This week members of the lower house of the National Assembly of France approved a bill, which, if ratified by the Senate in September, will make it illegal for women to wear the burqa or niqab in public.
In France, it is estimated that only around 1,900 women, out of a total Muslim population of about five million, wear the full-body veil. In the UK, Germany and Spain the number is almost certainly smaller, yet a survey has shown that the public in all four countries overwhelmingly supports the measure.
Why should a relatively small number of Muslim women who wear this item of clothing in a small number of European towns and cities generate such a high level of disapproval from their fellow citizens?
There is no doubt that in modern multicultural societies -- open societies, in other words -- the tolerated range of behaviour, what people can say and do, including how they dress, is much greater than at any other time in human history.
This makes the widespread opposition to the burqa very puzzling. Part of the explanation must lie in the way that the symbolism of the garment relates to the key economic and social values of the dominant culture.
First, it is obvious that advanced economies require a pool of socially and geographically mobile labour. For better or worse, this means that a very high premium is placed on good social and interpersonal skills. For communication to be effective, it is obvious that a person's face and eyes have to be visible, not least because of the significance of face-to-face encounters in the workplace (even the virtual workplace). In other words, the face becomes symbolic of the whole person.
Moreover, this pattern is not confined to the world of work, but extends to free time as well. For example, it is no accident that a photograph of a face typically dominates a member's profile on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Information conveyed by text is a secondary consideration, often simply filling out details already conveyed by the image.
Image of power
Nevertheless, this emphasis on individuality, interpersonal skills and friendship networks, symbolised by a public face, comes at a price, as it necessarily devalues the role and significance of family and community -- the very aspects of social life that wearers of the burqa are trying to defend. In addition, they and the kinship group to which they belong see themselves pursuing a spiritual, rather than economic identity, guided by a more authentic form of Islam (though many other Muslims will dispute this). For them, the veil is a means to that end because, like all sacred objects, it is believed to be a source of metaphysical power.
Second, it is evident that in the advanced economies of Europe, the main focus of human activity is the production and consumption of secular goods and services. By default, religion has been relegated to the periphery. For most of the population, the evidence suggests that religion forms only a backdrop, mainly concerned with life-cycle rituals connected with birth, marriage and death.
The exception to this pattern is the very small number of seriously committed, full-time religious specialists who live in closed or semi-closed communities. In most of western Europe, the model of appropriate behaviour, including the dress code that is so important in distinguishing religious personnel from laypeople, comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.
It is also worth highlighting that nearly all religious specialists tend to reside within (or near) sacred spaces such convents, monasteries and churches, which are conventionally protected from the profane world by high walls. This is the way they and the secular majority like it; the physical separation permits the sacred status of religious personnel to be maintained.
The argument works the other way round, of course; the absence of religious specialists from mainstream work and leisure spaces ensures that the integrity or purity of the secular world is not contaminated in any way.
Wearers of the burqa, on the other hand, appear to violate this rule concerning division, because although their appearance suggests to many of the secular majority that they are full-time religious specialists who might be expected to behave like celibate Catholic nuns and live in a closed institution, they are to be found in ordinary houses, are often married and often have children, and they shop at the supermarket. Like all behaviour that is perceived as anomalous, this is a source of fear and anxiety for those in the population who do not understand the rules of the game.
Hail the puritans?
There is a further point. A significant segment of socially progressive Europeans, male and female, evidently find it very difficult to understand why women would voluntarily choose to wear the veil. For them, wearing the garment will be perceived as act of betrayal, an attempt to turn back the clock on often hard-won rights. Put simply, the visible marking of a rigidly defined gender role, the elimination of social mobility by restricting access to the mainstream job market, and the removal of a group of young women from interacting with people from other social groups does not sit well with the "open" values of a postmodern world.
For a variety of reasons, therefore, the veil looks certain to remain an important battleground in an ongoing struggle between the dominant secular culture of western Europe and a religious minority struggling to establish the right to worship in accordance with its religious world-view.
But it is important to keep a sense of perspective. Like any sectarian movement trying to make headway in the advanced economies of Europe, the burqa wearers are likely to remain tiny in number. We should also bear in mind that, although for many Europeans, wearers of the burqa resemble anomalous Roman Catholic nuns, these Muslims are, in reality, anti-ritualists, ideologically more akin to the radical puritans of Protestant tradition, another important strand in contemporary western culture.
Perhaps it would be helpful if Christian religious and political leaders pointed this out to their followers and constituents before matters get out of hand. For whichever way you look at it, it is surely in no one's interest that those in Europe who choose to wear the veil should be turned into martyrs.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University.