Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sarkozy defies legal advice and seeks ban on burkas in street

A BAN on full-face veils being worn in the street and other public places has been ordered by French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
In a surprise move, he defied the advice of experts brought in by the government who warned such a broad ban risked contravening France's constitution.

Government spokesman Luc Chatel said after yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting that the president had decided the 
government should submit a bill to parliament next month on an overall ban on burka-like veils.

"The ban on veils covering the whole face should be general, in every public space, because the dignity of women cannot be put in doubt," Mr Chatel said.

It puts France on the same track as Belgium, which is also moving toward a complete ban in a similar reaction as Islamic culture has come into conflict with native European values. Mr Sarkozy has repeatedly said that such clothing oppresses women and is "not welcome" in France.

But Abdellatif Lemsibak, a member of the National Federation of Muslims of France, said he was shocked. "It's a transgression, an aggression even, on the level of personal liberty," he said. "The Muslims have the right to an orthodox expression of their religion."

The decision to seek a full ban, rather than a limited one, came as a surprise. After a cabinet meeting a week ago, a government spokesman said proposed legislation would take into account conclusions on the matter by the Council of State, France's highest administrative office.

The government had sought the council's opinion to ensure a law would pass constitutional muster, and it advised a full ban would be "legally very fragile."

A six-month parliamentary inquiry also concluded that a complete ban would raise constitutional issues, as well as enforcement problems.

France, a firmly secular country, has western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at five million.

People there worry about clashes in values as well as a spread of radical Islam. The authorities widely see the veil in light of gender equality and security issues.

In neighbouring Belgium, a similar initiative for a ban on full veils in public places, including in the streets, is expected to become law in July.

Muslim leaders in France say the face-covering veil is not a religious requirement of Islam but have cautioned against a ban.

The government spokesman said Mr Sarkozy considered burka-style veils that hide the face, such as niqabs, "do not pose a problem in a religious sense but threaten the dignity of women".

France outlawed Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols from classrooms in 2004 after a marathon parliamentary debate.

Numerous girls wore headscarves in class, but only a tiny minority of women wear the all-covering veil. Nevertheless, debate on the question of whether a law is needed and how far it should reach has continued for nearly a year. Muslim leaders say the debate itself has stigmatised Muslims, as has a national debate on the French identity.

Mr Chatel said Mr Sarkozy had insisted that "everything should be done so that no-one feels stigmatised".

French Muslims torn over potential veil ban

PARIS — Muslims in the Arab world are incensed and Muslims in France are walking a delicate line after President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for an all-out ban on full Islamic veils.
"Ridiculous" and "misplaced," said a Muslim vendor Thursday at an outdoor market in a working class, ethnically mixed Paris suburb. "Racist," said a Sunni Muslim cleric in Lebanon.
The rector of the Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque, however, held off on harsh criticism, saying only that any ban should be properly explained, and noting that the Quran does not require women to cover their bodies and faces.
Sarkozy upped the stakes Wednesday in France's drive to abolish the all-encompassing veil, ordering a draft law banning them in all public places — defying France's highest administrative body, which says such a ban risks being declared unconstitutional.
Such a measure would put France on the same track as Belgium, which is also moving toward a complete ban amid fears of radicalism and growing Islamic populations in Europe. Sarkozy says such clothing oppresses women and is "not welcome" in France. French officials have also cited a concealed face as a security risk.
France's top government official for family issues, Nadine Morano, said the conservative government wants to "break this dynamic of invasion of burqas in our country."
While France has western Europe's largest Muslim population, only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France wear the burqa, which has only a mesh screen for the eyes, or niqab, which leaves a slit for the eyes.
"France is addressing a very strong message. It is a message on an international level to women. How can we explain that while women are fighting in Afghanistan for their freedom, for their dignity, in France we accept what they are fighting against?" Morano said on France-Info radio Thursday.
Abdel Halim Laeib, a market vendor in Livry-Gargan northeast of Paris, is worried that outlawing the veils would inflame tensions in a nation struggling to define its modern identity.
"I find it totally ridiculous," he said. "Every person has the right to practice their religion, in whatever way they want to. Personally, it doesn't bother me if someone wears the full veil, like a woman who can wear a miniskirt, or a low-cut top where we can see her breasts."
"I find it very misplaced," he said. "I am a Muslim and I think that unfortunately we have a very negative image."
Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, had a cautious response Thursday. "Muslims in France ... are respectful of national law," he said, but added that any law should allow "a reasonable period for education" about what it is for.
Key questions are how the bill will be phrased — whether it will contain exceptions for face-concealing costumes at a Carnival parade, for example — and how a ban would be enforced. The Justice Ministry said Thursday it will write the draft law in the coming weeks.
Muslim countries, too, have struggled to deal with the niqab. Egypt's top cleric recently decreed that Muslim women should not wear the niqab inside offices but he said they can wear it in public.
In Lebanon, Sheik Maher Hammoud, a Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern city of Sidon, called the French actions racist.
"Whenever Islamic thought and culture clashes with Western democracy, racism rears its head and under various names," he said. "Muslims do not need lessons from Sarkozy or anyone else to teach them about human rights or the rights of women."
In Damascus, Mohammed Habash, Syrian lawmaker and head of the Center for Islamic Studies, said "such decisions only serve to encourage Islamophobia." Given the small numbers of women in France who wear the niqab, he said, "I don't think this constitutes a security or cultural threat."
"This does not bode well for the relationship between Islamic countries and Western governments," he said.
France drew similar criticism when it outlawed Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo contributed to this report.

Kyrgyz Islamists eye chaos with eager eyes

Lazily fingering a string of prayer beads outside a mosque in southern Kyrgyzstan, Ayubkhan smiles when asked about the violence, which wracked his country earlier this month.
A member of Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, he said he had no doubt of what the violent images flashing across his television screen meant for him and for his group's vision of a pan-Central Asian Islamic caliphate.
"I thought to myself: so, it has begun," he said.
Amid the power vacuum, which has followed the violence Hizb ut-Tahrir, effectively banned in Kyrgyzstan and most Central Asian countries, is waiting to reap the long-term benefits the turbulence will bring to its cause.
Ayubkhan agreed to speak with AFP on condition the interview be conducted in a car to avoid police surveillance. He said he was confident that the interim government that took over from ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev would continue to alienate the Kyrgyz people and deliver him more converts.
"What is good for us is that (interim leader Roza Otunbayeva) and the interim government are going to repeat the mistakes of Bakiyev and break the hopes of the people and make them desperate," he said. "This will make them more receptive to our ideas."
Thousands of protestors took to the streets of this strategically vital ex-Soviet state earlier this month in bloody clashes that forced out Bakiyev, leaving at least 84 dead and nearly 2,000 injured.
No clear indication
While the interim government formed by former Foreign Minister Otunbayeva has restored order to the Russian-leaning north, it has so far struggled to assert its authority in the religiously conservative south.
"So far, there is no clear indication that (Hizb-ut-Tahrir) benefited from this revolution," said Alisher Khamidov, a Washington-based analyst and expert on the group. "However, it is clear that the disarray in the government structures, in particular in the security services, means that harsh treatment of religious dissent has slowed down and this can potentially provide (them) a breathing space," he added.
In the race to capture the hearts and minds of Muslims in Central Asia, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago, perhaps no Islamist group has made further inroads than Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Founded in the Middle East in 1953 by judge Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, the group's message of Muslim unity found strong resonance in the region's Fergana Valley, the scene of bloody ethnic clashes in the last days of the Soviet empire.
Although legal in the United States, Britain and other European countries, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is proscribed in Central Asia and Russia. Bakiyev took a hard line against the group, which does not advocate violence, portraying it as a violent terrorist organization.
"(Bakiyev) beat us. He imprisoned us. But Hizb ut-Tahrir didn't suffer at all. Now Roza Otunbayeva's people are following the steps of Bakiyev. They will make the same mistakes," Ayubkhan said.