France’s Niqab Bill Shows Its Blatant Religious Intolerance
Dr. Habib Siddiqui
There was a time in my life when France loomed big in my radar screen of the countries that I needed to visit. In my teenage years, I occasionally met French tourists, mostly college going students. Most of them spoke very little English. And yet that language barrier did not hinder these young French tourists from visiting the new independent state of Bangladesh. They appeared inquisitive and fun-loving.
Years later when I came for my graduate studies in North America, I had few classmates that had come from France. They were good students, not the kind you see amongst today’s French politicians. At the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, one of the externals for my Ph.D. dissertation committee was a French professor who taught instability phenomena in the aerospace engineering department. He was a brilliant man who later returned to France to care for his ailing mother. I also met many French-speaking North African students who had a love-hate relationship with everything French. While they were bitter about their colonial experience, I could see their eyes shine every time they had the opportunity to speak in French, especially with someone from France or the province of Quebec in Canada. While some of us made fun of such unmistakable mood changes amongst our French-speaking friends, which we viewed as a flaw, they would remind us that ‘civilized people speak French and not English.’ There was definitely that nostalgia about being ‘civilized’, in spite of the memories of a bitter past that their parents had to endure against the French colonizers!
While the French Republic gave us the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity, the non-European natives – the colonized people – were never included in that formula. They were for conquer, colonization and carnage. And the French colonizers were a tough bunch -- ruthless killers, criminals and marauders -- who fought tooth and nail before ceasing their control of the former colonies.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial empire of France was the second largest in the world behind the British Empire. Its influence made French the fourth-most spoken colonial European language, behind English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The French rule of Algeria lasted from 1830 to 1962. Algeria became a destination for hundreds of thousands of European immigrants, known as colons and later, as pieds-noirs (meaning “Black-Foot”). These colonists accounted for ten percent of the population in Algeria, before the country achieved its independence in 1962. In Algeria, the native Muslims were not considered French and did not share the same political or economic benefits as those enjoyed by the pieds-noirs.
Politically, the Muslim Algerians had no representation in the Algerian National Assembly and wielded limited influence in local governance. To obtain citizenship, they were required to renounce their Muslim identity, a bigotry-ridden litmus test, whose ramification in terms of certain Muslim-related legislative measures cannot be overlooked or ignored in today’s so-called secular France. Since this renouncement would constitute apostasy, only about 2,500 Algerian Muslims acquired citizenship before 1930.
Following a French Justice Ministry decree, décret Crémieux, in 1870, all Sephardic Jews -- who had settled in Algeria (Tunisia and Morocco) after the Spanish Inquisition as a welcome gesture from the Ottoman Empire -- quickly became French citizens and came to be regarded by the natives as the pieds-noirs.
Like in other former colonies, the nationalists in Algeria wanted equality, if not liberty, which were denied to them. During a reform effort in 1947, the French government created a bicameral legislature with one house for the Pieds-Noirs and another for the Algerians but made a European’s vote equal seven times a native’s vote. In response, Algerian paramilitary groups such as the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) appeared which demanded independence from the French rule. This led to the outbreak of a war for independence, the Algerian War, in 1954, in which over the next eight years more than a million Algerians were killed by the colonists and the French government.
After General Charles de Gaulle assumed leadership in France in 1958, he attempted peace by visiting Algeria within days of his appointment and by organizing a referendum on January 8, 1961 for Algerian self-determination. The referendum, organized in metropolitan France, passed overwhelmingly. Pieds-noirs viewed this referendum as betrayal and formed the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS) and began attacking institutions representing the French state, Algerians, and de Gaulle himself. They terrorized and tortured the Muslim population of Algeria and bombed places of worship, business, schools and housing. The bloodshed culminated in 1961 during a failed Algiers putsch that was led by retired generals to topple de Gaulle. After this failure, on March 18, 1962 de Gaulle and the FLN signed a cease-fire agreement, the Évian Accords, and held a referendum. In June 1962 the French electorate approved the Evian Accords by an overwhelming 91 percent vote. On July 1, 1962, Algerians voted 5,992,115 to 16,534 to become independent from France. De Gaulle pronounced Algeria an independent country on July 3.
As noted earlier, Algerian independence had been bitterly opposed by the pieds-noirs and many members of the French military, and the anti-independence OAS. A "scorched earth" policy was declared by the OAS to deny French-built development to the future FLN government. This policy climaxed June 7, 1962 as the OAS Delta Commando burned Algiers’ Library, with its 60,000 volumes, and blew up Oran’s town hall, the municipal library, and four schools. In addition the OAS was pursuing a terror-bombing campaign that in May 1962 was killing an estimated 10 to 15 people in Oran daily.
The Evian Accords stipulated that Algerians would be permitted to continue freely circulating between their country and France for work, although they would not have equal political rights to French citizens. It is no surprise that many of the Muslim migrants to France are from Algeria.
After independence of Algeria, many Pieds-Noirs settled in France, while others migrated to New Caledonia, Italy, Spain, Australia, North America, Israel, and South America. As hard-core racists, many of them remain hostile to Muslim migrants in France and elsewhere.
The post-9/11 xenophobia against Muslims in France owes a great deal to racist and bigoted elements within the French society that have not come to terms with their losses in Algeria. They see the Muslims as aliens and unwanted, and would like nothing better than a litmus test, much like the failed attempt in colonial Algeria more than a century ago. To them, the French Muslims must prove their adherence to the French way of life by renouncing their Muslim identity. Interestingly, President Nicolas Sarkozy, a crypto-Jew with roots in Ottoman-ruled Salonika, is at the head of such a xenophobic campaign against Muslims in Europe.
Last week, on July 13 the French lower house of parliament approved a bill banning wearing garments such as the niqab or burqa, which incorporate a full-face veil (with eyes open), anywhere in public. It envisages fines of 150 euros for women who break the law and 30,000 euros and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burqa. While the bill is showcased as a touchstone for the Sarkozy administration’s policy of integration, most Muslim women do not fit the stereotype of marginalized, oppressed women. Many of the 2000 niqab-wearers in France are new converts to Islam. They wear it as a choice, as a sign of their modesty, and not out of forced compulsion from anyone. The French bill is opposed to religious freedom and is highly discriminatory. It proscribes what to wear and what not to wear on the streets.
In a BBC interview, a French Muslim woman said, “Liberty means freedom of conscience, of expression.” Would Sarkozy and his justice minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who said on the eve of Bastille Day that the vote was a “success” for the Republic, ever have the moral courage to listen to those French Muslims -- why they wear it? Can these French legislators, the closet bigots -- I must point out, answer the following questions: what is it about the invisibility of a woman’s face that is so challenging to French identity? What is so important about the niqab that gives the state the right to intervene? As the Guardian editorial wisely noted, “Users of the metro or underground learn instinctively to avoid looking each other in the eye. It is regarded as an intrusion. And yet no state legislature would think about passing a law that bans the wearing of sunglasses indoors on the grounds that it poses a threat to national security. So what is it about the niqab, worn by so few, that threatens so many? And what values, exactly, are being protected?” (July 15)
The French bill banning niqab and burqa has only shown how weak the French society is. It is rotting from within like Holland and Belgium. Rather than fixing its inner weaknesses, it is trying to pass a law that would terrorize a small minority that proudly dons burqa or niqab as their personal choice. France talks about secularism, religious freedom and liberty but the essence of such messages has never penetrated its soul.
Sarkozy and his gang of secular fundamentalists ought to know that they can never expect to be respected for upholding flawed values that promote bigotry, instead of pluralism or multi-culture in a world that is increasingly becoming diverse.