise that political parties compete for popular votes, some right-wing political parties will be more likely to introduce similar legislation to win more votes. Politics, not societal values, will shape this process, I would argue.
IBT: Could you imagine such a law being passed in the US?
ACHILOV: Highly unlikely. If ever, US would probably be the last country to adopt these kinds of bans. It is against the core of American values that the Stature of Liberty symbolically stands for: individual liberties.
Nevertheless, it is highly likely that similar bills could be introduced at both state and national legislatures by far-right-wing politicians. Those will be largely symbolic attempts. We are already witnessing some state legislators trying to pass laws that would ban the Shari ‘a (Islamic law) in the U.S. These attempts are mainly driven by political ambitions (to generate an agenda of “fear” and to seek votes).