Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sarkozy Would Outlaw the Burqa

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that in an address to the French parliament on Monday, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, gave a withering critique of burqas as an unacceptable symbol of "enslavement."  According to Mr. Sarkozy, there is no room in the French republic for burqas, garments some Muslim women wear to cover their bodies and faces.  

Said Mr. Sarkozy:

The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,  The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.

To enthusiastic applause, Mr. Sarkozy stated: “I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.”

I note that France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.  Current estimates are that there are approximately five million Muslims living in France.  Yet, traditional Islamic garments have been a divisive issue in that country for several years.  In 2004, for example, France passed legislation prohibiting the wearing of head scarves and conspicuous religious symbols at public schools.  

Meanwhile, Mr. Sarkozy appears to have spoken from both sides of his mouth.  On the one hand, he stated that in France, "the Muslim religion must be respected like other religions."  Yet, he also stated that "the burqa is not welcome in France.  We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity.”

He also gave his support to a cross-party initiative by about 60 legislators who proposed that a parliamentary commission study the burqa and methods to combat its spread.

It would seem that Mr. Sarkozy is likening the wearing of the burqa to "women being imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, [and] deprived of identity."  Yet, in my work as a member of the Board of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association, I have come across many Islamic women in many countries who willingly and gladly wear their burqas.  Sure, the burqa is something some western minds do not understand; but why should the government of France -- or any government, for that matter -- outlaw its use?  What next will President Sarkozy do -- call for Roman Catholic nuns to stop wearing their habits or for ministers of religion like myself to stop wearing our clerical collars or clerical robes in public?    


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