Interesting piece posted on the Foreign Policy website on May 12th offers some historical perspective, dating back to the 19th century Dreyfuss Affair and beyond, on the decision of French President Sarkozy to ban the burqa. Much of Ruth Harris’ piece is helpful to understanding the deep ambivalence to the niqab, a veil that covers a Muslim woman’s face, in Quebec. MP+

How the Dreyfus Affair Explains Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban

Militant secularism has a long, troubled history in France, from paranoia over nun’s wimples to the Dreyfusard anti-Jesuit campaigns. Where will it end?


France is once again beset by the politics of the veil. After a 2004 ban on “all conspicuous” religious symbols in French state schools — a measure that barred the wearing of crucifixes, Sikh turbans, and Jewish skullcaps but was clearly targeted at headscarf-wearing Muslims — President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken it a step further.

Now he is pressing for a total ban on the public wearing of the full veil, or burqa, by Muslim women, framing the legislation in terms of national identity: “[The burqa] will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic,” he said last year. The veil made women “prisoners behind netting” and “is not the idea the French republic has of women’s dignity.”

Indeed, the debate has a long history in France and is not merely a product of the right, though Sarkozy’s opponents denounce it as a nakedly political attempt to attract anti-immigrant support. A powerful, and sometimes irrational, fear of religious influence — once Catholic, now Muslim — has long been a part of French society, through the anti-clerical campaigns of the 19th century and the anti-Jesuit paranoia of the Dreyfus affair. It’s impossible to understand the burqa debate without understanding the nature of the polemics that shaped it.

Read the whole piece here.