On Sunday, August 27, 2023, the French Minister of National Education and Youth, Gabriel Attal, announced on the French television channel TF1 that female students would no longer be allowed to wear the abaya, a garment that some Muslim women and girls wear that covers the whole body except the face, feet, and hands, in schools. According to the French daily, Le Monde, Attal emphasized that, "When you enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the students' religion by looking at them." This decision, which has received support from both French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President Emmanuel Macron, has sparked widespread condemnation from Arab intellectuals and prominent Muslim scholars. They argue that the decision contradicts France's policy of secularism, under which France is barred from recognizing any religion. Further, they accuse the government of hostility towards Islam and Muslims as a diversion from its failure to address pressing challenges, both domestic and international.
This report highlights the condemnation of the abaya ban and suggested reactions to challenge the ban by the Muslim community in France.
Commenting on the ban, Ali Al-Qaradaghi, the Secretary-General of the Qatar-funded International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), published a post on X platform, formerly known as Twitter, on September 4, 2023, in which he described it as a "racist policy" and a "step in the wrong direction." Al-Qaradaghi then questioned whether people's rights and freedoms to practice and express their religion are protected in France, stating: "The abaya is a part of the culture and traditions of some communities considered citizens of France, and some women see it as a symbol of modesty and religious veiling. Therefore, its ban is considered a blatant interference in individual rights and personal freedom."
Accusing the ban of reflecting a racist policy against Muslims in France, Al-Qaradaghi argued that "it would be difficult to imagine banning clothing that represents the religious identity of a specific group without discriminating against this group."
After warning that the ban may lead to "further exclusion and discrimination against the community that wears the abaya," Al-Qaradaghi concluded by calling on the French government to "take more tolerant and respectful measures towards different religious denominations in society."
Moroccan Islamic scholar and former president of the Qatari-funded IUMS, Ahmad Al-Raysouni, argued in an article titled "Shaken Secularism," published on the IUMS website on September 3, that the abaya ban is an indication that France "is fearful for its shaken secularism... and works to protect it from anything that carries the scent of Islam."
Al-Raysouni further questioned the timing of the abaya ban while France is currently facing internal and external challenges, stating, "What suddenly made it incompatible with the preserved French secularism?"
Offering a sarcastic response, he wrote: "What's new in the current French context are the setbacks and declines that France is experiencing in its domestic affairs and foreign policies, with President Macron bearing the brunt of them. In this context, it appears as if France is compensating for its failures and diminishing strength by targeting its Muslim citizens and Muslim girls. The French President has ordered the strict and firm enforcement of the ban on abayas and the prohibition of female students from wearing them. This is a message to all those concerned: Pay close attention. We are still strong and possess strong decisions. If you see us falter internally and in Europe, and if we fail to protect our interests and clients in Africa and elsewhere, we are still capable of exerting pressure and restrictions against Islam and against our Muslim students, without any Islamic leader or head of state uttering a peep! And if you see France in a state of instability, decline, and confusion, we will, in any case, remain strong and resolute against Islam and Muslims."
In reaction to the ban, which he described as "an ugly order that indicates Macron's government's determination to combat Islam, its rituals, its laws, and its manifestations," Al-Hassan Kettani, a Moroccan Islamist preacher who is also a member of the IUMS and the president of the League for Scholars of Arabian Morocco, recorded a message addressed to the Muslim people of France.
In his message, which was published on X on September 4, Kettani said: "I call upon my Muslim brothers in France to come together and stand united to respond to this French recklessness and determination to harm Muslims. So, if you rely on Allah and cooperate, God willing, you will be able to thwart this great scheme that these people are pursuing.”
He further argued that if the Jews have managed to secure their rights in the world, despite being a small minority, by sticking together and using their lobbies and wealth, Muslims could do the same, because "There are two billion Muslims in the world, while Jews are only 16,000,000, and Muslims are the people of the truth, and they are the ones who have the book of Allah in their hands...But the Muslims in France need only to unite, cooperate, and insist on asserting their rights, not letting each other down.”
SUPPORT OUR WORK
Sheikh Muhammad Al-Saghir, a Turkey-based Egyptian Islamist cleric, a former Member of Parliament in the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, and a member of the IUMS board of trustees, appeared in a video on September 6, on X platform. In the video, he accused France of waging a war on Islam. After condemning President Macron for insisting on enforcing the abaya ban, Al-Saghir said, "France clearly raises the banner of anti-Islam by tightening control over mosques, associations, centers, expelling imams, and combatting religious practices."
Al-Saghir further claimed that Allah has been punishing France in Africa in response to its anti-Islam policies and referred to the refusal of the French ambassador in Niger to leave the country, despite the new junta ordering him to do so, the coup in Gabon, and anti-France sentiments in former French colonies in West Africa.
Addressing Muslims in France, Al-Saghir said, "This order should not be allowed to pass. Gathering, protesting, and using all legitimate means permitted by the law are necessary. Lawyers must be hired, or else [France] will instruct Muslim girls to enter schools wearing shorts. What remains for you? If you don't rise up, protest, and demand your rights, what is left for you after this widespread violation of dignity?"
The Paris-based cleric Cheikh Zakaria Seddiki, who is the director of La Maison Des Savoirs, commented on the ban in an interview aired on Al-Jazeera Mubasher on August 31, He declared the abaya ban, "goes against the principles of the French state, where secularism, as they claim, is the separation of religion and state."
Accusing France of targeting Arabs and Muslims, he noted the use of Arabic words such as abaya and kamis (a loose shirt often worn by men from Muslim countries). in the interview, he stated that using these words "clearly indicates discrimination against Arabs and Muslims, because non-Arabs and Muslims don't use words such as abaya and kamis."
When asked what could be done to challenge the decision, he stressed that the Muslim community should "defend themselves through legitimate means, and not change the religious rulings to please others. Every Muslim, wherever they may be, should adhere to the religious rulings."
Saudi Major General Abdullah Ghanem Al-Qahtani published a lengthy post to his 116.7 million followers on X, in which he emphasized that the ban on abayas was an unnecessary decision. He argued that a piece of cloth that a woman places on her head and neck should not be seen as a threat to schools, let alone to the national security of France.
Instead of banning abayas, which he believes are not even popular in Muslim countries, Al-Qahtani suggested that Macron's advisors and senior assistants should advise the president that "millions of Muslim French citizens, if their culture and beliefs were respected, and if their education and job opportunities were improved, would love their country more and defend it more than what far-right extremists claim they would."
Warning of the dangerous consequences of such bans, Al-Qahtani wrote, "Many of your Muslim citizens will view such official statements as racist, hateful, and indicative of the state's animosity towards Islam and Muslims. This perception will become deeply ingrained in the minds of thousands of their young Muslim children, who will carry and nurture it against their own country, especially since there are extremists among them who are fueling them against the state. Isn't this the reality we witness in the streets of the [French] Republic when a Muslim citizen is killed for any reason, even if they are a wanted criminal?"
Speaking on the Iraqi TV channel Alrafidain on September 5, Abdallah Ben Mansour, the former head of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, considered the ban as a part of an ongoing campaign against Islam, and as a distraction from France's economic problems, as well as an attempt to cover up its failure to address other pressing issues.
In the interview, he said, "Unfortunately, in France, we have become accustomed to the fact that whenever the morale of French society declines, and successive governments fail in their development programs, attention is redirected, and public opinion is mobilized, against Islam. For us, this is a recurring issue, occurring approximately every year or two, or every three years. There are campaigns of this nature, with the most recent being the issue of the abaya."
He further added, "France is facing economic and financial problems, inflation, issues in hospitals and schools, and problems within the police force. In all areas of society, there are challenges hindering the government. Because it has failed to address many of these issues, it wants to promote the idea to the public that the real threat to France and secularism is this veil or loose clothing worn by Muslim women in schools."
Mocking France for its focus on banning the hijab and abayas while Russia extends its influence in Africa through the Russian private military company Wagner Group, and gradually gains control over France's former colonies, Rafik Abdessalem, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia and a member of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, expressed his astonishment. He questioned why, despite the numerous challenges it is currently facing, France continues to neglect its pressing issues while clinging to an ideology that is bringing about its "self-destruction."
In the post published on his X account on September 6, Abdessalem claimed that "France still insists on seeing itself as having an eternal 'mission' in the world, to save humanity from 'misguidance and divergence' through the propagation of secularism, enlightenment values, and the ideology of progress. In reality, it is in desperate need of enlightenment and rationality more than anything else. If one wishes to gauge the extent of self-destruction that ideology brings upon 'great' nations, they need only look at France's current state."
 Lemonde.fr/en/les-decodeurs/article/2023/08/29/what-is-the-abaya-the-garment-france-wants-to-ban-from-schools_6113640_8.html, August 29, 2023.
 Twitter.com/Ali_AlQaradaghi/status/1698828046613000562, September 4, 2023.
 Iumsonline.org/ar/ContentDetails.aspx?ID=30320, September 3, 2023.
 Twitter.com/SupportProphetM/status/1698742725951041630, September 4, 2023.
 Twitter.com/SupportProphetM/status/1699467497869828291, September 6, 2023.
 Twitter.com/ajmubasher/status/1697362414852055503, August 31, 2023.
 Twitter.com/Gen_Abdullah1/status/1698438347276853473, September 3, 2023.
 Youtube.com/watch?v=u7nxIBytEUQ, September 5, 2023.
 Twitter.com/RafikAbdessalem/status/1699508659590500524, September 6, 2023.