In land of few burqas, France debates a ban

France's proposed burqa ban is seen by many as a way to raise the issue of Islam in a secular society where religious identity is not a public subject. The bill is expected to pass.

By , Staff writer

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    A woman, who gave her name as Najat, holds her passport during a press conference in Montreuil, east of Paris on May 18.

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As the French lawmakers tonight begin a debate to ban the burqa or veil worn by some Muslim women, it is time to visit Goutte d'Or, the North African heart of Paris.

The area in the 18th district has open markets for regional delicacies and is the place to buy garments for a Muslim wedding. Sidewalks are crowded, though not with tourists. On a Friday afternoon, two mosques fill three streets with overflow worshipers. Young men move in bunches, and blacks and Arab French mill outside cheap overseas call centers, busy hair boutiques, storefront import-export firms, and shops closed a long time.

It's a working-class area with not enough work. Some traditional French also live there.

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In late June, Goutte d'Or attracted TV trucks when far-right nationalists put out a call for a Friday "sausage and wine" protest party. So Islamic had the place become, that pork and alcohol were supposedly not sold here. The provocative "party" was banned by police and moved.

The momentary madness revealed again a wide gap between traditional France and "another France." The French mainstream is slow in acknowledging the scope of the other France – one not assimilating well, whose youths are not welcomed into jobs. The cumulative unease is often lumped into the word "Islam," in a pushback to affirm traditional identity.

The hot topic in France

The proposed law to ban the burqa in all public spaces is part of that pushback. For 11 months, the burqa ban has been the hot political topic here; Belgium has adopted a burqa ban, and Spain is preparing one. Here, the burqa debate goes until July 13, and is then taken up by the Senate. If passed, as it is expected to, the ban would mark a significant milestone for the 4 million Muslims in France.

Yet in the No. 1 North African quarter in Paris, a good burqa is hard to find. After traipsing back streets and lurking near mosques, this reporter saw none. A return trip came up goose eggs. The guard at the women's entrance to the El-Fath Mosque, which is mainly attended by African Muslims, says that of 100 women, maybe two wear burqas.

Observers say the burqa ban is in fact a virtual issue – a way to raise Islam in a secular society where religious identity is not a public subject. The burqa allows talk of French culture, the future of Europe, growing minorities, the rights of the individual, security, feminism, and citizenship – all with an Islamic subtext. "Seventy percent of the talk about 'national identity' in France is aimed at Islam," says Kouyate Madony, the Malian proprietor of a dress shop halfway between the two mosques in Barbès. "It's election politics."

Even opponents of the ban, like Pap N'diaye of Paris's School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, admire its "political efficiency." "As politics, the burqa is beautiful. It is a minor real issue with huge political effect and social meaning. It allows an alliance between the right and left. The left, on progressive, secular, feminist grounds; the right, as a sign of the dangers of an Islamic identity."

Women caught wearing the burqa would be fined about $190; but men caught forcing a woman to wear one would face a nearly $20,000 fine.

The head of France's International League against Racism and anti-Semitism on June 23 said those wearing the burqa are part of a radical Islam that is "trying to test democracy. They want to see how far they can go, and I find that dangerous."

The narrow mosque on Rue Myrha in the 18th is flanked by a fabric store, run for 21 years by a Muslim family from Mauritania, and a "couscous and tahini" place opened recently by an Algerian named Hammouche. Across the street is a grocery that sells pork. "In the daytime, we all get along and there's peace," says the fabric store owner, reluctant to give her name. "I don't know about the night."

Hammouche says the recent call by the French right for a pork party on a Friday "is provocative; it would be better if we respected each other." He adds that if "[France] is going to put freedom in its national motto" – the "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" of its revolution – that freedom should be more than words.

Two non-Muslim Parisians at a nearby cafe that serves alcohol say they love Goutte d'Or, that it has always been a place of immigrants. But a woman lunching in a park says she was robbed here by a young man at noon. At the police station, an officer would not divulge how many police were deployed. Community leaders say drug dealing, not Islam, is the problem.

The city is joining with Muslims here to replace the El-Fath Mosque with a $25 million community center open to non-Muslims that will include a larger mosque. Muslims will contribute $5 million. The project must navigate some strong opposition, but may fly simply on the grounds of public need, in order to keep streets open on Fridays. Officials at El-Fath, surprisingly, support the burqa ban and take a pro-French state, pro-security stand on most matters.

Among believers, there's concern over a growing "anti-Islam" sentiment. Moham­mad, on his way to pray at El-Fath, says he feels that opposition to a new Islamic center is predictable. But "whether we pray in a mosque, in a basement, or on the street doesn't matter. It is the presence of Muslims they find objectionable."

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