April 4, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 169

The Muslim Debate Over the French Veil Ban

April 4, 2004 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 169

The French bill banning the wearing of religious symbols such as veils, skullcaps, and large crosses in public schools passed by an overwhelming majority in the French National Assembly in February 2004, and sparked a heated debate in the Muslim world.

According to French authorities, the wearing of religious symbols challenges France's separation of church and state, and exacerbates tensions among various groups in France. However, students are permitted to wear unobtrusive symbols, such as a small Muslim crescent, cross, or Star of David.

While Muslim religious leaders all agree that the veil [Hijab] is not a religious symbol but a religious duty, they hold opposing views regarding the fulfillment of this religious duty in non-Muslim countries. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, who is the leading religious authority in the Sunni Muslim establishment in Egypt, stated that France, as a sovereign non-Muslim country, has the right to ban the veil, and that Muslims should abide by the law of the land. On the other hand, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi,one of the most prominent figures in the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the religious authority for most Sunni Islamist organizations and movements, and who is leading the campaign against the veil ban, argued that a sovereign country's right to legislate its own laws prevails only if these laws do not violate human rights, and urges Muslims in France to oppose the law.

Also involved in the public debate over the French veil ban are Muslim intellectuals and writers who disagree with the notion that wearing the veil is an integral part of Islam, and discuss the issue from different perspectives.

Thus, for example, the former editor of the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, argued that the battle is not about students wearing veils in Europe but about a power struggle between different Islamic forces. [1] The Paris-based Iranian author and journalistAmir Taheri said that the "fake Islamic Hijab … is a sign of support for extremists who wish to impose their creed, first on Muslims, and then on the entire world." [2] The well-known Syrian author and poet Ali Ahmad Sa'id, also known as Adonis, saw the veil as "concealing the mind, not the head." [3]

This paper reviews and analyzes the main aspects of the ongoing Arab and Muslim debate over the French veil ban. It presents religious, political, social, and cultural considerations and arguments, and introduces the varied opinions toward the issue as reflected primarily in the Arabic media.

Table of Contents

I. The Religious Debate – Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi Vs. Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi

II. Opposition to Sheikh Al-Azhar's Opinion

III. Religious Symbol or Religious Edict?

IV. Interference in French Affairs or Defense of Human Rights?

V. The Drive to Oppose the Ban

VI. The Secular Debate – Political, Social, and Cultural Considerations

VII. Conclusions

The Religious Debate – Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi Vs. Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi

In late December 2003, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy met with the head of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi,who informed Mr. Sarkozy of his religious opinion that Islamic law permits Muslim women who live in France to remove the veil (Hijab). [4] Sheikh Tantawistated, "France has the right to ban the use of the veil, since France is a non-Muslim country, and Muslim women must obey the laws of their countries of domicile." [5]

SheikhTantawi explained that "wearing the veil is a religious duty for Muslim women." However, he distinguished between their duties in Muslim countries and their duties in non-Muslim countries, saying: "If a Muslim woman is unable to wear a veil, she is accountable to Allah, therefore no Muslim – whether a ruler or a subject – can object to it… [But] if a woman lives in a non-Muslim country such as France,where officials want to ban the use of the veil, it is their right.

"As a Muslim," SheikhTantawi said, "I cannot object to this right, because they are non-Muslims. In such a case, a Muslim woman is subject to the laws of the non-Muslim state, and from the point of view of Shari'a [Islamic religious law] she is considered a person acting under compelling circumstances."

To substantiate his opinion regarding a Muslim who is forced to act against his will, Sheikh Tantawi cited the Qur'an, Chapter 2, Verse 172: "[Allah] prohibited you from [eating] carcasses, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked. But whoever is coerced [and eats] without desiring and does not [do it] again is blameless, because Allah is most forgiving and merciful.

"In my capacity as head of Al-Azhar," Sheikh Tantawiadded, "it is my duty to refrain from interfering in the affairs of a non-Muslim country just as I do not permit a non-Muslim to interfere in our affairs. We should not object if France adopted such a bill, just as no one has the right to object if Egypt legislated a law prohibiting female students from attending schools without wearing a veil. It is the right of every country to enact laws that suit it." [6]

In an interview, SheikhTantawi demonstrated a degree of tolerance uncommon these days among many Muslim clerics. He said, "Fatwasissued by Al-Azhar are not binding; individuals are free to accept them or not. It is the right of Muslims in France who object to the bill to bring it up to the legislative and judicial authorities. If the judiciary decides in favor of the government because the country is secular, they would be considered to be Muslim individuals acting under compelling circumstances." [7]

SheikhTantawi'sstatements were supported by the chairman of the French Council for Islamic Faith, Dalil Abu Bakr,who is the imam of the main mosque in Paris. He said he would obey the law "provided it is not implemented callously." [8]

Opposition to Sheikh Al-Azhar's Opinion

The religious authority leading the campaign against Sheikh Tantawi and the French authorities is Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi,considered the spiritual leader of Islamist organizations and one of the most prominent Islamic figures in the Arabic-language media. He described the French legislation as "the most blatant example of disdain for human rights" and dismissed SheikhTantawi's position by saying, "He is only one of the Muslim scholars, who represents himself and a certain group. He does not represent the consensus of all religious scholars." [9]

Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani described the French legislation as "a major insult to the Muslim world." S enior Shi'ite leader in Lebanon Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah joined SheikhAl-Qaradhawi in demanding that Sheikh Tantawi apologize to Islam and to all the Muslims he had hurt. He maintained, "In his statement, the head of Al-Azhar was in fact telling all non-Muslim countries, and even secular Muslim countries: 'Create restrictive conditions for Muslims so they can justify abandoning their religious duties.' He is telling Muslims in France and in the world: 'You don't have the right to object [to the legislation ], even through rational dialogue with France or other countries. You don't have the right to talk about religious duties. You must abide by the [secular] laws even if they prohibit you from praying in mosques or fasting on Ramadan." [10]

Controversy flared up even among religious scholars within Al-Azhar itself. Some stated that Sheikh Tantawi had expressed a personal opinion and not the official position of the institution. [11] Egyptian MPs affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhoodmovement demanded that he be removed from his position. [12]

Religious Symbol or Religious Edict?

The French legislation seeks to prohibit the use of "religious symbols" in public schools. However, Muslim clerics oppose the assumption that the veil is a "symbol," maintaining that is a "religious duty."

It is noteworthy that Sheikhs Tantawiand Al-Qaradhawi did not differ about the religious nature of the wearing of the veil; both agreed that it is a religious edict, not a religious symbol. They disagreed over the implications of the French law; while Sheikh Tantawi believes that Muslims in France should abide by the law, Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi urges them to oppose it.

An opinion issued by the European Council for Islamic Religious Decrees and Research,headed by Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi,stated that wearing the veil was decreed by the most important Islamic theological sources: the Qur'an, the Sunna (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, set out as a mandatory example for Muslims) and the Ijma'(the consensus of religious scholars). According to the council, "The veil [in its broad meaning] which completely covers a Muslim woman's body except for her face, hands, and in some religious schools [of thought] her feet, is an indisputable Islamic religious duty. This duty was stated in the Qur'an, the Sunna and the consensus of the Muslim nation throughout all its schools [of thought]… It was adhered to for 1300 years, until imperialism conquered Islamic lands and forced Muslims to live according to foreign values that deviated from their own, and to adhere to Western traditions that differed from their own. During the Islamic renaissance, Muslims began again to believe in themselves and their religion, and women and teenagers embraced the religious veil out of their own free will.

"There is no doubt," stressed the council, "that every Muslim woman who comes of age is obligated, according to Islamic law, to wear a veil, as the Qur'an says [24:31]: 'Tell the believing women to restrain their looks, to protect their chastity, not to disclose their beauty except for what is visible, and to wrap their veils around their bosoms…' and in [Qur'an 33:59] 'O Prophet, tell your wives, daughters and the women of the believers to wear their robes. Thus they will be better identified and accordingly unharmed.'

"Since the wearing of the veil is a religious duty for the Muslim woman," concluded the council, "it is not permissible from the point of view of religion, morals, traditions, law, and constitution to force her to abandon this duty in violation of her beliefs and conscience…"

The council added that the veil is not to be considered a religious symbol because "a symbol is just a statement and a sign, such as the Star of David and the skullcap for the Jews, or the cross for the Christians. The veil, on the other hand, has the function of concealing [the body] and demonstrating modesty." [13]

In a later communiqué, of January 2004, protesting against the French law, the European Council for Islamic Religious Decrees and Research added: "Wearing a veil is a matter of devotion to the Creator and a religious duty… The Muslim woman considers it an important part of exercising her religion. This devotion is not linked to any public location, be it a place of worship or an official or unofficial [state] institution. After all, the edicts of Islam do not by their nature recognize separation or conflicts [between religion and other areas of life] in the life of a devoted Muslim." [14]

The Council of Muslim Jurisprudents in the U.S. agreed with the Islamic European Council and urged Muslim women to adhere to their religious duty in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. According to the council, "wearing of the veil is a religious duty and the exercise of individual freedoms, just like the freedom of Muslims and Jews to refrain from eating pork and the freedom of a Jew to refrain from working on Sabbath. [In carrying out this duty] there is no hostility towards others nor provocation to their feelings, nor an excuse for friction nor an atmosphere incompatible with the peace and serenity required for coexistence." [15]

The Syrian Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, who chairs the Supreme Council for Religious Decrees in Syria, also rejected the argument that the veil is a symbol: "The veil is not a symbol that a Muslim woman can give up. It is not a custom or a habit that could be changed or replaced. The veil is one of Islam's laws regarding women and one of the foundations of religious rituals. Infringing on the veil is akin to attacking one of Islam's religious rituals." [16]

Interference in French Affairs or Defense of Human Rights?

While there was no disagreement between Sheikh Tantawi and his critics about the religious meaning of the veil, there were serious objections to his view that French law is a domestic French matter, and that France, as a non-Muslim sovereign country, has the right to legislate it. Opponents of the veil ban expressed surprise that such a law was proposed in, of all places, France – the revolutionary cradle of freedom, equality, and fraternity – and was supported by President Chirac himself, who opposed the war in Iraq and has been considered a major supporter of Arab and Muslim positions. They warned that the ban could damage Muslim-French relations and France's interests in the Muslim world. Iraqi Shi'ite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr,for example,urged Muslims to boycott French products. [17]

The Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh,a major Sunni figure, considered the French act "a blow to human rights in a country that claims that it doesn't interfere with individual freedoms." [18] Lebanese Shi'ite leader Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallahadded that opposing the ban "is not interference in France's internal affairs, but a peaceful cultural Islamic demonstration and part of an international dialogue within the framework of dialogues among cultures and understanding between nations." [19]

Egyptian Mufti Dr. Ali Jum'a, who is also a member of the Institute for Islamic Research at Al-Azhar, concurred with Sheikh Tantawi that Muslims should not interfere in France's domestic affairs because it is a non-Muslim country, but added: "We should tell our French brothers that wearing the veil is a required religious law and part of the Islamic identity… We should emphasize that France's decision is akin to rejecting us, and we urge all supporters of democracy and of the principles of the French revolution to apply them to all, including Muslims. We must say to France that the problem is not the veil but those who look at the veil [and oppose it]…" [20]

In its statement, the European Council for Islamic Religious Decrees and Researchruled that France has the right to legislate its own laws provided that they respect human rights. The Council said: "The right of any sovereign country to legislate its laws is an internationally accepted principle. However, we believe that it would have been helpful if the head of Al-Azhar had pointed out that this right is constrained by human rights declarations, by international agreements and by the U.N. conventions, because it is inconceivable that one country's sovereignty should justify laws that contradict human rights and religious and personal freedoms. The head of Al-Azhar should issue such a clarification in order to prevent misinterpretation of his position, which some considered as withholding support from his Muslim brothers who are demanding their legitimate rights…"

According to the council's statement, "forcing Muslim women to take off the veil, which represents their religious conscience and their freedom of choice, is one of the cruelest repressions of women. It contradicts French values that call for respecting women and their personal, human and religious freedoms." [21]

The council went on to explain that the veil does not harm France's secular principles: "It is widely known that liberal secularism neither opposes nor supports religion. Its position towards religion is neutral. Since no one forbids a woman from wearing a mini, a micro [mini] or similar clothes, it is improper to forbid a woman from wearing a veil, unless Western culture has double standards and doubletalk. Only atheist secularism fights religion and considers it opium for the masses.

"We demand of France, which boasts of being the mother of freedoms, to respect the faith of Muslims and their feelings throughout the world and to accept cultural and religious pluralism in French society, just as the Islamic culture has done by embracing various religions, cultures, and races…" [22]

Former Egyptian mufti Dr. Nassr Farid Wasil added: "If France is a secular country, we should call its attention to the fact that secularism does not harass religions and that its decision to prohibit the wearing of the veil contradicts the values of secularism itself." [23]

The Drive to Oppose the Ban

Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradhawiurged Muslims – individuals, organizations, and institutions – to write to President Chirac to express their consternation at his position. He himself wrote to Chirac advising him to reconsider his support of the new legislation. [24] He warned that the veil ban in France "may enhance radicalism" and that he may sue France if it implements its decision and de facto forbids wearing the veil, because this legislation "contradicts the French constitution." [25]

The European Council for Islamic Religious Decrees and Researchsuggested to the Muslims in France "to demand their legitimate rights and to oppose this despotic law peacefully and lawfully, in words and in deeds, within the framework of democracy and civility." The council further urged French officials "to re-examine the bill in a manner that complies with the goals of national unity, social cohesiveness and the cooperation between the different sectors of French society in an era of dialogue – not war - among cultures." [26]

A group of theologians suggested stratagems to circumvent the law. Asked whether women may remove their veils, the group replied, "If the judiciary and the institutions that defend human freedoms do not come to the aid of the Muslim women, the women can resort to wearing anything that covers their body. They can wear nun's habits or head and neck covers and long dresses that conceal the rest of their bodies and do not call attention to them. The most important thing is to be covered, and not the name [of the garb they are covered with]. Women's clothing does not have one shape. Anything that covers nudity and any clothes [that achieve] the results prescribed by Shari'aare acceptable…" [27]

Lebanese Shi'ite leader Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah expressed a similar position: "We take preemptive actions to prevent the approval of the bill because it may cause negative reactions from people who do not espouse peaceful [solutions]. Furthermore it may complicate Muslims' [sentiment] towards France,at a time when the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, are reacting positively towards France's policies which conform to many Islamic and Arab causes.

"However, if the bill is approved, there are solutions to the problem; we are not urging Muslims to use violence to fight the bill, but we will try to find for them a solution based on Islamic laws. It is quite possible that [Muslim] theologians would suggest [a substitution to the veil, such as] a hat or a wig which are not permitted in regular circumstances." [28]

The Secular Debate – Political, Social and Cultural Considerations

Gamal Al-Bana: 'The Veil is an Islamic Tradition'

Contrary to the opinion of the clerics, various intellectuals and writers in the Muslim world disagree with the notion that wearing the veil is an integral part of Islam and contend that those who say it is do not substantiate their opinion with clear and convincing religious evidence. Egyptian author Gamal Al-Bana, brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Bana, explains: "If the veil was a religious duty, there would have been a clear verse in the Qur'an about it that could have no different interpretation. Instead, what is written [in the Qur'an] is general, can be interpreted in different ways, and some of these verses deal [specifically] with the Prophet's wives." Gamal Al-Bana criticized the Al-Azhar Sheikh for being "polite to the Muslim jurisprudents when he said that the veil is a religious duty. He should have said that it is an Islamic tradition." He mentions that the phenomenon of the veil in liberal Egypt in the 1930's and 1940's was merely a matter of custom, not faith. [29]

The intellectuals who wrote about the veil ban consider the uproar against it to be a deliberate escalation that does not serve the Islamic interests. Instead of presenting religious considerations for wearing the veil, they offer political, social, and cultural reasons for the spread of the phenomenon among Muslims.

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed: The Religious Debate Is, In Fact, an Internal Islamic Struggle over Power

The former editor of the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed,argued that Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi's and others' harsh criticism of Sheikh Tantawi has a political motivation. According to Al-Rashed, "The battle in France is not about veiling students in a European country, but is a struggle for religious domination in the Islamic world. [30]

"It is a mistake," continued Al-Rashed, "to follow the dictates of the opposing sheikhs without understanding the political element associated with the religious decree, which has turned in the last few years into a tool in the hands of the opposition in its attempt to remove the existing sources of authority." [31]

In a separate article titled 'Fight Extremism, Not the French Government,' Al-Rashed admonishes Arab intellectuals who, instead of fighting the causes of Western fears of Islam, such as terrorism and radicalism, have turned their attention to vilifying France's motivation, on the pretext of defending the basic rights of Muslim immigrants there. Al-Rashed concludes that the intellectuals "did not realize the damage emanating from religious extremism … which threatens the future of the Muslim Diaspora. Such extremism is no longer tolerable even in religious societies, such as in the Gulf States." [32]

Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id: 'Save the World's Muslims From The Extremism In Their Midst'

The director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, explained that the veil issue has been exploited by radical Islamic elements. He pointed out that during the rapid spread of Islam during the 20th century, Islamic customs and dress codes became more visible; however, no one had paid attention to the wearing of hijab by women. Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id maintains that this attitude has changed not because of a sudden eruption of racism in the West, but because "Islamic fundamentalism has begun to infiltrate various expatriate Muslim groups. The issue of the hijab was being presented as a first step on a long path of religious duties culminating in 'Jihad,' which could imply the destruction of all who disagree with the beliefs of a specific group. Perhaps the main issue was not even that of extremism, for there are extremists in all religions and creeds – it was that the Islamic public seemed insufficiently disturbed by the extremists in their midst…"

Sa'id suggests that it is the climate of extremism that has driven the issue of the hijab in France and brought into question political motivation and methods of propagation and recruitment among certain Muslim groups. Sa'id, like Al-Rashed, suggests that if Muslims and their imams are genuinely concerned about freedoms, they should start by addressing the roots of the problem. "It is time," Sa'id stresses, "to save the world's Muslims not from unfair treatment, but from the extremism in their midst, which is threatening to burn all their bridges with the rest of the world." [33]

Amir Taheri: The Veil – 'A Symbol Of Totalitarian Ideology Inspired More By Nazism And Communism Than By Islam'

Paris-based Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri agreed that the veil is a political tool and has nothing to do with Islam as a religion, being sanctioned neither in the Qur'an nor in the Hadiths (traditions) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Taheri points out that over the centuries, Muslim women, like women in all societies, have covered their heads in a variety of ways. These ways have tribal, ethnic, and generally folkloric origins and have never been associated with religion. For example, in Senegal, Muslim women wear colorful headgear to protect them from the sun while working in the fields, but go topless. Taheri says, "This fake Islamic Hijab is nothing but a political prop, a weapon of visual terrorism. It is the symbol of totalitarian ideology inspired more by Nazism and Communism than by Islam… It is a sign of support for extremists who wish to impose their creed, first on Muslims, and then on the entire world through psychological pressure, violence, terror and ultimately war…" [34]

However, Taheri criticized the new French legislation, claiming that " France goes where law should not." He pointed out that "man's ability to invent symbols is limitless" and thus the French authorities will face a very difficult task of spelling out what constitutes "ostentatious religious symbols" that should be banned. "Fighting symbols," he concluded, "is, at best, a quixotic endeavor, and, at worst, a symptom of national self-doubt." [35]

In another article, Taheri claims that "the proposed law is making a mountain out of a molehill." He describes the veil ban as a "political move" which ignores the real problems in French society. From his perspective, a vast majority of the French Muslim population is experiencing the same problems as African Americans experience in the U.S. According to Taheri, French Muslims, primarily the North Africans, "lack opportunity and are parked mostly in huge Stalinist suburbs around large cities – it is almost like living in hell. Rather than focusing on the issue of the scarf, the government should be focusing on these problems. You can't solve them by passing such a law – by standing outside a school gate and tearing the scarf off the heads of girls." [36]

The Veil - A Symbol Of Social Separatism

The growing number of Muslims in France sets some major social and cultural challenges for French society. Many Muslim citizens suffer from low economic and social status, unemployment, racial discrimination, and harassment by the police. They find it very difficult to integrate in the host society and are frustrated at being second-class citizens with little hope of upward mobility. From this point of view, the debate over the veil is just a symptom of the tension between the secular majority in France and the Muslim population.

The social and cultural problems facing France's Muslim population raise questions about the search for identity and the Muslim immigrants' resistance to integration in the host society. These are important factors in the proliferation of the custom of wearing the veil among Muslims in France. Egyptian human rights activist and author Sa'ad Al-Din Ibrahim explained that some Muslim immigrants to Europe have not been absorbed by, or integrated into, European life because they have not wanted to be, or because European society has not accepted them. It is precisely these Muslims, according to Ibrahim, who have endeavored to raise their children Islamically, and the veil has become the symbol of their endeavors. [37]

"It is clear that the reasons for wearing the veil in France are not all Islamic"' explained Saleh Al-Qallab, a former Jordanian minister of information and currently a columnist for the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat."There is stubbornness not to get integrated into French and other Western societies, and there is competition between the spiritual and secular segments of the Arab-Islamic minority itself. There are social traditions and customs that the immigrants have brought with them to the new environment." [38]

Tareq Ramadan: Muslims Fear A New Type Of Islamophobia

Prominent Swiss-born speaker on Islam Tareq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at Switzerland's Ecole de Geneve and at the University of Freibourg, called on French Muslims to demonstrate not only against the veil ban, but against the "social policy which marginalizes them and others [in French society]." [39] In an article in English published by the BBC News website, he explained, "Muslims in France believe they are being targeted. They fear the law banning scarves in schools will open the door to all kinds of discrimination. The French debate about the issue is so passionate that Muslims fear a new type of Islamophobia."

Ramadan concludes that "the reality in Europe is of a growing Muslim population, and many Europeans are afraid of losing their identity. The debate in France and other countries over the headscarf appears to be a manifestation of this..." [40]

In an article in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat titled 'The Veil in France Raises Social and Cultural Questions,' an anonymous French academician of North African descent argues that the veil has become the symbol of resistance to integration and of feelings of separation and distinction from others. Its meaning is clear, he says: "You reject us because we are Arabs, so let us return to our origins and behave the way they behave [in Arab countries]. Since we live in neighborhoods in which the majority is Islamic and North African, let us create for ourselves a small North Africa, adjacent to the large cities." The anonymous academician, identified only as Hajiba ("veiled"), claims that while most of the young girls who wear the hijab know nothing about Islam, they are using the veil in their search for identity and in seeking acceptance in their social milieu, which would have rejected them in any event had they acted French. [41]

Ali Ahmad Sa'id (Adonis): 'Concealing The Head Or The Mind?'

The well-known Syrian author and poet Ali Ahmad Sa'id, also known as Adonis, had harsh criticism of the veil as a symbol of social separatism. In an article titled "Concealing The Head or the Mind?" he maintained that all of the opinions requiring Muslim women to wear veils are no more than interpretations, and therefore obligate only those who believe in them. He explains that Muslims who want to impose the veil constitute a political minority, and thus that "Muslims and Westerners should deal with them not as representative of a religion but as a mere political party." According to Adonis, accentuating a different personal identity within the general unifying identity is a sign of separatism rather than of integration in society:

"One of the simple rules that Muslims [in the West] should know, especially those who have acquired citizenship in their countries of residence, is how to draw the line between the public and the private, between personal beliefs and common social values, because there is no alternative to adherence to the common values, especially those of educational and civil institutions. Muslims who are committed to the veil should understand that their commitment means that they do not respect the feelings of other people who live in the same motherland, that they do not hold the same values, that they denigrate the foundation of [other people's] lives and belittle the laws … and repudiate the republican democratic principles of their adopted country which gave them work and freedom…

"Those who call for the imposition of the veil are a minority among Muslims in the West as well as in the Arab world… This Muslim minority, which lives in the West, is trying – instead of respecting democracy and its principles – to disavow it and to forcefully impose its ideas not only on Muslims, but on democracy itself… All facts indicate that this group is nothing but a political minority. Muslims and Westerners should deal with them not as representative of a religion but as a mere political party."

In his article, Adonis goes far beyond the French law and states that obvious religious symbols should be banned from all public places. He says, "The mosque is the only place where the Muslim can be different [from other citizens] and can express his religious identity in the West (and the same should be true in Arab countries). It is the only place where he fully fulfills his religious rights, and any social or public act outside [the mosque] is an assault on common values. The institution, especially the educational ones – is common public civilian grounds, a meeting place open to all, a place where all personal distinguishing religious symbols should be removed. Add to that the streets, the coffee shops, the clubs, the movie theatres, the public halls, the lectures and the conferences. Exhibiting obvious religious symbols in them impair their meanings and goals, and harm the cohesiveness of their membership and identity. It is the expression of separatism rather than integration, the strengthening of a personal identity that is different, rather than the cohesive public identity. This is an assault on common emotions, culture, and morals…

"As for the claim that the Muslim woman who wears the veil is exercising her right to religious freedom … this right exists and is respected as long as it is private and practiced in privacy. But when it goes beyond that, it becomes an assault on others and an affront to their opinions, thoughts and feelings in addition to disregarding civil and public principles and laws and the great efforts that were made to attain them…

"Religious interpretation that calls for the imposition of the veil on Muslim women who live in secular countries, which separate between religion and politics and where men and women have equal rights and obligations, exposes a way of thinking that veils not only women but also humans, society, life and mind…" [42]


The Muslim debate over the new French legislation banning the wearing of religious symbols in public schools reveals two different Islamic attitudes concerning Muslim life and religious observance in non-Muslim countries. One is articulated primarily by the sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, who advised Muslims in non-Muslims countries to abide by the laws of their countries of residence. The second, and more religiously popular, view is presented by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, who urges Muslims in non-Muslim countries to oppose this legislation via the democratic system of Western countries.

The secular debate suggests political, social and cultural considerations for wearing the veil and criticizes wearing the veil in Western countries, depicting it as a political tool in the hands of extremist Islamic groups. It sees the veil as a statement in favor of separatism, rather than integration in society.

The religious, political, social and cultural questions prompted by the French legislation are of concern to many European countries with large Muslim minorities, such as Great Britain, Germany, and Belgium. How the veil problem is resolved in France will likely affect the rest of the European countries' attitude towards the Muslim minorities among them, and, conversely, will affect the attitude of Muslims toward the European societies that host them. More broadly, this issue may have ramifications on the relationships between Arab and Muslim countries and Europe governments.

* Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 20, 2004.

[2] New York Post, August 15, 2003.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), June 26, 2003

[4] The Hijab is the head-covering that does not cover the face. In areas dominated by radical Islamic groups, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, women were required to use the Niqab – a head-covering that also covers the whole face, except the eyes. Women wearing Niqab must completely cover their bodies, including hands and feet.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 31, 2003.

[6] Islam Online, December 30, 2003.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 12, 2004.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 20, 2004.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), January 6, 2004.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), January 3, 2004.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 5, 2004.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), January 3, 2004.

[13] Islam Online, April 11, 2000.

[14] Islam Online, January 4, 2004.

[15] Al-Raya (Qatar), January 27, 2004.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 27, 2004.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 10, 2004. Less than a week after the Madrid bombings (March 16, 2004), two major French daily newspapers, Le Parisien and Le Monde, received a letter from an unknown Islamic group calling itself the "Servants of Allah, the Powerful and Wise One," threatening violence unless the government repealed the law.

[18] Al-Zaman (London), January 28, 2004.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), January 14, 2004.

[20] Islam Online, December 30, 2003.

[21] Islam Online, January 4, 2004.

[22] Islam Online, April 11, 2000.

[23] Islam Online, December 30, 2003.

[24] Islam Online, December 30, 2003.

[25] Al-Bawaba Online, January 7, 2004.

[26] Islam Online, January 4, 2004.

[27] Islam Online, December 13, 2003.

[28] Al-Hayat (London), January 14, 2004.

[29] Al-Rai (Jordan), March 9, 2004.

[30] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 20, 2004.

[31] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 22, 2004.

[32] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 4, 2004.

[33] Al-Ahram weekly (Egypt), January 29, 2004.

[34] The New York Post, August 15, 2003.

[35] National Review Online, February 3, 2004.

[36] BBC News Online, February 10, 2004.

[37] Al-Hayat (London), February 4, 2004.

[38] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 3, 2004.

[39] Islam Online, January 15, 2004.

[40] BBC News Online, February 10, 2004.

[41] Al-Hayat (London), December 27, 2003.

[42] Al-Hayat (London) June 26, 2003.

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