Nothing excuses the horror of Nice, but France's burqa ban alienates Muslims
Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30
There will be many experts with many analyses of just why France is now the main target for Islamist atrocities, like the horrific event that occurred in Nice last Thursday night. But one theory advanced by the BBC's experienced security expert Frank Gardner is that the banning of the burqa - that full-cover garment some Muslim women wear - is a focus of alienation among France's five million Muslims.
The French parliament passed the law "prohibiting concealment of the face in a public space" in 2010, with wide support from the public and only one dissenting parliamentary voice. This followed another law prohibiting all religious symbols in schools (enacted in 2004), but drawing on legislation a century older and aimed, in 1905, at closing Catholic schools.
The 2004 update of banning religious symbols in education means that Islamic veils, headscarves and turbans are unacceptable in public institutions and schools, in particular, must subscribe to "a charter for secularism".
These laws underline France's commitment to secularism - the totemic 'laicité' - but they are often seen by the Muslim population as an anti-Islamic gesture discriminating against their values.
Higher unemployment among Muslim youths and inferior housing conditions in suburban ghettos underline the alienation.
First things first: nothing explains, much less excuses, the sheer evil of the murder of 84 people, including 10 children, carried out by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. We don't even know if he was carrying out this unspeakable atrocity on the orders of Isis or whether Isis camouflaged the terrible deeds of a mentally unbalanced loner as political radicalism.
But we do know that more French Muslims have joined Isis than any other nationality; that France is the main target in Europe for Isis attacks and that French policymakers will have to address this crisis with some serious thought and smart tactics.
Every modern state - Turkey is another example - has to achieve a balance between modernity and religion. Whether secularists like it or not, religious faith is a demographic fact in the world today. Globally, Christianity will increase its numbers by one-third by 2050 and Islam's reach will be similar.
Across the world, people who practise a religion have more children than the secularised, even when contraception is fully available and approved. Thus, to impose rigid secularising laws will prompt social conflict, since there will be a constant groundswell of voters who claim recognition for the symbols of their faith.
It can be difficult to get this balance right. But Dr Frank Foley, an Irish-born academic specialising in War Studies at King's College, London, says that Britain (and Ireland) have tackled the issues arising from multiculturalism, as well as intelligence about radicalised groups or individuals, much better than the French.
Sharing of intelligence between state agencies is crucial: but so is a smart approach to the problems of cultural alienation.
Incomers into any society have to be integrated into the host culture, while allowing for respect for their own traditions. No other country in Europe followed France's ban on Islamic dress (Belgium tried, but the government fell; Italy also proposed such a law, but it was found to be unconstitutional).
Britain's softly-softly approach is surely prudent: individuals may not hide their faces where a specific public transaction requires full facial identity, but the State does not dictate to individuals what they may or may not wear.
If you walk up the Edgeware Road in London, you will see many people wearing full Islamic dress. If you visit Stamford Hill in the north London suburb, you will see quaint-looking persons dressed in the 18th-century garb of the Jewish ultra-orthodox, the men in fur hats at the height of summer.
In a free society, citizens are entitled to wear whatever they like, even if others think it daft, backward or oppressive to women. Only one deputy in the French National Assembly, Daniel Garrigue, made that point when the burqa ban was being debated.
Coping with a multicultural society can be a slow learning curve. Too much multiculturalism and you fragment the community; too much enforced integration and you may create savage reaction in a younger generation born into the host nation. A modern state has to affirm its own values confidently, and yet there must be some flexibility when it comes to governing minorities.
However it is done, France, and other European nations, will have to tackle this question of alienation amongst its five million Muslims. Even moderate Muslims, who do not necessarily approve of the veil or burqa, have seen the prohibition (carried out under President Sarkozy's administration, and at his urging) as part of an attack on their traditions. The American Islamic scholar, Hamza Yusuf, has written: "French laicism seems as fundamentalist as the very religious fanatics it wants to keep out."
French 'laicism' (secularism), it should be emphasised, hasn't inspired the atrocious killing and maiming of innocent women, men and children on a holiday beach, so there is no moral equivalence here.
But the essential challenge faces every European state: to balance modernity with religious identity and to achieve integration without alienation.