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What’s hiding behind France’s proposed burqa ban?

The proposed ban on burqas speaks more to the problem of integrating Muslims than to any supposed challenge to the French Republic.

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The world’s arbiter of fashion, France, may soon ban the Muslim burqa.

A French parliamentary report on Tuesday called the full veil “unacceptable” and concluded: “We must condemn this excess.” It recommends forbidding it in many public places.

But it is the proposal itself that is excessive – for stepping on basic rights.

French authorities say that only about 1,900 women wear the burqa or the niqab, two versions of the full covering with a mesh or slit for the eyes. That’s .038 percent of France’s Muslim population of about 5 million that’s now deemed a threat to the French Republic and its values.

The burqa does not fit comfortably with Western sentiments. It’s closed; Westerners are open. They want to see people’s faces. It’s also viewed as a prison for women – even if Muslim women are free to choose it. And it symbolizes fundamentalist Islam, which conjures up images of terrorism. That’s perhaps why the Dutch and Austrians are also discussing a burqa ban.

But sentiments shouldn’t be confused with bedrock freedoms, including the right to practice one’s religion. Being uncomfortable with another’s faith or even dress – and encoding that discomfort in law – puts one on the slippery slope to official discrimination. Will Sikh turbans be next?

As President Obama says, “In the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”

Close to 60 percent of French don’t see it that way, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He supports a burqa ban as a way to uphold France’s principles of secularism and equality (he has called the burqa a symbol of women’s “subservience”).

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