Xenophobia is on the rise in Europe, and, most probably, reaching an all time high. The views purveyed by the likes of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, French presidential candidate Marie Le Pen et al, have become increasingly fashionable because of a number of factors. These include: the rise in populism, identity politics (targeting Muslims) and the economic recession.
On April 11th, the French government lead by Nicolas Sarkozy, introduced the ban on the face veil, and anyone found wearing the ‘burqa’ will now be fined €150. The ban-although widely criticised by Muslims around the world- provoked limited backlash in France, where a distinct separation between church and state is seen as key to a civil society. But what is it that has lead to –what many believe to be-such a hostile country, so intolerant and xenophobic?
Before we come to Britain, we must first ask: porquoi no burqa in France? Perhaps the first reason is the rise in the National Front party, now led by the charismatic and increasingly popular Marie Le Pen. Some have been quick to claim that Sarkozy opted to emulate Le Pen’s right wing stance, and in doing so, decided to ban the burqa. This may, or may not be true. Sarkozy, in June 2009, said the burqa wasn’t “welcome” in France- three years, of course- before Le Pen became the second President of the National Front. So, in fact, there may not be a link between the two.
Worryingly for Sarkozy, a new poll this month reveals that a dwindling 21% of voters support the President, whereas Le Pen remains popular and it is therefore no wonder why he is moving to the right of the political spectrum. But what remains to be seen is if countries such as our own-which prides itself on tolerance and equality-will follow the trend and ban the burqa.
Indeed, with the burqa ban in France, it will now be easier for other countries to follow suit. A YouGov survey earlier this year, taking the views of the British public, highlighted that 67% of people want full-face veils outlawed. This will give fuel to the fascist, far right parties such as the EDL and BNP and, perhaps, it will be only a matter of time until we hear virulent propaganda from the right wing pressurizing the government to take action.
Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has called the burqa ‘overpowering.’ Philip Hollobone, MP, is another critic of the burqa and has previously tabled a private member’s bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. “Covering your face in public is strange, and to many people both intimidating and offensive,” he said.
Britain prides itself on being a tolerant society and the blur between state and religion has always been far harsher in France. But, thinking from a purely pragmatic point of view, why should we ban the burqa-what harm does it actually do? When one is naked in the privacy of their home, no harm is done. Likewise, what harm is done when one’s face is covered?
One of the main arguments propounded by not only Muslims, but also secularists, is this: if pornography, and women intent on dressing in the skimpiest outfits is not only accepted, but the norm, how odd is that a woman who wants to cover up to ward off gazes has become some sort of anathema.
According to Tariq Ramadan, Islamic Scholar and Professor at Oxford University, the burqa is not an Islamic obligation. However, what he does believe, and so do other prominent western scholars like Hamza Yusuf, is that freedom of choice is imperative in any society, and the government’s role is not to dictate what people can or cannot wear. It’s an intrusion of human rights-or so the argument goes.
Leader of the UKIP party, Nigel Farage has also added his voice to the debate, saying: “There is nothing extreme or radical or ridiculous” about banning the burka. This statement, in fact, seems to encapsulate the whole issue. Although the burqa ban seems wholly unlikely in this country, if we were to see a surge in right wing politics, many question whether there be much resistance against a ban?
David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister, infuriated many people with his speech on multiculturalism, which was perceived by many as inflammatory and a guise for attacking the Muslim community, and after that, led the country into its third war with a Muslim country in 10 years, namely Libya. Cameron, however, has been sensibly quiet on the whole issue of the burqa since his inception as PM, and for the time being; with the economy, Libya and the NHS on his mind, it would be foolish for him to delve into such polemical issues.