France's ban on full-face veils came into force yesterday, meaning that women who cover their faces with a burqa (a full-body covering that includes a mesh window over the face) or a niqab (a face scarf that leaves an opening for the eyes) might have to pay 150 euros for wearing them in public. As I write, the first fines have been handed out to protesters.
Criticism has come from many quarters: from Muslims who see this as a freedom of religion issue, and from opponents of President Sarkozy who criticize him for a cynically pandering to the substantial number of French people anxious about Muslim immigration. (France's 5m Muslim population, about 10 per cent of the whole, is by far the largest in western Europe).
Sarkozy faces a tough presidential election next year, and there are fears that the popular anti-immigration Front National party will beat him into a run-off. So he has been talking tough about immigration and Islam. As the Economist reports, "even French Muslims who have no time for the niqab-wearing fringe sense that Islam is being exploited for political ends."
But that's not all it is. Sarkozy is acting out of a longstanding French secular tradition, known as laïcité, which seeks to preserve a neutral -- that is, faith-free -- public space. Freedom of religion, in this tradition, means freedom to believe and worship in private. When you enter the public square and act as a citizen, you must not only abide by rules set by the state, but practise the 'rational', 'tolerant' virtues of citizenship.
France, of course, has form in this area. In 2004 it banned headscarves from state primary and secondary schools under a law prohibiting conspicuous religious symbols such as kippa skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public places.
Laïcité has a horror of communitairisme -- the body politic fragmented into religious cultures. Banning burqas, in this view, is consistent with the French state's attempt to create "public citizens" who freely interact with each other as equals. Covering the face makes such interaction impossible. The burqa is a symbol of ghettoization; demanding its removal is a defence of French national, secular values, which see freedom from public religion as the essential building block of equality and tolerance.
But the problem is that the burqa is a symbol of many other things. For religious freedom advocates, it is a test of the European Convention of Human Rights, which calls not only for the freedom to worship but the freedom to manifest religious belief.
The counter-argument to that is that the burqa is not a religious symbol. Less than 2,000 of France's 5m Muslims wear one; and they do so not because the Q'uran demands it but to assert "Islamic identity". The burqa, say many Muslims, is pre-quranic cultural attire, which comes from the patriarchal desert nomadic culture of the Middle East, not Islam.
Yet those who wear the burqa say that for them it is a religious symbol, an expression of their Islamic identity. And the rise in its popularity, especially among "integrated" French teenagers, is an indication of a kind of cultural alienation. Wearing the burqa is a way of proclaiming, precisely, that as Muslims they feel they do not belong.
Listening to the many debates over here in Europe sparked by the ban, I'm struck by how burqa advocates appeal to essentially individualistic arguments: it's their right to express themselves as they want; it's not for others to tell them how to dress. Some have even used liberal tolerance arguments. They don't object to other women wearing mini skirts; why should anyone object to them?
That argument is insufficient -- and also revealing. As Brendan O'Neill says, the burqa "is an expression of the mainstream narcissistic politics of identity, not the alien politics of Islamic misogyny."
He is right that the burqa, in this sense, is more akin to lurid teenage fashions such as goths than anything else, an expression of 'outsider status'. In this reading, the French action is extreme and misguided -- and likely to produce more, not less, defiance.
But it's too easy to say this is an assault on basic freedoms. Everyone accepts some limitations on freedom to manifest belief -- and indeed restrictions on dress codes -- when entering, say, the workplace. And I'm sympathetic to state officials who say that interaction with burqa-clad women is problematic; if you can't see a person's face and expression, human exchange becomes very hard. Jack Straw, the former British home secretary, once publicly complained that he found it difficult to deal with burqa-clad women when they came to see him at his constituency office. The veil, he said, was "a visible demonstration of separateness", which cut him off from the people he wanted to help.
That's why, even though France's move is another example of its statist secularism, the issues that it seeks to address are live in other countries, as Reuters usefully summarizes. Italy has not passed any national legislation but some towns have tried to ban burqas with local decrees. Belgium’s lower house voted a year ago in favour of banning the full veil, but the law has not been enacted. In Turkey, the wearing of Islamic veils or headscarves is officially prohibited at universities. In February the German regional state of Hesse banned face veils for public sector workers, and seven other states ban teachers in state schools from wearing Islamic headscarves. The justification in each case is that it is reasonable to demand dress codes that do not undermine healthy one-on-one interaction.
But ultimately I'm suspicious of the public-security, public-health, secularist ideology which has driven the ban. The notion of a naked public square, of an ideology which defines citizens as 'rational', atomized beings, makes me queasy. The state should intervene lightly, and gently, and for purely pragmatic reasons, in this area.
Yet there are arguments in favour of demanding that people remove their veils in some contexts, and in some institutions. Public spaces do demand common rules designed to ensure their proper functioning.
But this blanket ban looks draconian, driven by ideology and anxiety -- and likely to produce even more of the alienation it seeks to combat.