France's burqa debate stokes passion in North Africa

Nov 30, -0001
ALGIERS/RABAT: A French proposal to ban full face veils has stoked debate in Europe and also provoked strong reactions across the Mediterranean in North Africa, where many of France's Muslims trace their origins.

Former French colonies Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are still tied to France by history, language and migration, so their views on the "burqa" issue could have a direct influence on how Muslims inside France react to a ban.

People in North Africa are split between those who see the proposed ban -- a version of which has already been approved by Belgium's lower house of parliament -- as an attack on Islam, and those who applaud Europe for defending secular values.

What is shared though by at least some people on each side of the argument is a concern that talk of a ban could be exploited by unscrupulous politicians and ratchet up tension between the authorities in Europe and Muslim communities.

"I am against this form of dress ... but we should not enact laws against it," Khadija Riyadi, president of Morocco's leading independent human rights group, AMDH, told Reuters.

"The right wing in France will take advantage of this law during elections when they should be addressing the situation of Muslims in France and trying to help them shrug off joblessness, poverty and racism," she said.

The "burqa" issue has, in France and other countries, become the focus for a debate about Islam and European society.

Belgium's lower house of parliament last month approved a bill to ban wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, though it still needs to pass the upper house.

France, home to the European Union's largest Muslim minority, is planning to debate a draft law to ban all face veils in public. Influential politicians in Austria and the Netherlands have also advocated a ban.


For some people in North Africa, those discussions are evidence of a racist push to evict Muslims from Europe.

"It is not just a campaign but a war against our people in Europe," said Sheikh Abdelfetah Zeraoui, a cleric in Algeria who belongs to the traditionalist Salafist strain of Islam.

"We will urge our decision makers to apply reciprocity for European women entering into Algeria. They should be wearing the Muslim veil. Otherwise we won't let them come to Algeria."

Just as in Europe, women in North Africa who wear full face veils -- known as the niqab or burqa -- are a small minority.

Many women wear the hijab, which covers the head but leaves the face exposed, while a sizeable minority go uncovered.

Fatima Bougttaya, 32, comes from the working class neighbourhood of Sale, near Rabat, and wears a full burqa that covers her from head to toe, with only her hands exposed.

"It is just a racist decision to destroy Islam," she said, when asked about the proposed French ban. "Why do they not make a law against women who exhibit their bodies in public and in front of cameras?"


North Africa plays a role in helping form Muslim opinion in Europe because many people of North African origin regularly travel back to the region and the mosques they attend abroad are often run by clerics trained in Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia.

Secular-minded people in North Africa sympathise with European moves to ban the face veil, seeing an echo of their own concerns that hardline Islamists in their countries are becoming too powerful.

"The West has the right to preserve its secularism," said Abdelrhani Moundib, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Mohammed V University in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

"As a Moroccan Muslim, I am against the burqa. I see nothing in it that relates to Islam or chastity," he said.

Radhia Nasraoui is a lawyer and opposition activist in the Tunisian capital who does not cover her head.

"I am against any kind of limits on personal freedom, but in this case I think the Western explanations (for banning the face veil) are logical," she said. "How can you know who the person is who is wearing a niqab?" AGENCIES








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