What’s hiding behind France’s proposed burqa ban?

The proposed ban on burqas speaks more to the problem of integrating Muslims than to any supposed challenge to the French Republic.

The world’s arbiter of fashion, France, may soon ban the Muslim burqa.

A French parliamentary report on Tuesday called the full veil “unacceptable” and concluded: “We must condemn this excess.” It recommends forbidding it in many public places.

But it is the proposal itself that is excessive – for stepping on basic rights.

French authorities say that only about 1,900 women wear the burqa or the niqab, two versions of the full covering with a mesh or slit for the eyes. That’s .038 percent of France’s Muslim population of about 5 million that’s now deemed a threat to the French Republic and its values.

The burqa does not fit comfortably with Western sentiments. It’s closed; Westerners are open. They want to see people’s faces. It’s also viewed as a prison for women – even if Muslim women are free to choose it. And it symbolizes fundamentalist Islam, which conjures up images of terrorism. That’s perhaps why the Dutch and Austrians are also discussing a burqa ban.

But sentiments shouldn’t be confused with bedrock freedoms, including the right to practice one’s religion. Being uncomfortable with another’s faith or even dress – and encoding that discomfort in law – puts one on the slippery slope to official discrimination. Will Sikh turbans be next?

As President Obama says, “In the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”

Close to 60 percent of French don’t see it that way, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He supports a burqa ban as a way to uphold France’s principles of secularism and equality (he has called the burqa a symbol of women’s “subservience”).

In 2004, the French banned all ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. In practice, it affected mostly Muslim girls, who could no longer wear the head scarf in the classroom.

If the recommendations on the full veil become law, it will become illegal to wear it in state venues such as hospitals, public buildings, and on trains and buses (though streets are not off limits). Its supporters see it as consistent with the head-scarf ban, but at least with that Muslim girls had a choice to go to a religious school. If the burqa is banned, what’s the choice for the women who wear it? Stay imprisoned in their neighborhoods?

To outsiders, the oversized reaction to the full veil looks like the French trying to hide their Muslim integration problems behind an edict. Actually, they’ve made progress integrating Muslims in recent years, with controversies over building mosques dying down, city halls reaching out to local Muslim leaders, and interfaith marriages increasing.

But the opportunity gap – in jobs, education, and housing – still yawns for many immigrants or children of immigrants, including Muslims. And the parliament’s report calls for lawmakers to work on the issue of “Islamophobia,” which the report condemns. The report also recommends creating a government-funded national school of Islamic studies.

In an age when it’s becoming more important to properly identify people – to prevent fraud, to prevent violence – a face-covering veil does present a challenge. But that’s a technical matter that requires a technical solution. It’s not a “challenge” to the French Republic, as the report claims. If anything, a ban would further alienate and stigmatize Muslims, not enfold them in French society.

Interestingly, the parliamentary report did not recommend a total ban on burqas. The concern is that such a flat-out prohibition would conflict with the Constitution. France should take the hint, and step back from this idea.

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