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French Parliament's Ban on Full-Face Veils is Popular In EU, But Controversial In U.S.     Print Email

The French law banning Muslim full-face veils from anywhere outside private homes and mosques was passed by the lower house of parliament Tuesday, with only a single dissenting vote. The ban is a move supported by a large majority of people in other west European countries, polls show. But the measure is seen as controversial and intolerant by Americans.

The French bill would make it illegal to wear garments such as the niqab or burka, which incorporate a full-face veil, anywhere in public. While Americans worry about Islamic terrorism, they are much more tolerant of special attire as a symbol of religious freedom than Europeans, many of whom fear that their sizable Muslim minorities are a social threat to their national fabric.

The new French law seems set to go into effect within months if, as expected, it passes the Senate. It could then be challenged in French and European courts on constitutional and civil rights grounds. But the symbolic effect of the vote has been achieved, matching moves elsewhere in Europe (such as Switzerland’s ban on new minarets) to curb the increasing visible inroads of Islam into European cities.

Strong support for such action – and equally strong American resistance to the idea – emerged from a new set of polls taken by the respected Pew Foundations. Its polls, in four west European countries and in the U.S., reveal a wide gap across the Atlantic in opinion about allowing Muslim women to wear full-body veils in public. The polls show that 82 percent of French people favor the ban. That is the highest level in Europe, but neighboring countries show similar trends of support: Germany, 71 percent; Britain, 62 percent; Spain, 59 percent. The governments in Belgium and Spain are already discussing their own similar versions of the ban of the full-face veil.

In contrast, in the U.S., with its founding traditions of tolerating freedoms of religious expression, most Americans oppose such curbs on religious garb, even in the extreme form of the veil covering the full face.

In practice, the issue is more symbolic than real in Europe. Only a few thousand Muslim women reportedly wear full-face veils outside the Arabian peninsula. But the question of whether or not to permit it has emerged as a flash point in the wider debates in Europe about how far countries should go in making concessions to “multiculturalism”, in the context of trying to assimilate Muslim immigrant minorities. .

In France, the question has come to a head amid a wider year-long, divisive debate on the definition and meaning of “French identity” -- which many see as assimilation for the Muslim population into the French way of  life. On Tuesday, the parliament drafted legislation that bans full Muslim veils in the street and demands its removal in public places such as hospitals, schools and government buildings. Proponents of the law argue that it protects the human dignity of Muslim women (on this point feminists pressed the French Socialist opposition to support the government's bill); seeks to increase the integration of minorities into French culture; and also helps protect public safety on the grounds that full-face veils can hide the identity of wearers, including potential terrorists. In the French legislation, fines for women wearing veils in public could reach 150 euros (this may prove tricky to enforce against women wearing the garb in the name of feminine modesty) and Muslim men could face jail time if they force their wives to wear a full-face veil.

France has already banned pupils in state-supported schools from wearing Muslim head-scarves (or any “ostentatious” religious symbols from any faith) as part of the nation’s strict division of church and state.

In the U.S., only 28 percent of citizens polled said they would support such a law. American politics has been through an on-going “culture war” about the proper place of religion, prayer and religious symbols in schools. But most groups in the United States take a much more relaxed, “accommodationist” view than Europeans: that people should be free to express their faith and follow its tenets at least to the point of not harming others. In the U.S., Muslims account for a very small number of immigrants, so they are not generally part of the wider U.S. debate on immigrants.

In the European surveys, support for the anti-veil ban was consistent across age groups and political affiliation.