The US on Monday criticised France and Belgium for banning women from wearing face-covering Islamic veils in public, while warning of growing anti-Semitism and hostility towards Muslims in Europe.
The US State Department’s report on religious freedoms, researched in 2011 but released on July 30, 2012, warned that freedom of worship was being undermined across the globe -- particularly in China and Pakistan.
Commenting on the report, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that more than a billion people worldwide lived “under governments that systematically repress religious freedom.”
“When it comes to this human right -- this key feature of stable, secure and peaceful societies -- the world is sliding backwards,” she said.
In Europe there was "growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered 'the other’," according to the report, which also complained of a "rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others."
France bans the niqab
France enacted its controversial law that outlaws the wearing of “burka” or “niqab”-type full-face veils in public in April 2011 (Belgium passed its own law in July 2011) under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, a move that led to accusations that the president was pandering to far-right voters.
Sarkozy was defeated by Socialist opponent François Hollande in May 2012 -- although France’s new president said he had no intention of overturning the ban.
One French commentator, Socialist-supporting philosopher Henri Pena-Ruiz, said Hollande’s reluctance to change the law demonstrated that it had cross-party support while reflecting France’s longstanding attitude to religion.
“The US is mixing up religious freedom with freedom of conscience,” he told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday. “In France we respect religion, but we also respect atheism. Believers and non-believers must have equal treatment under the law.”
“And what freedom is this report defending exactly?” he asked. “When France banned Islamic head coverings in schools [in 2004], many girls said that they didn’t want to wear them and that if head scarves were not forbidden, their brothers and fathers would force them to cover up."
“Clinton needs to think more about the emancipation of women. It is not as straightforward an issue as the State Department portrays.”
A long history of secularism
France legislated for a total separation of church and state in 1905, a move that had its ideological roots in the country’s 1789 revolution.
This law, coupled with France’s prior experience of powerful [Catholic] church interests in government, goes a long way to explaining the country’s hard stance on religious symbols, according to Christopher Dickey, head of Newsweek magazine’s Paris bureau.
He said it also demonstrates the different attitude from the perspective of the US, a country that had never experienced the “domination of an all-powerful religious institution [like the Catholic Church in France] at the heart of government.”
But Dickey rejected the idea that the ban on wearing niqab and burka-type headwear was anything other than “a hostile act” by a president desperate to hold on to power.
“This report was researched at a time when Nicolas Sarkozy was transparently pandering to the far right and effectively legitimising xenophobia,” he told FRANCE 24. “It was recognised as such by the French who voted him out.”
A 'false and divisive issue'
Dickey pointed out that the ban only affects some 2,000 of up to three million Muslim women in France: “When you make an issue about such a tiny minority you are making a statement about your attitude to Islam.”
As for Hollande’s unwillingness to scrap the controversial law, this was much more because it was a “false and divisive” issue.
“Hollande and his Socialist government certainly don’t want to spend political capital trying to overturn it at a time when there are far more serious concerns,” he said.
But they may have to. On Friday July 28 a riot broke out in Marseille when police tried to check the identification of a woman wearing a niqab on the street, as the law requires them to do.
“The test will be whether the Hollande government really wants to enforce this ban,” Dickey said. “They will have to ask themselves if they are actually keeping the peace by implementing it.”