Gerald Warner: Burqa ban veils underlying tide of secular aggression
THE French National Assembly voted last week to ban the burqa and niqab, the two Muslim garments for women that are most enveloping; or, at least, a section of it did - of the 577 deputies, 335 voted for the ban and one against, while the remaining 241 cravenly absented themselves. Those discreet abstainers were leftists opposed to the ban but intimidated by feminist pressure groups into passivity.
The crusade by feminists to prevent Muslim women from wearing what they want is based on the patronising assumption that religious dress is imposed on them by men. Do they assume there are no genuinely devout Muslim women? You could not ask for a better illustration of the disconnection between militant feminists and other women.
All but 20 of the supporters of the law were so-called centre-right or right deputies; in the context of the wider issues at stake, these were turkeys voting for Christmas.
On the immediate question of a prohibition on certain styles of Islamic dress, the principles should be clear: there is one legitimate ground - and only one - for outlawing such garments and that is security. In the Middle East the burqa has been employed to conceal suicide bombers of both sexes; if communities in Europe are similarly at risk then a ban is justified. Otherwise it is not. It is intolerable that the state should arrogate to itself the right to dictate what citizens may wear, other than for reasons of public decency.
There is a wide variety of Muslim dress for women which, apart from the burqa and niqab, includes such headdresses as the khemar (the version mentioned in the Koran), the hijab, the al-amira, the shayla (favoured in the Gulf states) and the Iranian chador. All of these latter show the full face, though the chador can be borderline. Last week's law was less aggressive than the legislation passed in France in 2004, outlawing the inoffensive hijab in state schools, along with the Jewish yarmulke, Sikh turbans and large Christian crosses or crucifixes (small ones were graciously tolerated for the time being).
This was preceded by the then President Chirac declaring in a speech in Tunisia(!): "Wearing a veil… is a sort of aggression…" No, it is not. Or does Jacques Chirac cower at the sight of a nun? It is inspired by religiously motivated modesty. If governments have a problem with highly visible Muslim populations, then they should not allow mass immigration. The guidelines to the 2004 law stated that it applies to "signs and behaviour … whose wearing immediately makes known a person's religious faith". And what, precisely, is wrong with a person making known his religious faith? It is an expression of identity, just like particular styles of secular dress.
That objection illustrates the true agenda behind these prohibitions. French Republicans rant about "undermining French secularism", by which they mean the anticlerical bias of state legislation. Beginning with the Jules Ferry laws of 1882 and culminating in the tyrannical legislation of mile Combes in 1905, the French Republic waged war on the Catholic Church. The Combes laws professed to be about the separation of Church and State: this was implemented by confiscating every cathedral and church in France and then making the thieving government the landlord of their rightful owner, which many might think a strange way of "separating" two previously discrete entities.
The French Republic cut its secularist teeth on banning monks' and nuns' religious habits and expelling them from schools. Republicans' paranoia about religion in state schools reflects the ambition to eradicate religious faith among young people. Catholics, Jews and Muslims support these schools through taxation: why should they be exclusively secular? The same applies to public buildings.
The French Republic is the heir to the Jacobin Reign of Terror. Last week it celebrated its shameful origins on Bastille Day, commemorating the liberation of seven well-heeled prisoners from comfortable confinement in a crumbling fortress, accompanied by the massacre of the French equivalent of the Chelsea Pensioners and scenes of cannibalism. Its rebarbative anthem still expresses the crude aspiration that "an impure blood may water our furrows". Its drab tricolour flag, replicated in the sashes girding the potbellies of state jobsworths, usurps the beautiful lily flag of its glorious monarchy and the country's true Christian heritage.
The anti-Muslim laws are only a preliminary to a renewed assault on Christianity. Italy is fighting a European prohibition on crucifixes in its classrooms: it is edifying to realise that, regardless of the legal outcome, the public will insist on their retention. In Britain, wearing a crucifix at work can be a shortcut to the dole. It is time for religious believers, who are also citizens and taxpayers, to assert their rights against intensifying secularist aggression.
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