French Muslim council slams call for burka query
French MP describes burqa as new "green fascism"
France's Muslim council hit out Thursday at a lawmakers' call for an inquiry into women who wear the burka, the head-to-toe Islamic veil, warning not to "stigmatize" the country's five million Muslims.
A group of 58 French MPs are asking for a parliamentary panel to look at ways to curb the wearing of the burka or niqab, which they describe as a "prison" and "degrading" for women and contrary to French secular principles.
The lawmaker spearheading the drive, Communist Andre Gerin, is mayor of the southern city of Venissieux, home to a large north African immigrant community, where he says the sight of fully-covered women has become commonplace.
"Our politicians need to stop acting so blind," Gerin said, describing the burka as evidence of a new "green fascism" led by Islamic fundamentalists.
Housing minister Fadela Amara, a Muslim-born women's rights campaigner, waded into the fray saying "we must do everything to stop burkas from spreading, in the name of democracy, of the republic, of respect for women."
"The worrying thing is that we are seeing more and more of them," she said, describing the burka as "a kind of tomb for women."
But Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the official French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), insisted full-body veils remain a rare exception among France's Muslim community, Europe's largest.
"To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatizing Islam and the Muslims of France," he charged.
"We are shocked by the idea parliament should be put to work on such a marginal issue," he said, saying lawmakers would do better to focus on the hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost in the economic crisis.
There are no figures on the number of women who wear a full-body Islamic covering in France -- and whether it is on the rise -- and lawmakers say that is one of the aims of the inquiry.
Gerin's measure is backed by several dozen deputies from President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party and is expected to come up for a vote in the National Assembly.
To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatizing Islam and the Muslims of France
Mohammed Moussaoui, CFCM
"A return towards Islam's past"
France passed a controversial law in 2004 forbidding pupils from wearing veils and other religious symbols in state schools as part of the government's drive to defend secularism.
The new row comes weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama made an apparent dig at France's headscarf ban in a speech aimed at healing rifts with the Islamic world.
Sarkozy later said he agreed with Obama that Muslim women in the West should be free to wear the headscarf, prompting an outcry from French feminists.
Gerin charged that "under President Sarkozy we are taking worrying steps backwards on secularism."
Immigration Minister Eric Besson warned Thursday against reigniting a row on the headscarf issue, saying "France has managed to strike a balance, and it would be dangerous to call that into question."
Paris Mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur said he supports the proposal for a panel of deputies to look at the wearing of the burka "on the condition that they listen to what the experts on Islam have to say."
Boubakeur said the burka marked "a return towards Islam's past, in line with the preaching and vision of fundamentalists."
But he also said many women chose to wear a full-body covering as a way of asserting their Muslim identity, faced with a mainstream society they feel to be hostile towards any kind of Islamic headscarf.
If the lower house agrees to set up the commission, it would draft a report to be released no later than Nov. 30, said Gerin.
We must do everything to stop burkas from spreading, in the name of democracy, of the republic, of respect for women
Housing Minister Fadela Amara