This guest column is in response to a May 20 column by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.: "The Burqa Ban And The Erosion Of Human Rights."
Sen. Cardin portrays the debate over the full-face veil in France in ways that require a respectful but serious response. I welcome the opportunity to discuss an issue that has received a certain amount of attention in the U.S. and certainly deserves -- especially among friends and Allies such as France and the U.S -- a calm and constructive debate, not just accusations and harsh judgments.
First of all, I would like to make sure we understand what we are talking about. The full veil, a concept that encompasses both the Afghan burqa and niqab found in the Arabian Peninsula, is a pre-Islamic tradition that is seen by many, not only in France but also in several Muslim countries, as a rallying symbol for radical religious practices. As was the case in Afghanistan under the Taliban, this practice severely restricts the role of women in society and public life. It is indeed worn in France by a very small minority of women and, more importantly, promoted and advocated by religious leaders as a direct challenge to our values of openness and equality between women and men. It is also a call to believers not to integrate into so-called permissive and corrupt Western societies.
These precisions are important. When references are being made about President Obama and the Cairo speech to make the point that France is at odds with the administration on this issue, I respectfully submit that the Cairo speech refers to the Islamic veil, not the burqa, and advocates for the freedom of women to wear the veil if they so wish.
Headscarves are worn by thousands in France, and by law and by practice, it is admitted everywhere, with the exception of public schools and for those working in government service. The law of 2004 prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous symbols of religious affiliation in public schools provoked an intense debate, not unlike today's, on whether such a text was the best way to ensure the implementation of the principle of laïcité, which derives from the separation of church and state in 1905. Remarkably, the law is well accepted today as a strong guarantee of neutrality in the public education system and in government services. Anybody walking today in the streets of Paris, Marseille or Lyon can testify to the free wearing of headscarves.
One can certainly take the view that religious freedom implies tolerating every form of religious practice, and consider that covering one's entire body in public is a form of religious expression, but in France, and indeed in many other European and Muslim countries, this assertion is open for debate.
France just held a long and earnest debate over the issue, led by a bipartisan commission of 32 members of Parliament, an effort that stands at odds with populist calls by fringe groups elsewhere in the world to ban the Islamic veil or to discriminate against Muslims, which Sen. Cardin is rightly worried about. The commission interviewed dozens of human rights associations, women's rights associations, political leaders (mayors, ministers), secular associations, thinkers, legal scholars, specialists of the Arab and Islamic world, and representatives of the Muslim faith.
This debate led to a consensus on a number of issues, the first of which is that the burqa could not be viewed as a religious obligation under Islam and is rather a custom based on the belief that women should be secluded from the rest of society.
It also raised three specific concerns regarding France that many in private and public acknowledged hold true for other countries as well:
• Human dignity and fundamental rights. By entirely covering a person's body and face, the niqab and burqa tend to jeopardize the recognition and respect of one's identity as an individual. The commission advocated a robust promotion of women's rights to guarantee their dignity.
• Integration. The issue is whether wearing the niqab or the burqa ends up cutting women off from all contacts that are the natural ingredient for social ties, thus undermining their integration into society and denying them a recognizable identity.
• Public order and security. Hiding one's face and body represents a security challenge, especially in public spaces such as airports, train stations and polling places.
The consensus was such that a bipartisan nonbinding resolution was unanimously passed in the National Assembly on May 11 to restate the importance of "republican values in the face of radical practices that pose a challenge to them." The concern expressed there was not only that of politicians. It echoes earlier court decisions, as well. In 2008, for example, the Conseil d'Etat, France's Supreme Court -- often quoted in the burqa ban debate for expressing doubts over the legal basis of a complete burqa ban -- upheld a government decision to deny French citizenship to a woman who refused at all times to take off her full-face veil.
While this practice may be admitted in certain countries, the debate shows, at least in France, that wearing the burqa remains problematic for the modern conception of liberty, equality and fraternity upon which France, and indeed many countries around the world, have based their institutions and society.
So is France about to become a paragon of human rights violations if it moves ahead to forbid wearing the burqa in public?
Before making any definitive judgment, one should keep in mind some very basic but fundamental elements. France respects all beliefs, and guarantees the freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion. Our insistence on defending our secular model has proved an effective way to guarantee every community and religion that it will never be discriminated against. It is no small fact that France has both one of the largest Muslim populations and the largest Jewish community in Europe. A Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew or a Catholic in France have the same rights and the same obligations.
The current attempt by the French government and the Parliament is aimed at striking the best possible balance in defending our secular model and fundamental values in the face of growing pressure from extremist movements who seek to test it at every turn. This is not only an issue for France; it is one for any democracy willing to affirm the foundations of its civic peace.