By Dileep Padgaonkar
Feb 22, 2010
No end is in sight to the fierce debate raging in France over an imminent move to ban the wearing of the burqa in public establishments. On the contrary, just about any matter involving Muslims adds fuel to it. Right now the media are focused on an issue that, on the face of it, is of little relevance to the sartorial choices of an insignificant number of Muslim women.
Last December, Quick, a fast-food chain, introduced 'halal' hamburgers in six of its 300-odd outlets. It contained smoked turkey instead of beef and pork. The chain took care to ensure that the birds were slaughtered under the supervision of a duly-qualified cleric. Commercial interest clearly dictated its decision for the six outlets are all located in towns and cities with a large Muslim population.
That, however, was of no concern to Quick's critics. The right-wing, xenophobic National Front led the charge against it. But others who are known for their hostility to the Front joined in the chorus of criticism as well. The burden of their dirge was two-fold. One, the food chain, by serving only 'halal' burgers, effectively discriminated against non-Muslim customers. And two, they included in the bill money that would go to cover the cost of the services of the cleric.
Both factors, the critics argued, were an affront to something that is a matter of life and death to the French: secularism. They saw in the food chain's decision yet another instance of a supine surrender to the diktat of Muslim extremists. In his blog, a well-known journalist pointed out that in a large city in the north of France, swimming pools run by the municipality had reserved some hours exclusively for women, and some others exclusively for men. Another cited the case of male gynaecologists who were assaulted for examining female Muslim patients. Yet another blogger railed against Muslims for offering prayers out in the open. Christians, he wrote, pray only in a church and Jews only in a synagogue. Why have Muslims been given a special dispensation? And why can't Muslims convert to other faiths when 'infidels' are free to embrace Islam?
Doubtless aware of this burgeoning public mood, President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to address on June 22 last year what in his eyes was arguably the most potent symbol of extremist Muslim belief: the burqa. It constitutes, he said, an affront to "our values" and it runs contrary to "our idea of the dignity of the woman." It imprisons her behind a flowing robe that covers her from head to toe, cuts her off from any social contact and deprives her of every shred of identity.
Just a day later, at the request of its president, the National Assembly decided to set up an 'information mission' consisting of parliamentarians drawn from all political parties. It was given six months to prepare a report on the practice of wearing the burqa on
French territory. The mission, headed by a communist deputy, heard the evidence of more than 200 individuals in Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and even Brussels. It unanimously agreed that the burqa, even if it is worn only by a small number of Muslim women, was a "veritable challenge" to the republic. And it called for a number of steps to ban it from all public spaces where it would pose a serious danger to security and public order.
Among the first such steps it proposed was a resolution that the National Assembly would adopt condemning any practice which breaches the freedom of others and the expression of any opinion that could disturb public order as laid down by the law. The mission's report quoted several authorities on Islamic jurisprudence as saying that there was no religious compulsion for a woman to cover every inch of her body, including her face. Indeed, this particular dress was specific to the cultures of certain Muslim populations in the Middle East and South Asia.
The report is now with the country's highest constitutional body, which will give its opinion on whether the resolution, and any other legislative measure that might come later, is in conformity with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. The authorities are equally keen on ensuring that these moves do not run afoul of the European Union's documents on human rights. A negative view from either of them would severely embarrass the government and prevent it from taking any serious measures to arrest and roll back the menace of Talibanisation.
We have a different concept of secularism. Our emphasis is on equal tolerance of all faiths and of their sartorial or other manifestations. Yet, at a time when most western governments and faint-hearted liberals have adopted a namby-pamby approach to the growing incidence of Islamic extremism, the French determination to uphold freedom of religion without any compromise with the forces of intolerance is evidence of an enlightened spirit. For, it places reason above faith, law above parochial conceit and the Constitution above all those who claim to be the sole guardians of nationalism, divine intent or cultural rectitude.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi.
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