France’s Veiled Islamophobia

Minjae Park

The tide of anti-Muslim fervor sweeping across Europe reached a crescendo on Monday, as France’s law banning full-face veils went into effect. The French police have now begun imposing a €150 ($216) fine on anyone covering his or her face in a public place. The law does not mention Islam or women, but its targets are obvious. Within hours of the law’s enactment, a Muslim woman was fined for wearing a niqab, a face-covering veil, in a shopping center parking lot. Proponents of the ban, which includes a majority of French, argue that citizens should show their faces for security. This argument would make sense if the ban included other face-covering apparel: sunglasses, flu masks, scarves and hats. But it doesn’t. Another argument for the ban is that it will protect women from coercive husbands who demand their wives wear the niqab or the burqa, which covers the entire body. Indeed, a clause in the law imposes fines of up to €30,000 ($43,000) on anyone who forces a woman to cover up her face. But if protecting women is really what matters, the whole discussion would have centered around domestic violence, which is already illegal, instead of what clothes women can wear on the street. One of the more frivolous arguments against the veils is similar to the one Newt Gingrich made last year opposing the community center near the site of the World Trade Center. “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” Gingrich said. In other words, Muslim countries don’t respect our religion, so we shouldn’t respect theirs; rights should be bartered. The opposition to the “ground zero mosque” last summer highlighted the anti-Muslim sentiments lurking behind the pretext of protecting families of the 9/11 victims. Similarly, the arguments against full-face veils in France —under the banner of women’s rights and laïcité, or secularism—fail to cloak baser motives. Europe’s growing skepticism, fear and intolerance of immigration and Islam have become increasingly evident the last few years, from the Swiss ban on minarets and France’s deportation of thousands of Roma to the electoral gains of anti-immigrant parties in Hungary, Italy, Norway and Sweden. In the past six months, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have declared multiculturalism a failure. France’s ban on full-face veils will only affect an estimated 2,000 women in France, according to the country’s Interior Ministry. But the spectacle Sarkozy and France’s parliament have created by taking on the veils shows that what they’re doing is, as The New York Times put it, “exploitation of intolerance for political gain.” Opponents of the law will pin their hopes of defeating the law on the European Court of Human Rights, since France’s highest court upheld the law’s constitutionality last October. But given its precedent of upholding France’s 2004 law banning headscarves in classrooms, the court is unlikely to rule against this one.

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