France and Belgium risk Muslim anger over veil bans

22nd April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Moves by France and Belgium to ban Muslim full face veils predictably angered some Islamic clerics, but other European states facing the same question are following the delicate debate carefully.

France announced Wednesday it would seek a law to ban Muslim residents and visitors from wearing a burqa or a niqab in public, while Belgium was poised to pass a similar ban until its ruling coalition collapsed on Thursday.

World governments have in the main been slow to react to the French and Belgian decisions, but Iran was quick to add the proposed laws to its charge sheet against the Western nations pressuring it on its nuclear programme.

"French officials dare to make declarations about the internal affairs of other nations, while at the same time they don't respect the rights of their own citizens," declared foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast.

Iran accused France of ignoring "the rights of Muslims, who are not allowed to respect religious rules, notably in terms of wearing the veil."

The French law will apply to full face veils, such as the niqab worn in Saudi Arabia or the Afghan burqa, but this did not deter clerics from Iran and Indonesia, where veils cover only the hair and neck, from weighing in.

"We're clearly against the proposed ban," Amidhan, chairman of Indonesia's council of ulema or Islamic scholars, told AFP.

"If it becomes law, it will mean Belgium and France are restricting the rights of Muslim women to fulfill their religious obligations," he said.

"Interpretation of the Koran is different in different countries. Indonesian Muslim women don't have to cover their faces with veils, unlike Muslim women in some countries in the Middle East, but we have to respect their beliefs."

In Pakistan, political and religious leaders also pointed to what they see as the hypocrisy of France and Belgium.

"They should respect the fundamental and religious rights of Muslims," said Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

"These countries also abide by the United Nations charter. There is democracy and constitutions in these countries which give rights to everyone."

France and Belgium will have expected opposition to the bans from political and religious figures in mainly-Muslim countries, but reaction from Western states with their own Muslim minorities is less predictable.

Already in June last year, US President Barack Obama fiercely criticised European moves to ban the veil in a major speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.

"It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear," he declared, to applause.

"We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism," he added, in a thinly veiled dig at France's claim to be taking the measure in order to protect the dignity of women.

But in Europe, where many voters feel large Muslim immigrant populations are not integrating well and that Islam poses a threat to women's rights, many see France and Belgium as leading the way on this issue.

Swiss voters have already voted in a referendum to ban the construction of new mosque minarets, and in Austria the minister for families Christine Marek said she was in favour of banning the full face veil in some circumstances.

"When I see these (fully veiled) women, I say to myself: They're being treated as second class human beings," she told the news agency APA, suggesting that Austria study Belgium's example.

© 2010 AFP

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