FaithWorld

Belgian government collapse delays burqa ban vote

A woman wearing a niqab walks on a street in Saint-Denis, near Paris, April 2, 2010/Regis Duvignau

The collapse of Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s five-month-old government coalition on Thursday meant that a ban on full Muslim facial veils expected to be passed in the afternoon has been put off for some time. Just how long is unknown right now — it could come back up for consideration again as early as next week if parliament is not dissolved and new elections called.

The bill due for a vote today received unanimous backing in parliament’s home affairs committee on March 31. The draft law proposed to criminalize wearing clothing that covers all or part of the face, including the facial veil known as the niqab and the full outer garment, or burqa, widely worn in Afghanistan. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a meeting with farmers in Buno-Bonnevaux, south of Paris, April 6, 2010. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

President Nicolas Sarkozy, April 6, 2010/Philippe Wojazer

It looked like that bill would make Belgium the the first country in Europe to enforce such a ban. If the Belgian parliament doesn’t take it up soon and the country’s political crisis drags on (as can happen there), that distinction could go to France. President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken out in favour of a complete ban, rather than just one in public service buildings, despite warnings from constitutional experts that it could be illegal. The relevant bill will be presented to the cabinet in May, government spokesman Luc Chatel said on Wednesday.

It emerged on Thursday that the French ban would apply to visiting tourists as well as residents. Junior family minister Nadine Morano said visitors would have to “respect the law” and uncover their faces, prompting critics to speculate whether Saudi luxury shoppers would be forced to unveil themselves on the glitzy Champs-Elysees.

French foreign ministry bureau studies faith issues worldwide

kouchner sarkozy

Bernard Kouchner (L) and Nicholas Sarkozy (R), 10 July 2008/Vincent Kessler

France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the original “French doctors” who has been active in humanitarian causes for decades, once said the only major conflict he knew that had nothing to do with religion was the 1969 “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras. With a perspective like that, he naturally asked when he took over the foreign ministry in 2007 where religion figured in its diplomatic analysis and strategy. The answer was that it didn’t really figure in it, at least not in a systematic way. Laïcité — France’s trademark separation of church and state — had created a kind of “we don’t do God” reflex in its diplomacy. Kouchner began a series of internal discussions about the new challenges to diplomacy,  issues such as global warming, terrorism, sustainable development or religion. One of the results was the establishment last summer of a religious affairs bureau at the Quai d’Orsay.

Joseph Maïla, the former rector of the Catholic Institute of Paris appointed to head this bureau, explained the thinking behind this step in an interview that ran on our newswire today. As he explained in that story, the issue has an interesting European dimension, because the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty calls for a regular dialogue with religious groups in Europe. He added that  President Nicolas Sarkozy’s more flexible approach to laïcité also helped bring about a new appreciation of the role religion plays in public affairs. This has nothing to do with any loosening of the actual church-state separation in France, he stressed, but creates an atmosphere in which it’s easier for religious issues to be considered as factors in policy planning. Joseph Maïla, 1 Dec 2009/Tom Heneghan

Joseph Maïla, 1 Dec 2009/Tom Heneghan

Maïla said the bureau’s tasks were to study the links between religion and conflict, follow issues of church-state separation in Europe and advise the ministry on which positions to take on issues where religion is involved. He stressed that France had obviously dealt with international religious issues in the past, when they were clearly relevant to a problem, but didn’t take a systematic approach to faith in public affairs. Now, with a six-person bureau dedicated to the issue, it has one of the largest staffs dealing with the question in Europe. Most other European countries, which don’t have the same traditional reluctance to discuss religion in politics, usually have only one or two diplomats tracking faith issues.

France retreats from burqa ban plan amid burst of hot air

gerinFrench Communist parliamentarian André Gerin, a leading proponent of a ban on full facial veils here, is an old hand at avoiding answering unwelcome questions. One that has become increasingly difficult for him is whether France should prohibit Muslim women here from wearing the veils, known as burqas and niqabs, as a way to combat Islamic fundamentalism. He got a real grilling about this on Europe 1 radio today. After ducking the persistent question “will you propose a legal ban?” several times, he finally admitted that, well … uh … there wouldn’t be a ban after all. There would be “recommendations” that could be supported by Muslim leaders here, i.e. would not include the ban they oppose. (Photo: André Gerin supports striking firemen, 4 Feb 1999/Robert Pratta)

If you speak French, have a listen here.  Click here for our news story.

It looks like anything else said about this topic from here on in is simply hot air — and Gerin generated a lot of that, too. He first tried to brush off the Europe 1 questioner by responding that nobody appearing before the parliamentary inquiry he heads has spoken up for these head-to-toe coverings. Fine, but that’s not an answer. Behind this fashion of “walking coffins” was “a fundamentalist drift” he was determined to combat, he went on. The goal, he added with rising rhetorical stakes, was to launch “a great public action against the stranglehold Islamic fundamentalism has in certain areas of our country, especially over women.” The National Assembly should pass “a law of liberation (of women),” he declared. But it would only contain  “recommendations” that he didn’t elaborate on.