Friday, November 11, 2011

Unmasking the French Burqa Law

On October 11th, 2011, Professor Gilles Cuniberti from the University of Luxembourg gave a talk on the controversial French legislation prohibiting the public use of the burqa, the full-body covering used by some Muslim women that also hides the face. 
The lecture, “The French Law against Face Covering and the Burqa”, drew a very straightforward picture of a decidedly complicated issue. This is not to say that it was not a worthwhile talk—Cuniberti did an excellent job describing the French case and the rationale behind it.

Both sides of the argument are interesting, to say the least. On one hand are the law’s opponents, labeling the ban an infringement upon civil rights and a direct affront to the Muslim religion. On the other are those who call the full concealment offered by the burqa a threat to public security. 

It is noteworthy that the same reasoning is employed to support both sides of the debate.  For instance, in support of the ban, Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk claimed, “It is very important that we can see each other and can communicate with each other. Because we are so tolerant we want to respect each other”. However, in the midst of the French parliament’s attempt to pass the bill, British Immigration Minister Damian Green used the exact same rationale to oppose the ban. He declared that trying to pass such a law in the UK would be directly in conflict to the UK’s “tolerant and mutually respectful society”. When glancing through the headlines, it is clear that different decisionmakers espouse different reasons to support or reject such a law. 

Therefore, the most intriguing part of Cuniberti’s lecture was when he described the French rationale behind the ban, which was very different from the Dutch and British logic. In secular France, people are expected to be French citizens first, and members of any given community—be it religious, cultural, racial, or otherwise—only second. 

This stands in almost complete contrast to the U.S. tradition, where it is presupposed that the communities with which you align become your defining feature: “I’m a Republican”, “an African American”, “a Catholic”, etc. In America, few identify themselves first as “Americans”. Even with the simplest questions, such as, “What are you?”, I’ll typically respond, “Well, I’m 25% German, 25% Italian, some Polish, Irish, a little Native American on my mom’s side…”.  I don’t know that I’ve ever identified myself as an “American citizen”, unless I was outside of the country. 

So I wonder whether the French tradition can be maintained in Europe’s present state. Does what is stated in French law accurately describe what occurs in practice on the streets of Paris? Yes, school-age students of La Republique may be encouraged to be citizens first, but I doubt whether that is the case for many today. The Single Market has done much to spread different religious, ethnic and cultural groups around the EU, bringing many to France. As these immigrants continue to settle in and have children, it would appear to be more and more difficult to identify oneself as “French” above all: much like in the U.S., one would expect that the heritage and political communities to which people belong will become their most salient features. 

Adam Heinz is a second year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies program at the University of Illinois. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Spanish from the University of Illinois in 2010. He has studied abroad in Granada, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal. In 2010-2011 Adam received a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship to study Portuguese. He also was a 2009-2010 Illinois General Assembly General Scholarship recipient. Currently, Adam is working as a Graduate Assistant for the European Union Center. His research interests include the linguistic-economic relationship at the border of Spain and Portugal as a result of EU initiatives. Besides an interest in travel and languages, Adam spends his free time reading, camping and writing music.


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