By Naima Bouteldja, a French journalist, is a researcher for the Transnational Institute (THE GUARDIAN, 21/11/06):
The political hubbub that greeted Jack Straw’s comments on the veil seems to have inspired a new continental fashion. Latest to join the fray is the Dutch government, which in the run-up to tomorrow’s general election announced plans to ban the wearing of the burka and face veil in public. By doing so, it has raised what is becoming a Europe-wide campaign to a new level of authoritarianism. Naima Azough, a Dutch Green MP, points out that the ban would apply to fewer than 100 women. “This didn’t come from public pressure,” she says, “but was initiated by the immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, whose Liberal-Conservative party is scrambling for far-right votes.” The result will simply reinforce the perception of Muslims that they will never be accepted in Dutch society.
In Italy, the debate has been raging since the prime minister, Romano Prodi, was asked to comment on Straw’s views. That followed a farcical TV show in which a rightwing MP, Daniela Santanchè, clashed with the imam of a Milan mosque on the subject. Santanchè has since been under police protection, convinced that the imam’s statement that she didn’t have the knowledge to comment on Islam amounted to a fatwa against her. “The veil is at best worn by 50 women in the whole country,” says Hamza Ricardo Piccardo, spokesperson of the Italian Muslim Council, “and people in the street just don’t care.”
Of course, the dress code of Muslim women was making headlines across Europe long before Straw weighed in. The wearing of the headscarf by teachers is already forbidden in schools in several German states. In Belgium, the minister-president of the Walloon-Brussels region last year authorised state schools to ban the headscarf. The result has been the creation of ghettoised schools.
In each European country, veil mania seems to follow a similar pattern: a public statement by a prominent politician results in a frenzied political and media response, conveniently diverting attention away from unpopular government policies or political crises.
France provided the political laboratory. In April 2003, the headscarf row came out of nowhere; within a year it had been outlawed in state schools. No serious demands to ban the headscarf had ever come from teaching bodies, students or the public. It simply wasn’t seen as a problem before April 2003: of the 10 million students in French state schools, only 1,250 wore the headscarf.
So who or what sparked “l’affaire du foulard”? Françoise Lorcerie, the editor of The Politicisation of the Veil in France, Europe and the Arab World, points the finger at France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who, in a generally well-received speech to the Union of French Muslim Organisations in April 2003, sparked uproar in the hall when he reminded the audience that wearing the headscarf on national ID card photos was “unlawful”.
Within days, commentators and celebrities were demanding the banning of the headscarf in schools. In 2003, three French papers (Le Monde, Libération and Le Figaro) published 1,284 articles on the subject. By contrast, the hotly contested plan to reform social security – a genuine national debate that brought tens of thousands on to the streets – registered only 478 times.
Responding to a climate of his government’s own making, President Chirac set up the powerful Stasi commission, named after its Catholic chair, to investigate “how secularism could be enforced in the republic”. MPs of all parties kept up the pressure, introducing parliamentary bills to ban the headscarf. Public opinion then turned, from being almost evenly divided at the start of the campaign to 76% in favour of a ban within a year. Partly as a result of this extraordinary diversion, the Raffarin government was able to face down large-scale public opposition to pension reform.
For Pierre Tévanian, the author of Le Voile Médiatique, the headscarf “unveiled another genuine problem”, later confirmed by last November’s social explosion in the French suburbs: “an ingrained postcolonial racism that crosses all social divides and political formations, even the most progressive.” Most alarmingly, the veil and headscarf debate intertwined seamlessly with issues of law and order, women’s oppression and international terrorism.
Until last week, the European debate had been confined to the idea of banning items of Muslim dress in public institutions. The Dutch government’s proposed ban on both niqab and burka in all public spaces takes things to a new and disturbing level. The implication is clear: niqab or hijab-wearing women, and through them European Muslims, are being asked to submit not to the law of the land, but to each country’s dominant way of life.
The lesson of the French experience is compelling: the banning of the headscarf in schools in 2004 was never intended to make France a more integrated society. As well as the ban on “conspicuous religious symbols”, the Stasi commission made 25 other recommendations for “promoting secularism and tackling discrimination”, including the incorporation of slavery and colonisation in the teaching of French history. The government ignored almost all of them.
The more governments and media foment hysteria over headscarves and niqabs, the more it seems a pan-European Islamophobic consensus is being built, as politicians search for scapegoats for social problems and pretexts to legislate in the “war on terror”. The anniversary of the uprisings in the French banlieues is a reminder that this strategy will lead only to disaster.