Monday, May 17, 2010


Thinly veiled reasoning

France is considering legislation to ban the burqa or niqab, the full “veil” that some Muslim women wear, which covers the whole face. The surface reasoning is that people need to see each other’s faces — that being able to do so makes people safer by allowing identification, and establishing social connections. What some are critical of is the idea that this is anti-Muslim legislation.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly (UMP Party, the political conservatives), argues the UMP’s side of the question.

This criticism is unjust. The debate on the full veil is complicated, and as one of the most prominent advocates in France of a ban on the burqa, I would like to explain why it is both a legitimate measure for public safety and a reaffirmation of our ideals of liberty and fraternity.

I’ll note that he doesn’t mention “equality”, the third French ideal.

Setting aside whether or not I agree with the legislation — M Copé is correct that it’s a complicated question, and I have conflicting thoughts about it — I find his particular arguments specious, and I wanted to look at the key points here.

The ban would apply to the full-body veil known as the burqa or niqab. This is not an article of clothing — it is a mask, a mask worn at all times, making identification or participation in economic and social life virtually impossible.

This face covering poses a serious safety problem at a time when security cameras play an important role in the protection of public order. An armed robbery recently committed in the Paris suburbs by criminals dressed in burqas provided an unfortunate confirmation of this fact. As a mayor, I cannot guarantee the protection of the residents for whom I am responsible if masked people are allowed to run about.

M Copé adds that “The visibility of the face in the public sphere has always been a public safety requirement,” but this strikes me as a fairly silly argument. Before we used cameras, when we relied on human identification, the identification of random people in the street was so unreliable as to be essentially useless. Now, with street cameras, we still find that crimes are not solved by finding people on the camera recordings and linking them to the situation. Rather, we’re only able to find them afterward — once we know who the perpetrators were, we can go back to surveillance recordings and say, “Ah, yes, see, there he is.”

Now, facial identification by witnesses or security cameras at the crime scene is much more useful, and such identifications often are the linchpins of prosecutors’ cases. And, as we know, robbers wear masks of all sorts at crime scenes, all the time. I can’t see that banning facial veils in the street will make any difference to someone who wants to put on a ski mask or a gorilla suit in order to rob a convenience store.

What’s more, it is not illegal to walk around most cities in ski masks, gorilla suits, Halloween outfits, or any other form of disguise. I recently saw, in the Times Square area in New York City, someone in a Lion King outfit to promote the Broadway play, and two guys (or girls?) in Elmo outfits, promoting something, one presumes (or perhaps picking pockets; can we be sure?). One often encounters mimes with heavily painted faces, people in clown outfits, and so on. Will all those be banned as well?

For that matter, could I be arrested for covering my face with my hand? A floppy hat might shield one’s face from the surveillance cameras; are floppy hats allowed? Suppose someone worried that young people wearing “cargo pants” might be concealing weapons, and concluded that cargo pants should be banned... along with trench coats and who knows what else?

Public safety is neither ensured by nor compromised by clothing.

The permanent concealment of the face also raises the question of social interactions in our democracies. In the United States, there are very few limits on individual freedom, as exemplified by the guarantees of the First Amendment. In France, too, we are passionately attached to liberty.

But we also reaffirm our citizens’ equality and fraternity. These values are the three inseparable components of our national motto. We are therefore constantly striving to achieve a delicate balance. Individual liberty is vital, but individuals, like communities, must accept compromises that are indispensable to living together, in the name of certain principles that are essential to the common good.

Let’s take one example: The fact that people are prohibited from strolling down Fifth Avenue in the nude does not constitute an attack on the fundamental rights of nudists. Likewise, wearing headgear that fully covers the face does not constitute a fundamental liberty. To the contrary, it is an insurmountable obstacle to the affirmation of a political community that unites citizens without regard to differences in sex, origin or religious faith. How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance — those universal signs of our common humanity — refuses to exist in the eyes of others?

OK, this one’s just dumb: if someone wants to sequester herself from social interactions, legislation that blocks one way of doing that is pointless. Orthodox Jews in New York City often separate themselves socially from outsiders, and they can do that quite effectively without covering their faces. Fraternité is an ideal, not a demand; there isn’t — and there shouldn’t be — any requirement that anyone, be she a Muslim woman or anyone else, establish social connections with others in French society.

And likening it to nudism is also silly. Leaving aside, too, whether we should be allowed to walk in public in the nude, these are just not the same things.

It’s fine to say that you don’t want to live next to someone who hides her face, but then admit that that’s what’s going on, and be open about it, rather than trying to hide behind community ideals and slogans, and bogus claims about public safety.

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