Burqa: A Station on French Islamophobes’ Road

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News Watch
Tuesday, 01 September 2009
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The seemingly current absurd question that divides French Muslims is the following one: Are niqab and burqa Islamic? Three different groups of people have been formed since niqab and burqa became targeted by a bill by André Gérin, a French Communist Party lawmaker. Whether on the Internet or inside mosques, opinions on niqab and burqa vary among French Muslims. The controversy has also its first victim — Imam Mahmoud Doua, who was attacked outside his mosque near Bordeaux after giving an interview to the media. A part of the community affirms that burqa is a bid`ah (a forbidden innovation to the Islamic rules). Therefore, they support and even encourage the Gérin proposal to ban the dress covering Muslim women from head to toe. Another group claims that burqa is part of Islamic traditions from the earlier times of Islam. This group claims that as Muslims they will always try to respect this tradition and, as French citizens, they will not allow politicians to interfere with the freedom of religion protected by the French Constitution.

A third group, including me, thinks that burqa and niqab are just new and easy pretexts for Islamophobic groups to vilify Islam. These groups would never tolerate any visible Islamic signs in France, burqa and niqab are neither their first nor their last target.

Burqa Is Islamic

A document issued by the Council of Ulama at the island of Réunion opposes the mainstream discourse on burqa and niqab since the opening of the campaign. For the first time, a Muslim official states in the media that burqa is Islamic and not only an ethnic issue.

Although in the Creole language the Muslim community in Réunion is known as the Zarabe (Arabs), they are not Arabs. Their forefathers arrived to Réunion century ago coming mostly from the Gujarat in India.

The Zarabe form only 10 percent of the island’s population, but they control more than half of the economy. They are widely admired and respected among the locals. Réunion is thus the only part of the French territory where one can hear Adhan, once a day, without causing social protest.

According to Imam Bhagatte, imam of the Mosque of Saint Denis, Réunion, “since the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) women used to cover their faces. Everybody knows the hadith asking women to uncover their faces during the Hajj,” explained Imam, “if there were no women covering their faces, the Prophet would not have requested this,” he added.

A couple of articles in favor of niqab and burqa were published on some French Islamic sites. Meanwhile, other important websites feel unable to talk about the issue. Internet sites are the only places where French Muslims, the biggest Muslim community in Europe, can exchange opinions related to their faith and citizenship.

Various Islamic associations have tried to publish a statement stating that burqa is not Islamic, but this attempt failed largely due to the opposition from the Salafi movement and Tablighi movement, which refused to join the statement. The former is a Sunni Islamic movement that takes the pious ancestors (Salaf ) of the patristic period of early Islam as exemplary models. The latter is an apolitical religious movement whose principal aim is the reformation of Muslims. In France, the idea strongly remains that burqa has nothing to do with Islam.

French Black Silhouette

For some reasons I understand niqab and burqa have always troubled French Muslims. On 21 December, 2003, in Paris, I witnessed the drama of a young lady kicked out of the ranks of a demonstration against the anti-hijab law because her face was covered. The lady was insulted and blamed by other Muslims who were fighting for the right to wear hijab in schools.

Five years on, I still remember the black silhouette standing alone in an overcrowded Parisian street, holding her face with both hands, and probably crying under the veil covering her face. Before finishing the interview I was conducting and finding someone to explain to me what had just happened, the silhouette had disappeared into the metro station.

The Salafi Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood are two of the French Islamic ideological waves clashing for decades on many subjects including niqab and burqa. The battle is fierce with plenty of amazing stories. Farid Abdelkrim, one of the most popular Muslim leaders, has collected some of these stories in a book called La France des islams: Ils sont fous ces musulmans?! (France of Islam: Are These Muslims Crazy?! ).

Beyond a Literal Division

With his Islamophobic proposal, André Gérin has just added some of fuel to an old fire. On one hand, the Salafi recommend niqab and burqa but they do not claim it to be compulsory sunnah (coming straight from the Prophet). On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood sometimes tolerates niqab and burqa but most of the time they send it to hell as a bid`ah (an innovation forbidden in Islam).

Imams like Doua would not mind a law banning niqab and burqa in France. In a television interview, his sentences on burqa were not exactly what many Muslim fellows expect from their imams, especially when they feel attacked by media and institutions. That is the main reason why Imam Doua was admonished by the youngsters upset after showing sympathy with this Islamophobic proposal.

A Law for 367 Women

I believe that burqa has nothing to do with the Gérin bill. I know this country in its relation to Islam. We are the people who accept a sexy top model to stand on our behalf as First Lady. So if burqa was just a fashion with no religious meaning, Mr Gérin and his Islamophobic friends would never waste their time and our money in a useless Commission based on legal strategies and political lies. I deeply believe that Islam is the only target of the Gérin proposal. But it is not politically correct to attack Muslim citizens and their religion, so they need to find a proxy.

French secret service officially say there are only 367 women wearing burqa out of the population of 70 million in France, confirming what had already been repeated from the beginning: burqa is marginal in France. But the Islamophobes are not going to stick to the statistics. They are not going to miss their target for such insignificant reasons. Social regulation has never been the reason for Mr. Gérin. He just wants to gain the media attention.

Whoever official attacks Muslims in France is sure of two things: that he rises to a better place in the news, and he finds no strong body to oppose his opinions. These conditions will not change until French Muslims can publish their own strong and accessible media fully dedicated to Islamic concerns.

After the ban of hijab in public schools, the road of Islamophobia goes through the ban on burqa. The next station can be any other demagogic topic like a ban on Ramadan fasting in public schools for health security reasons, but once again health will not be the true reason. The only goal of the French Islamophobes is to clean away each and every public sign of Islam in our country. It is not yet too late to resist them but few people understand. That is why Muslims are fighting against each other while the mainstream media are portraying all of them with no distinction.


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