The good news is that the European Court of Human Rights has upheld France’s 2010 ban on wearing the niqab in public.
The bad news is that it did so in the name of secularism, which is guaranteed to rebound on the symbols of other religions as well.
The niqab is a religious statement, but then so are the cross and the yarmulke. If we ban one, we must ban them all – aren’t all religions equal? Equally offensive, that is?
The Court explained its rulings in the federalese cant that, though it uses many English words, is somewhat lacking in the forthrightness one expects from the language of Shakespeare:
“The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question.”
Nice, isn’t it? I’ve often volunteered my translating services, but this sentence has enough stumbling blocks for any translator to fall flat on his face. At a guess though, the idea is that ‘interpersonal relationships’ are impossible if one can’t see the other person’s face.
Really? Tell that to the world’s billions of texters, tweeters and users of on-line dating services.
And what about people covering their faces for purely secular reasons, such as extreme cold? Back where I come from, whenever the temperature headed towards 30 below, not only women but also men wrapped their faces in heavy scarves to save their noses from otherwise certain frostbite.
(Such temperatures aren’t the unique property of Russia: they are familiar to France’s Alpine regions as well.)
This in no way curtailed ‘interpersonal relationships’ or prevented them from becoming downright flirtatious. There was an implicit element of surprise there, for trying to chat up a woman whose face one couldn’t see was in a way bidding for a pig in a poke…
Forget I said that. First, this inelegant idiom is disrespectful of women. Second, on pain of having one’s throat slit, one can’t have porcine allusions when broaching an Islamic subject, however tangentially.
The main point remains though: secular reasoning fails as miserably in this case as it does in so many others. Had I drafted the Court ruling, rather than merely trying to decipher it, the wording would have been different:
“The niqab symbolises an aggressive ideology openly proclaiming its hatred of the West in general and its founding religion in particular. As such, this garment is offensive not only to the practitioners of Christianity but also to all Westerners (even the French, with their laïcité) who recognise its significance. Therefore the niqab shall not be worn publicly in any country whose religious, cultural, social and political roots are Christian.”
If the EU begat a judiciary able to express such a sentiment in its rulings, I’d reassess my feelings about European federalism, which at present oscillate between loathing and disgust. However, I don’t think there’s much danger of that.
And speaking of danger, the original anti-niqab law was passed during Sarkozy’s presidency. This was one of only two things Sarko could chalk up in the plus column, the other one being that he’s not Hollande.
Many in France see him as a realistic candidate to replace my friend François in the next election or, if Hollande keeps steering the country towards perdition with the same firm hand, even before it. Alas, Sarko instead seems to be a candidate for a tenner in prison.
Arrested two days ago, he is now mis en examen on allegations that he used his power in an attempt to find out information about legal proceedings against him. Of these there were quite a few for Sarko had six court cases pending against him at the same time.
The French legal term mis en examen means under official investigation. Since the closest British equivalent is being charged with a crime, Sarko is upholding the country’s fine political tradition.
Of his recent predecessors, Chirac was not only charged with corruption but actually convicted, and Mitterrand should have taken the drop for all sorts of things, of which corruption would have been the most innocuous.
In the old days, Sarkozy could have slipped out of the country by donning the niqab and passing for a Muslim woman. It’s a tragic paradox that his own law, now upheld by the European Court, makes such an escape impossible.