A ban on markers of difference

The general public in France sees the face-veil differently from French Muslims

The face-veil has played a political role in French society since the wearing of all "conspicuous" symbols of religion, including the hijab, was outlawed from schools in 2004. However, this debate has received new impetus in the past seven months, since President Sarkozy said that the face-veil, or niqab, was "unwelcome" in French society.

The French parliamentary panel tasked with informing policy on the matter yesterday recommended a partial ban on the niqab in all hospitals, schools, public transport and government offices. The report concluded that "the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic". It also wants women who cover their faces to be denied state services, including work visas, residency papers or citizenship.

A complete ban on the face-veil in public was pulled at the last minute, following a challenge from the Socialist opposition and concerns over the legality of such a move.

Presenting the report, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, said: "It is the symbol of the repression of women, and . . . of extremist fundamentalism."

However, the findings of the Muslim West Facts Project questions this claim. This collaborative research venture between the Coexist Foundation and Gallup, published as the Gallup Coexist Index 2009 at the end of last year, explores "attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the United Kingdom about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation".

Perhaps surprisingly for Accoyer, the report's findings do not corroborate his views.

With regard to "extremist fundamentalism", the report notes: "The general European populations surveyed are more likely to associate the hijab [sic] with religiosity than fanaticism, oppression, or being against women." Importantly, the general French population is more than three times as likely to associate fanaticism with the hijab than the French Muslim population.

Regarding the link between "repression of women" and the hijab, the views of the two communities differ by an even greater margin: 52 per cent of the general French population associate the hijab with repression, compared to 12 per cent of French Muslims.

First, it is important to note that there are differences between the hijab and alternative forms of veiling, as noted by Mehdi Hasan. The report can be rightly criticised for conflating the two. But there are more pressing points that need to be made.

Given the differences in attitude between the general and Muslim populations in France, the state should not be engaging in demonising and outlawing different forms of veiling. Rather, its resources should be invested in engaging with why such symbols and communal markers cause such consternation and discrepancies in attitude. As the report notes:

In terms of what religious signs and symbols are necessary to remove for minorities to be integrated, Gallup Poll findings show that the headscarf and face-veil strike the loudest chords among the general populations surveyed.

The removal of the face-veil from the public eye is not the way to reconcile issues of integration. Dialogue between and within different communities is the only way in which misconceptions and barriers to integration can be removed. Recognising the differences within and between communities, pluralising discussions and understanding the "other" are the steps to integration -- not wholesale bans on markers of difference.

 

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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.