It is small piece of cloth, known as burqa or niqab, covering the faces of nearly 2,000 veiled women in a population of five million Muslims in France. Yet it has been contested and debated extensively by French lawmakers, the parliament, and President Nicolas Sarkozy. Just last Tuesday a French resolution was passed by a vote of 434 to 0, banning burqa wearing in public. Is this contested burqa debate really about the "liberation of women," as President Sarkozy claims, or an infringement on their rights?
As an Arab-American Muslim woman, I personally don't wear the veil. I certainly would not wear a burqa or niqab. However, I respect people's choices whether they wear a niqab or pierce their body.
But I understand how much our world has changed post 9/11, where Muslims have become more scrutinized and negatively stereotyped as radicals and sometimes "terrorists." This has also ignited worries in Europe that its three-percent Muslim population are determined to transform their once-tolerant continent into Eurabia, a land where the sharia or Islamic law reigns. But let's not forget that the majority of Muslims are not radical. However, discriminating against them in various forms that infringe on their supposedly guaranteed freedom could radicalize some of them.
Telling Muslims in France -- the largest Muslim population in Western Europe -- that the burqa-style veil is regressive and, as Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie describes it, "harms the liberty of women" who actually choose to wear it, can be seen as a form of cultural supremacy, which only deepens the divide between both worlds.
When France, a former colonizer of parts of the Muslim world like North Africa, bans the veiling of the face, this only gives ammunition to Muslim fanatics and militants to divide the remaining moderate Muslims worldwide and conquer the West. These fanatics argue the West is out to get them and erase their identity in various forms, from invading their lands as multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., to banning the construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, to a Belgian resolution banning face-covering veils. Such views are radicalizing some moderate Muslims in an atmosphere where Europe and the West in general are morphing slowly into the ultimate battleground for a clash of civilizations.
Being part of the West, Americans should be concerned about the ramifications of this French ban on face veiling. We are still trying to get over 9/11. The recent Times Square bomb scare orchestrated by a Pakistani-American also reminds us of the never-ending threats from individuals, as well as and sleeping cells, in addition to Al-Qaeda itself.
In order for us to win the battle against radical Islam, the West needs to stick to the democratic values of liberty, equality, and freedom for all. We cannot compromise those values as a result of few militant Muslims' manipulation of religion or use of the burqa and niqab as a cover to commit crimes. We need to build bridges with Muslim men and women by showing them our genuine embrace of multiculturalism. We need to show respect instead of condescending remarks on religious practices that we don't buy but are considered intrinsically part of the cultural fabric of few conservative Muslims who willingly choose to follow them.
While I am not a veil advocate, I made The Colors of Veil, a short documentary on Kimberly King, former US soldier who embraced Islam, rose above societal discrimination to eventually transform her community through her interfaith work. The film won Link TV-One Nation Many Voices Award for best documentary on American-Muslim women. It was popular at many film festivals and was positively featured in the media, including NPR. It allowed Americans to understand and become touched by Kimberly King as a person beyond the veil. We need to support and nurture attempts that allow cultural and religious understanding instead of becoming fixated on changing those who are different from us, just because we believe our way is better.
The French resolution to ban face-covering veils has yet to become a law, but it may not pass constitutional muster in France or in European forums. The Council of Europe, a 47-nation human rights institution, will discuss the burqa issue next month. A Council of Europe commission already said the French ban robs women of their freedom of expression, potentially violating their religious freedoms. The same commission is urging Switzerland to end its ban on the construction of Islamic minarets.