French diplomats face fallout abroad as bid to ban Islamic veils irks allies - and tourists
PARIS – PARIS (AP) — Protests in Pakistan, al-Qaida warnings, skittish Muslim tourists: France's plan to do away with burqa-style veils is already reverberating far beyond its borders.
A bill to outlaw face veils, aimed at upholding French republican values, is expected to win Senate approval this month. If it passes this key hurdle, French diplomats will face a tough task ensuring the ban doesn't alienate governments, deter devout foreign shoppers loaded with cash, or provoke Islamist terrorists.
It's a complex challenge for a country that works relentlessly to preserve its global diplomatic influence, its cherished secular ideals, and its status as the world's top tourist destination.
Ensuring gender equality, woman's dignity and security are the official reasons France wants to outlaw Islamic veils, most often worn as "niqabs" that hide all but the eyes. Authorities insist the global ban — which would include visiting foreigners — is not anti-Muslim.
But that message has failed to convince some governments, be they Western or France's traditional Arab allies, or trickle down to moneyed travelers who swarm Paris' so-called Golden Triangle, a high-priced shopping district centered around the Champs-Elysees.
That some other European countries like Belgium are considering similar legislation — and Muslim countries like Syria and Egypt have instituted their own limited bans on face veils — may help bolster the French argument, but not win the debate.
"When you're a tourist, you want to go to places you feel you are welcome," said Dalal Saif of Oman, a sultanate bordering Saudi Arabia, during a three-week summer visit to France.
Saif, whose work is tied to the oil industry, spent hours one day with his family selecting perfumes and cosmetics by the bagful at a Champs-Elysees store.
"If they feel unwelcome, France will lose this kind of revenue," he said, adding that such a measure "infringes on (France's) image as custodians, protectors of liberties."
The number of visitors to Paris from the oil-rich Middle East was up nearly 30 percent in the first half of 2010 compared to last year, according to the Paris Tourism and Congress Office.
"I can see that many families will actually change destinations because of this," said Saif, standing by his young daughter, black-robed but bare-faced sister, and wife wearing a chartreuse head scarf.
Many Muslim tourists who wear face veils at home shed them for European vacations, instead donning stylish, often brightly colored headscarves, sometimes paired with big sunglasses.
But that choice doesn't erase a sense that France is offending followers of Islam with its proposed veil ban.
"My family is asking me 'why do you want to go there? They don't like us.'" said Maryam Saeed, a 40-year-old mother of four who works in school administration in Dubai.
"They are taking it religiously, like it shows that in France they don't like Muslims or we're not welcome here," said Saeed, covered in a black abaya cloaking her head but not her face, as she emerged from a shopping spree at the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette.
So far, foreign governments are either silent over the proposed veil ban, divided or unfavorable, said Joseph Maila, who heads a year-old division at the French Foreign Ministry devoted to religious issues.
Some of France's closest allies, Britain and the United States, both with large Muslim populations, are among those who publicly disagree with Paris.
On the veil, "the world isn't black and white," said Maila, "it's gray."
Moderate Muslim leaders in France and elsewhere agree that Islam does not require women to cover their faces, but many are uncomfortable with banning the veil. Scores of religious leaders have denounced the measure, and are struggling with what to advise the faithful.
Sheik Aedh al-Garni, a popular cleric in Saudi Arabia, responding to a query from a Saudi woman in France, said in a July pronouncement that facing an official ban on the veil, "it is better for the Muslim woman to reveal her face" to avoid "harassment or harm."
Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam with women required to veil themselves in public, so the advice by al-Garni, who is widely read, was notable.
But there have been dissenting voices like that of Mohammed al-Nujemi, a Saudi professor at the Institute of Judicial and Islamic Studies: He told women to stay home. Traveling needlessly to a non-Muslim country "is not permissible according to the Shariah," or Islamic law, he told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV network.
The Saudi government, which has defense and business ties with French companies, is among "silent states" that prefer to say nothing about France's veil bill for diplomatic reasons, said Maila, the Foreign Ministry official.
Opposition is strongest in Pakistan, where there have been demonstrations against the measure. A defense of the French position by Ambassador Daniel Jouanneau was published in nine papers this summer, Maila said.
In Jordan, where full veils are rare, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, said Muslim women should continue to visit France "especially if they have business to attend to."
But the group's spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr said: "The French move will cause chaos and we condemn it." European countries that impose a ban on the face-covering veil "will harm their interests, friendships and historically cordial neighborly relations with several Muslim nations."
Beyond such tensions, possible constitutional challenges await an eventual law. But the French are not about to budge. The nation's concept of integration, in which ethnic or religious differences are subsumed by Frenchness, is the ultimate argument for making the face visible.
A 2004 law banned head scarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols in public schools. With Western Europe's largest Muslim population, some 5 million, France also wants an Islam tailored to the West.
"To understand the ban on hiding the face, it must be placed in the French tradition ... To hide behind the veil is to barricade oneself against society," said Maila.
President Nicolas Sarkozy officially opened the debate in June 2009 when he told parliament that veils that hide the face "are not welcome" in France. That same month President Obama, addressing the world's Muslims in a speech in Cairo, defended Muslim women's right to dress as they like. U.S. disapproval of the veil measure was voiced again after France's lower house of parliament overwhelmingly passed the bill July 13. Sarkozy would still need to sign the veil bill if it passes the Senate.
For Britain, any clothing ban would be a "rather un-British thing to do," Immigration Minister Damian Green has said.
Raphael Liogier, a sociology professor who runs the Observatory of the Religious in Aix-en-Provence, fears that France will isolate itself with the measure and, worse, become a "justifiable target" in the eyes of Islamist extremists. "It's an opportunity for them."
The No. 2 of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, said the drive by France and other European nations to ban the veil amounted to discrimination against Muslim women.
"Every single woman who defends her veil is a holy warrior ... in the face of the secular Western crusade," he said in an audio message released July 28.
AP reporters Jenny Barchfield in Paris, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Abdullah Al-Shihri in Riyadh and Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna contributed to this report.