FaithWorld

Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate

burqa-eiffelThe French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils. (Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.

Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.

One might be tempted to call the inquiry a “fact-finding mission” but, if past practice is anything to go by, we may not get many facts in the final report anyway. France has been through this exercise before. In mid to late 2003, the so-called Stasi Commission studied the state of laïcité (separation of church and state) in six months of work including 100 open and 40 closed hearings. Many of these sessions were covered by the media. The final report had long and eloquent sections on French law, history and laïcité. But it had no empirical survey data on how many schoolgirls wore hijab headscarves or how often women refused to be treated by male doctors in hospitals.

hijab-protestNobody seemed surprised at the lack of data at the time because this was not a “fact-finding mission.” The exercise was meant to find arguments to ban the Muslim headscarf in state schools. This was confirmed when the report was finished and then President Jacques Chirac promptly picked one of the commission’s 26 proposals — the veil ban — and quickly had a law passed to enforce it. There was a wave of protests by some Muslim groups but they did not last long.

Sarkozy dons burqa to camouflage reform agenda

sarkozy-speechIn a column last week, I noted how Nicolas Sarkozy was a master at signalling left while turning right. Well, in his keynote address to both houses of parliament today, the conservative president went a step further. He summoned up the burqa to camouflage his real intention — relaunching a drive to reform France’s ossified social, education and tax system. (Photo: President Sarkozy delivers his speech, 22 June 2009/Pool)

By declaring war on the all-enveloping full-length veil worn by only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy ensured that his secularist assault on religious fundamentalism would grab the headlines, and dominate intellectual debate. Here’s what he said:

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 symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.

After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs

niqab-1

Pakistani Islamist women activists in Lahore, 5 Feb 2009/Mohsin Raza

French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory. Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”

“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.

The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”

French high schoolers struggle with philosophical puzzles

sarkozy-schoolOne of the things that makes France so French is the annual philosophy exam that traditionally kicks off the week-long series of tests for the baccalauréat diploma at the end of the lycée (senior high school). While France is a proudly secular state, the questions asked often pose puzzles with ethical aspects that many religions also contemplate. They are usually very broad — some would say impossibly broad — questions, leaving the student to decide how to understand and discuss them in a long essay.

Here are some of the questions the nervous students were given four hours to sweat over today:

    Is it absurd to desire the impossible? Are there questions that no science answers? What does one gain by exchanging? Does technical development transform humans? Does language betray thought? Does historical objectivity presuppose an impartial historian?

Are 18-year-olds set questions like this in exams in your country? If not, would it be worthwhile to ask them?

Paris court to rule if Scientology should be shut down in France

scientologyHow far does the principle of religious freedom go? How much can be accepted in the name of respect for a faith? A Paris court is debating these questions in a fraud case against the Church of Scientology. If the public prosecutor wins the case, Scientology will be convicted of extorting hundreds of thousands of euros from followers on personality tests, vitamin cures, “auditing” sessions and counselling with an “e-metre.” It will be disbanded and could also face heavy fines. The French arm of the U.S.-based Scientology denies the charges and says the case violates its freedom of religion.

Scientology is registered as a religion with tax-exempt status in the United States, but enjoys no such position in France and has faced repeated accusations of being a money-making cult. It also does not have French celebrities defending its case, in contrast to the United States. where movie star members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta publicly defend it as a valid religion. “This is not the place to debate whether Scientology is truly a religion or not,”prosecutor Maud Coujard told the court when she summed up her case on Monday.  “The point is that … a religious motivation is no justification under criminal law.”

Scientology’s lawyer, Patrick Maisonneuve, will call for an acquittal when he makes his closing remarks to the court. “What the prosecutor has asked for is a death sentence for Scientology (in France),” he told reporters. The court is expected to issue its ruling later in the year.

French, U.S. imams talk about being Muslim military chaplains

imams-threeBoth are Muslims. Both are chaplains. Both are in the military. But one is French and one is American. That alone ensured there would be enough to talk about when Mohamed-Ali Bouharb and Abu- hena Saifulislam met in Paris to discuss their work with chaplains and academics from the United States.
(Photo: Bouharb (l) and Saifulislam with CIEE’s Hannah Taieb. Note the Islamic crescents on Bouharb’s cap and Saifulislam’s sleeves, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Muslim chaplaincies are relatively new additions to the armed forces in Europe and North America. Establishing their place alongside the traditional Catholic, Protestant and Jewish offices of religious services has not always been easy, even though both imams reported the top brass in their countries strongly supported the effort. While they tend to the spiritual needs of their co-religionists in the ranks, as other chaplains do, these imams also spend much time explaining their religion and its practices to their non-Muslim superiors.Both spoke of the obvious issues such as getting halal food or having time and space for Muslim prayers. Both had encountered questions from both within the forces and outside in the Muslim community asking why they had agreed to work as imams in the military. Their presentations were part of a seminar entitled “Religious Diversity in Everyday Life in France” organised by the U.S.-based Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and the Institute for the Study of Islam and the Societies of the Muslim World in Paris.Bouharb, 32, is a French-born Muslim with Tunisian roots who studied Islam at a private Muslim institute in Paris and graduated from a special training course for imams at the Catholic Institute here. He is chaplain to the National Gendarmerie, which comes under the Defence Ministry. France only launched its Muslim chaplain corps in 2005 and it is still finding its way. “I first got a two-year contract. It’s just been extended by four years. Nothing is certain. We’ll see the results in 20 years,” he told the meeting on Sunday. Bouhard stressed how tricky the issues he faces can be as he discussed the delicate bridge function he has to play with the example of five French Muslim soldiers who refused to go to Afghanistan:

“If a Muslim soldier doesn’t want to go to Afghanistan for religious reasons, that’s his right. My role is not to convince him. But if he doesn’t want to go, he shouldn’t be in the army. That’s not a religious opinion. Sometimes the Muslim chaplain has to put aside his religious role and deconstruct what is religious and what is not. What I do is go see the soldier and ask him about his vision of Islam. I can help him to understand things better, but not to make a decision… If a soldier’s not clear in his mind (about shooting at Taliban), he might hesitate for a moment. That could endanger the troops around him…“To the commanders, I say I’m not the representative of a Muslim soldiers’ trade union. When those five refused to go, people said the Muslim chaplains weren’t doing their jobs. It was all over the media. But the chaplain’s duty is not to ensure the cohesion of the troops. (The doubting soldier) could endanger others. My religious duty is not to put those others in danger… We Muslim chaplains asked for a right to reply to the media but the Defence Ministry press office said it was not worth the effort… They were right. A few weeks later, all was forgotten.”

Another issue was whether Muslim soldiers due for commando training had to fast if the session occurred during Ramadan. “They get up at 3 a.m. and march for 25 kms with backpacks weighing 25 kilos. It’s very difficult to fast,” he said. Muslim soldiers asked him what to do. “I told them that, if you signed up to do this training, you have to respect that contract. You can stop your fast and catch up on those days after Ramadan is over.” Ten Qatari soldiers in France for advanced training could not understand why the session was not rescheduled, as it would be in their majority Muslim society, but Bouharb said it could not be and the Muslim soldiers had to adjust. “There is only one Islam, but there are many ways of expressing it,” he said.imams-twoSaifulislam, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1989 and became a U.S. Navy imam 10 years later, had a slightly different approach. “If there is special training during Ramadan, I ask the commander if it can be moved to another date,” he said, stressing he was giving his personal opinion and not speaking in an official capacity. “I tell the Muslims that they’re away from home while on training so they can not fast and make it up later. It’s his or her call. I provide the counsel.”
(Photo: Bouharb and Saifulislam, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

He said there were about a dozen imams in the U.S. armed forces, which appointed their first Muslim chaplain in 1993. That compares to over 800 Christian and Jewish chaplains in the Navy alone, he said. “They don’t necessarily need us for the number of Muslim soldiers but to advise them on religious inclusiveness, like about how Islamic practices can affect a mission, before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. They get training in cultural sensitivity.”Possibly because imams have served in the U.S. military for longer than in the French, the American Muslim chaplains seemed more integrated into the overall chaplain corps. Saifulislam said:

Ninety-nine percent of the people who come to me for counselling are from another faith. They come to you with issues, it could be about family, stress or violence. People can get more religious in boot camp, also in prison. I’ve also been trained in suicide prevention, PTSD recognition and crisis management. We also do grief counselling, regardless of the religion. Of course, we don’t perform services for other religions. You’re not going to see me baptise a baby! But we facilitate things. If someone comes to me as a Wiccan and asks for a place to pray, I help them. The Department of Defense recognises over 290 different religions and denominations. If a Muslim asks one of the other chaplains to help him get a copy of the Koran, he has to help him.”

“Sister Smile” film tells sad story of the Singing Nun

singing-nun-posterRemember the Singing Nun? If you’re old enough to recall the song “Dominique”, you might want to see a new Belgian film“Soeur Sourire” (“Sister Smile”) about the nun whose hit song topped the charts in Europe and North America in 1963. Then again, you might not … The song was far more upbeat than the sad story behind it.

Jeanine Deckers, or Sister Luc Gabrielle — better known by her pseudonyms Singing Nun in English and Soeur Sourire in French — was a Belgian Dominican sister who scored a one-hit wonder with “Dominique” in 1963. The record was released under her pseudonym. But the song became such an international hit that she finally went public and even appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the United States She never had another hit and the 1966 film “The Singing Nun” starring Debbie Reynolds ended with her giving up music to work in Africa. Deckers later described that film as “fiction”. “Soeur Sourire” sticks closer to the facts (Photo: film poster for Soeur Sourire/Ocean Films)

As the film depicts it, the rebellious Deckers enters the convent to find refuge from her heartless mother and her youthful confusion at advances by male and female admirers. She has trouble adjusting to convent life but her singing catches the attention of Belgium’s Catholic television and her mother superior is persuaded to let her record “Dominique.” Celebrity goes to her head, she leaves the convent and moves in with Annie, the female admirer. When she tries to launch a new career, she cannot not use the pseudonym Soeur Sourire because it belongs to her order.

from Africa News blog:

Did Dalai Lama ban make sense?

Organisers have postponed a conference of Nobel peace laureates in South Africa after the government denied a visa to Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who won the prize in 1989 - five years after South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu won his and four years before Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk won theirs for their roles in ending the racist apartheid regime.

Although local media said the visa ban followed pressure from China, an increasingly important investor and trade partner, the government said it had not been influenced by Beijing and that the Dalai Lama's presence was just not in South Africa's best interest at the moment.

The conference, ahead of the 2010 World Cup, had been due to discuss how to use soccer to fight xenophobia and racism.

Markets and morality: a tale of two uproars

excessThe howls of protest against fat cat bonuses during this financial crisis stem from a deep-seated source of moral outrage. For many people, it just seems like common sense that it’s unfair for Wall Street executives to reward  themselves for creating the mess robbing millions of their savings. (Photos: Protest outside Goldman Sachs in New York, 19 March 2009/Eric Thayer)

Evolutionary biologists and social psychologists believe this moral sense is innate, an instinct for cooperation and fairness that has been honed over millions of years of natural selection into a universal moral grammar that gives us a “gut feeling” about ethical dilemmas.

If we have this moral instinct, it would seem natural for politicians to appeal to it. Some are doing that, while others seem to be missing the mark. The news over the weekend from the United States and France shows the two different approaches in action.

What was real reason for banning Tariq Ramadan from U.S.?

ramadan-vatican1A group of academic and civil rights organisations has written to the Obama administration asking it to end U.S. visa refusals to foreign scholars apparently because of their political leanings. Probably the best known of these cases is that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Islamic scholar who was just about to take up a chair at the University of Notre Dame in 2004 when a visa already issued to him was suddenly revoked. Ramadan is a leading Muslim intellectual in Europe with a strong following among young Muslims who like his message that they can be good European and good Muslims at the same time. (Photo: Ramadan at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome during a Muslim-Catholic Forum, 6 Nov 2008/Alessandro Bianchi)

Currently teaching Islamic theology at Oxford University, he is viewed with deep suspicion in France but well received in Britain (see, for example, the cover of Prospect magazine pictured below). Pope Benedict received him at the Vatican last November as part of a delegation of Muslim scholars to a Muslim-Catholic dialogue. No matter what one thinks of his views, he is an active figure in the debate about Islam and the West and deserves to be heard in serious discussions on the topic.

The American Civil Liberties Union will plead his case for lifting the ban before the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York on March 24. Given the way President Barack Obama has rolled back several policies of the preceding Bush administration, there could now be a chance that Washington will simply lift the ban and let Ramadan take up the many invitations to speak that he would probably get from U.S. universities and think tanks. That would be a victory for academic freedom, but it still leaves one question unanswered.