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The Muslim Veil in France: Why so Controversial?

Three questions to Hakim El Karoui

The Muslim Veil in France: Why so Controversial?
 Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam

In recent weeks, the French debate on the Muslim veil  - or headscarf - has resurfaced. Hakim El Karoui, Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne, and author of the report A French islam is possible, answers our questions about the significance of this controversy - and the relationship between French public opinion and Islam.

How do you explain the resurgence of this debate in France?

For thirty years, the debate on the Muslim veil has been recurrent and divisive within French public opinion. This time, it reappeared because a veiled woman involuntarily revived the polemic during a school trip. This debate is all the more heated at the moment because of the attack on the police headquarters in Paris on last October 3rd, and the resurgence of widespread fear of the Islamist threat in France.

There is a real French passion for the debate around the veil, to the surprise of our neighbors. This debate generally opposes two clans. On the one hand, there are those who, in the name of defending a secularism whose meaning is, at the very least, blurred, if not distorted, would go so far as to advocate that the veil be banished from the public space. On the other hand, stand those who do not see any problem in Muslim women wearing the veil and who denounce the Islamophobic nature of the first position - and the stigmatization of Muslims it leads to.

The emotional dimension of this debate is explained by the widespread feeling of failure, that of our universalist, assimilationist ideal, in the face of another ideology: Islamism. Wearing the veil is perceived as contrary to republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

It is also this inability on the part of the majority of French people to separate the headscarf from religion that is at the root of this debate.

In a Western society based on the fundamental principle of gender equality, it reflects a symbolic inequality: this clothing would signify - in the eyes of some - the submission of these veiled women, and would thus create a separation between the women who wear it and the rest of society. The veil could therefore mean to French people that the Republic has failed to make its values desirable, and has failed to share them with the immigrants’ children, even though they were born on French soil.

It should also be remembered that there are several types of veils such as Turkish, Iranian or Maghreb ones, which can have a meaning other than religious. Some are political, while others are associated with a geographical area. Most non-Muslim French people do not know how to distinguish between these religious and cultural meanings. It is also this inability on the part of the majority of French people to separate the headscarf from religion that is at the root of this debate.

In your opinion, how should this issue be considered instead?

The real question is about the women’s status within the Muslim family. It is above all a social issue. In addition to being the expression of a woman's religiosity, wearing the veil is a cultural and anthropological expression. Let’s come back to the results of Institut Montaigne's report A French islam is possible (2016): Muslim women wearing the veil are motivated by religious duty (76%), issues of safety (35%) and the desire to display their Muslim faith (23%), with only 6% saying that they are coerced or imitating others. Among women who do not wear the veil, the statistics show that they have a completely different perception: 27% consider that the veil is worn out of imitation (+21 points) and 24% out of coercion (+18 points). The only point of convergence: wearing a veil for safety reasons was also mentioned by 35% of the respondents. Some would say that wearing the veil to ensure personal safety also amounts to a form of constraint…

The professional and family emancipation of women in Western societies, particularly in France (where they are less discriminated against based on their gender, and better integrated), is sometimes a source of conflict in Muslim families.

France is a Republic; we cannot prohibit everything we want to fight.

In this context, the veil is a way for activists to call women to order: "stay where you belong and don't be an object of desire". And the justification given is religious: "God is the one who says so, not us!". In neighborhoods with a high concentration of Muslim populations, these women face significant social pressures from identity-based religious proselytes who force them to wear a veil without which they are considered to be "women of ill repute".

Despite all these realities, focusing the debate on the sole issue of the veil leads to a deadlock. France is a Republic; we cannot prohibit everything we want to fight. Let’s examine the suggestion of banning, by law, the veil as part of school trips, a possibility that has been brought to the fore several times in the debate for the past few weeks. In some neighborhoods, this would amplify the risk of ghettoization: if veiled mothers are not allowed to go with the children, there will no longer be any school outings. Not to mention the probable desocialization of these women that this ban would bring about.

Could these tensions implicitly reveal a more general French unease with Islam?

Indeed, this debate raises a strong issue of national cohesion, especially on the place of Islam in society. Above all, it reflects the deterioration of the relationship between the Republic and Islam. To some French people who do not find their place within society, Islamism is a discourse used to assert their identity through Islam. The French republican principles of equality and fraternity are no longer effective. Secularism is not the good weapon to tackle Islamism. Islamism is not Islam, a distinction regretably very little grapsed: Islamism is not a belief, but an ideological and political project that presents itself as a competitor of republican values. To fight Islamism, we must brandish the Republic - not just secularism.

This ideological project has to be fought, and this problem of exclusion cured at its roots. The concentration of Muslim immigrant populations, as in Seine-Saint-Denis for example, is problematic because it promotes community confinement and Islamist pressure. The State and the local authorities must no longer accept such a concentration in certain geographical areas.

As for Muslims themselves, they should participate in the debate. While it is certainly up the State to give them the means to express themselves, it is also up to them to decide to make a place for themselves in society and not to fall into the trap of acting like victims. It is precisely because their voices are not heard that discriminations Muslims suffer from keep going. They need to come together against Islamism and Jihadism and refuse obscurantism and religious fundamentalism, in order to build a serene French Islam, a republican Islam.



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