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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.

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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."

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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."