Saleh Al Amer, Pitt Law '11, recently interned with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, DC. Saleh is the President of the Muslim Law Students Association at the University of Pittsburgh and writes on discrimination against Muslims in Europe and the United States...
On September 14th, 2010, the French Senate voted 246 to 1 to ban wearing the Islamic burqa (niqab, as it's called in most of the Islamic World), or any other full-face veils in public, including schools, streets, government buildings and hospitals. The legislation will enable the police to require the women wearing the face veil to show their faces; if they refuse, they will be either required to attend a citizenship class or fined USD $185. Additionally, whomever is found guilty of forcing a woman to wear the veil will be subject to a fine of USD $18,555 and a year in jail. The legislation has to be confirmed by the Constitutional Council, Frances highest court, within a month in order to take effect. The legislation has been challenged as being in violation of the right to religious freedom in the French Constitution and Article 8 (the right to respect of ones private life and personal identity) and Article 9 (freedom of religious expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights [PDF]. However, the legislation was carefully worded in an effort to overcome any constitutional scrutiny. The legislation is called "Forbidding the Dissimulation of the Face in the Public Space," and does not mention "woman", "veil," or "Islam."
Three major justifications were provided for this legislation. First, legislators claimed that the veil violates the French values of dignity and equality between the sexes and reaffirms womens inferiority. Second, the veil challenges the French model of integration and hinders the assimilation of certain groups within the society, namely the Muslim community. Finally, the measure was taken in order to ensure democracy and maintain the public order.
A close assessment of the legislations consequences would show that it is best described as paternalistic and counterproductive. First, news reports after the passage of the legislation indicate that French women who wear the burqa, or niqab, might choose to stay at home and avoid going to hospitals and government offices in order not to violate their strong religious convictions. Therefore, the negative impact on women who wear the niqab in France will be immediate. Second, one of the main justifications for the legislation is to promote the assimilation of certain groups into French society. The legislation is doing quite the opposite. Muslims in France and the rest of the world consider this act as hostile legislation targeting Muslims. The fact that a woman who wears the niqab is either fined or forced to take a citizenship class gives clear indication that wearing the niqab is seen as un-French. This can only deepen the isolation of the Muslim community within France. Finally, the one positive aspect of the legislation is that it penalizes any person who forces a woman to cover her face. This indicates that womens freedom of choice is considered to be one of the major pillars of this legislation. However, the legislation instead assumes a paternal role by forcing women not to cover their faces even if they choose to do so, stripping them of their freedom of choice.
Muslim practices have been the subject of many European legislators focus lately. The attempts to ban the Islamic face veil have been spreading throughout Europe and were preceded by the infamous Minarets ban in Switzerland in November of 2009. The West's official policy after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and the subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe, was to try to build bridges between the West and Muslim communities all over the world. In the United States, this was clearly established by President Obama's so-called Cairo Speech and the different outreach programs adopted by his administration right after his inauguration. However, measures like the niqab ban in France or others being considered around Europe are achieving the opposite result.
In the United States, the current hateful and Islamophobic rhetoric regarding the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan is creating an even bigger gap between Muslims and the West in general. During the course of the debate, the entire Islamic faith came under attack instead of just the proposed Islamic center. As the face veil is being called un-French, over time, Muslims in the United States are being called un-American.
I was in Saudi Arabia when the issue of the proposed Islamic center was starting to become a major news item in the US. The issue received very close coverage by the local Saudi media and was the subject of public attention. The re-established relationship between the Obama administration and the Muslim public in Saudi Arabia was undergoing a tough test, and the Saudi public was paying close attention to the outcome of the debate. Unfortunately, the debate degraded towards Islamophobic rhetoric, causing the positive effects of the Cairo Speech to erode over a very short period of time. This was only compounded by the plans to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 by a pastor in Florida.
Before visiting Saudi Arabia, I worked with the legal department at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) over the summer. The main task of the legal department is to deal with discrimination cases based on national origin and religion, as well as hate crimes. Over the period of two moths, I dealt with numerous cases related to employment discrimination where the religious practices of the employee were at issue. Recently, the office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stated that the number of claims of bias against Muslims in the workplace in 2009 was even higher than the in the year after the 9/11 attacks. The claims of bias against Muslims this year will very likely increase as a result of the American publics attitude towards the proposed Islamic Center and the attempt to burn the Quran by the Florida pastor. Indeed, the EEOC has reported a sharp spike in the number of claims since the two incidents occurred. In the same fashion, there has been an alarming increase in the number of hate crimes targeting the Arab and Muslim communities. Within a period of few days, "a taxicab driver in New York City (NYC) [was] viciously slashed with a knife after being asked if he was a Muslim; a drunken man [walked] into a mosque in NYC and [urinated] on the prayer rugs after screaming at worshippers gathered for evening prayers; and a mosque in California [was] vandalized twice." The atmosphere now is quite similar to that felt by Muslims in the United States right after the 9/11 attacks.
Groups like the ADC and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have issued Special Advisories to the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States to be cautious and report any incidents or hate crimes. However, the situation now is different as opposed to that which immediately followed the 9/11 attacks. Hostility towards Islam in the US, as well as the legislation in France, is backed by public opinion. There is an alarming increase in the number of political candidates in the United States who echo Islamphobic rhetoric in order to acquire more votes and enhance their political visibility. If these politicians are successful, legislation similar to the French niqab ban might be proposed in the US after the mid-term elections. This would lead to greater alienation of the Muslim community in the United States, particularly where they become the target of hate crimes. This type of legislation would further affirm the Muslim worlds recent conviction that the differences between the West and the Islamic world is irreconcilable.