Imposing ‘culture’ - Rizwan Asghar - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The liberal and secular values of Europe are deeply rooted in its long history and socio-political culture and cannot easily be rooted out. But, over the past few months, a very interesting situation has unfolded in France, where the mainstream political parties have propagandised that their secular values are undermined by a handful of Muslim women wearing full-faced veils. If around 2000 full-veil wearers can jeapordise the culture of 62.3 million French people, there must be something seriously wrong with the centuries long evolution of French culture and values.

Starting April 11, it has become illegal in France for a woman to wear the burqa in public places. Women found violating the law will be fined 150 euros each and asked to take ‘citizenship classes’ to familiarise themselves with the republican values of secular France.

In essence, this ban is immoral, illegal and an infringement of people’s liberty. Immigration historian Patrick Weil has said that the law could be challenged in the European Court of human rights.

Prejudice against Muslims was already evident in all European countries but through this law France has institutionalised this scourge of discrimination. In addition to banning face-covering veils in public places, the French government has scheduled a national debate on religion and secularism, which is being considered “a political scam” that will focus unfairly on Islam. The debate may raise sensitive topics such as the provision of halal menus in school cafeterias, spilling of crowds into the streets during Friday prayers, and public funding for the construction of Muslim places of worship.

French Prime Minister Fillon has distanced himself from Sarkozy’s adventure saying that the debate may risk stigmatising Muslims.

By Elysee Palace logic, the law banning the burqa has been made to liberate women from subjugation and enhance their power in society. But here the point is missed that liberty and strength come through maturity of mind and not by wearing western clothes or keeping one’s face unveiled in public. Liberty does not merely mean that women are free to walk around half-naked or wear tight jeans. Rather, if a woman wants to cover her face, she is totally free by the same criterion of liberty. If the French government is really interested in enabling Muslim women to stand on their own feet and make their own choices, this purpose will not be achieved by imposing its own choices on them.

But on this issue, there is more than meets the eye. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right government’s obsession with the burqa is, in fact, a camouflage to gain political mileage in the 2012 presidential elections against the far-right party. After having failed to address key issues concerning public welfare, President Sarkozy is trying to attract attention by employing such gimmicks.

Today Nicholas Sarkozy is the most unpopular amongst the presidential figures of the fifth republic. According to a recent opinion poll, 97 percent of the French people consider jobs the biggest issue, not a tiny majority of face-covering women. The only reason behind the ban is Sarkozy’s desperation to secure the far-right electorate in the elections. President Sarkozy has also adopted a strong stand against Muammar Gaddafi in the hope that his extreme steps will positively affect his popularity.

In a nutshell, all the French politicians are exploiting societal divisions, fear of Islam, xenophobia and deliberately singling out Muslims for political gains especially after the far-right National Front party’s popularity has soared after its leader compared Muslims praying in the streets outside overcrowded mosques to the Nazi occupation of France. But unknowingly these opportunist politicians are creating very dangerous interfaith tensions with the Muslims, putting communal harmony at risk in their country. The French government has plunged the country into an identity crisis making it hard to understand what it means to be French and what constitutes French values.

Email: rizwanasghar7@yahoo. com

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