Thursday, 30 July 2009

President Sarkozy’s comments on burqa -
It’s outrageous, offensive and inflammatory

Dr. Mozammel Haque

President Sarkozy made his attack on a small minority of Muslim women in his ‘state of the nation’ speech, the first by a French President to both houses of the French Parliament since 1873, stating that the burqa was not welcome in France: A parliamentary commission has been set up to investigate the use of the burqa in France, home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe – five million and growing..

Sarkozy’s speech should be seen as a piece of politics. Despite good results at the European elections, Sarkozy and his government are not popular. With gloomy economic forecasts and discontent in workplaces across Europe, he made a feeble attempt to deflect his nation’s attention from more pressing issues to the quintessentially French preoccupation with women’s clothes.

President Sarkozy’s comment on burqa
President Sarkozy said, “The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom.”

Nationally, the speech was attacked by all the opposition parties as an ‘act of self-promotion by a President with monarchical pretensions’. French Muslim leaders reacted cautiously saying this would further stigmatize a big immigrant population. “To raise the subject like this…. Is a way of stigmatizing Islam,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Muslim Council.

The speech already received criticism of France abroad. President Obama attacked the French headscarf rule in his historic speech in Cairo University saying that the United States prized freedom of religion and the United States did not believe that the Government should dictate people’s dress. “We are not going to tell people what to wear”, said President Obama

Analytical study of President Sarkozy’s remarks
Before looking into the reaction and response to Sarkozy’s comment on burqa, let me analyse his remarks.

Not sign of religion: First of all, Sarkozy said burqa is not sign of religion. Observers raised question: since when did Sarkozy become an authority on Islam? Has he read the verse of the Qur’an (Surah Ahzab, Verse 59) which explicitly enjoins believing women to wear an outer garment when outdoors, so that they are identified as Muslim women and not harassed? If so, how is he qualified to offer a different conclusion from centuries of Muslim exegetes and scholars who affirmed that such a garment is undoubtedly a religious obligation? Has he ever spoken to any of the thousands of Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa/abaya/jilbab and asked them the rationale behind their choice of that garb?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is 'not qualified' to judge the Muslim women's dress code, said Muslim scolar in reaction to his branding of full-body veils as a sign of servitude. "This man is not qualified to tell Muslim women what they should or should not wear," said Moustafa Al Shaka'a, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, an influential arm of Al Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's prestigious institution. "First, he (Sarkozy) does not believe in Islam, which is a heavenly religion that holds women in high regard. Another reason is that he belongs to a culture, which is unfair to women," Al-Shaka'a told Gulf News. "One example, Islam gives women the right to keep her family's name after marriage, which is not the case in the West (...)

Secondly, Sarkozy said, it’s a sign of subservience: Observers commented, “It is a sign of subservience – not to human beings, fickle fashion trends and social mores – but to the Higher Wisdom of the One who decreed it an obligatory protection for Muslim women.”
Thirdly, Sarkozy said, it’s a sign of debasement. Observer explained debasement thus: “Debasement is trading in the bodies of women, displaying them and using them as a means of provoking and gratifying unnatural biological urges in strangers. Debasement is the deliberate, systematic dehumanization of women and their relegation to being sexual toys in the hands of profiteers – not the covering of a woman’s body in public, that protects her from precisely such predators.” Wrote Rahla Khan.

Response and Reaction in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, people from different levels and different walks of life reacted to President Sarkozy’s interference in woman’s rights to their dress code. Responding to President Sarkozy’s remarks on burqa, the Communities Minister of the British Government, Shahid Malik, M.P. said, “It is not the job of government to dictate what people should or should not wear in our society – that is a matter of personal choice.”

Communities Minister
“There are no laws stating what clothes or attire are acceptable and so whether one chooses to wear a veil or burqa, a miniskirt or goth outfit is entirely at the individual’s discretion,” said Minister Malik and added, “It is true that many Muslims feel the veil and its rationale are misunderstood and so sensible discussion provides an opportunity to create a better understanding and ultimately ensures we are more at ease with the diverse society within which we live.”

Lord Ahmed
“President Sarkozy’s remarks are inflammatory,” Labour Peer, Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotharham, told me in an interview and added, “Burqa is worn by a small minority of Afghani women and there are only a handful of Afghani women in France. It is a deliberate diversion from his domestic problems to stir up heat against Muslims.”

Lord Ahmed also said, “According to Sarkozy, ‘burqa is a sign of subservience and debasement’. Many would say that naked women posing for photograph and using them to amuse men in the sea beeches is also sexual exploitation of women. I am fully aware that Carla Bruni (Mrs. Sarkozy) posed naked in Magazines and there is this of other women who posed naked in the beeches of southern France.”

“In a society where you are allowed to take off your clothes in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity they want to ban those who want to keep their dignity and modesty in line with morality,” said Lord Ahmed.

Lord Sheikh
Conservative Peer, Lord Sheikh, said, “I don’t agree with President Sarkozy’s remarks concerning wearing burqa. I feel that Muslim ladies should be given the opportunity to wear Burqa or Hijab or Niqab if they want to do so. The State should not be interfering with the dress code of the Muslim ladies; they should be given the choice. In the United Kingdom, there is no such restriction and I very much hope that this is continued and there is no interference in our beliefs and our attitudes to the dress code of Muslim or any other racial or religious groups.”

Sir Iqbal Sacranie
Sir Iqbal Sacranie, former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain and the present chairman of Muslim Aid, told me in an interview, “These comments coming from such a senior political figure in Europe is extremely disturbing. It goes against the very tradition and values of a liberal secular democratic system which guarantees respect to individual rights, to address in accordance with the culture and religious traditions.”

“There may be arguments within the Muslim community whether wearing of burqa is part of the Islamic teachings but it is for the authentic Islamic scholars and renowned Islamic institutions, such as Fiqh Council in Makkah al-Mukarramah and Al-Azhar in Cairo to give a clear directive on this contentious issue,” said Sir Iqbal.

The Muslim Aid chairman also said, “However, looking at the recent pronouncement of the French government including the banning of headscarf in French schools clearly shows that these measures are clear infringement of the basic human right and breach of both UN and European Convention of Human Rights.”

“Such statements are deeply worrying and gives succor to the extreme right-win fascist groups in Europe to openly incite hatred against Muslims,” said Sir. Iqbal.

Muslim Organizations:
Muslim Council of Britain
“French leader’s burqa remarks are designed to whip-up further xenophobia against Muslims,” reacted by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in its press release on 23 June 2009 and called on Sarkozy to "desist from engaging in and promoting divisive politics" towards France's Muslim population.

“The Muslim Council of Britain criticized French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s intention to ban the wearing of Burqa - a garment worn by a minority of Muslim women in accordance with their religious belief. Reiterating its long established position that individuals must have the freedom to choose their attire on the basis of deeply-held religious beliefs, the MCB called upon the French President to desist from engaging in and promoting divisive politics towards its Muslim inhabitants,” the press release said.

In this respect, the MCB echoes the US President Barack Obama’s caution that “it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit - for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

Dr Reefat Drabu, Assistant Secretary General of the MCB, said in a statement: “It is patronising and offensive to suggest that those Muslim women who wear the burqa do so because of pressure or oppression by their male partners or guardians.”

Speaking for the umbrella group of more than 500 Muslim organizations including mosques, charities and community groups, she added: “Such suggestions can legitimately be perceived as antagonistic towards Islam.”

“Instead of taking a lead in promoting harmony and social cohesion amongst its people, the French President appears to be initiating a policy which is set to create fear and misunderstanding and may lead to Islamophobic reaction not just in France but in the rest of Europe too,” Dr. Reefat Drabu said.

Union of Muslim Organizations (UMO)
“It is all the more disturbing coming from the President of a country which prides itself to be the pioneer of liberty, equality and fraternity. President Sarkozy has brought humiliation on the French people by denying their right to wear whatever the dress they want to wear. Secondly, as it is targeted against Muslim women, he is infected with the disease of Islamophobia which is not being acceptable to the Muslims throughout the world,” said Dr. Syed Aziz Pasha, the General Secretary of the Union of Muslim Organizations of the United Kingdom & Ireland (UMO), in an interview with me.

Dr. Pasha urged “the President of the European Union to demand the French President that he should not enact any law which deprives the fundamental human rights of all French citizens.,”

Sister Yvonne Ridley
Respect Party politician Yvonne Ridley, revert to Islam and Press TV Journalist, told me in an interview, “It is outrageous but this man is using his position to try and to dictate what women should or should not wear. I will defend any woman’s rights to wear what she wants. This is nothing to do with religion but it is unacceptable attack on woman’s rights by a man who obviously regards woman as inferior.”

“When will man learn to stay out of the women’s wardrobe?” enquired Sister Ridley.

Most broadsheets continue to engage in the debate surrounding Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial comments on the burqa in France. Selected comments from The Times and The Guardian published on this issue.

Frank Skinner in The Times
Writing in The Times, London, Frank Skinner, English writer and award-winning comedian and best known for the hit football song, observed, “I don’t believe that any man should force his wife to wear a burka but I’m not sure that Mr. Sarkozy, the extremely proud owner of a trophy wife, is the best man to speak on the matter. Add to this that he was once seen to be checking his text messages during a private audience with the Pope and one might also ask whether religious sensitivity is one of his strengths.”

“To ban it (burqa) is to remove women’s choice, using oppression to combat oppression. Rigid Rules that make no allowance for personal choice are more suited to the Taleban than to one of Europe’s great democracies. So that’s my take on the burka issue,” said Skinner.

Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian
Writing in The Guardian under the caption, ‘Brush up your Hegel, Sarko’, Stuart Jeffries, feature writer and columnist of The Guardian, observed, “What’s striking in Sarkozy’s speech is that it is yet again a man who denounces women and presumes that they are cut off from social life. They may be cut off from Sarkozy’s secular French society, and that may be difficult for allegedly tolerant Western liberals, but they are not cut off from all society. In fact they’re very much part of the society that many Westerners despise as oppressing women.”

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