Nicolas Sarkozy must have expected his comments last week about outlawing the burqa in France to ignite national debate -- but, oh, how fast news travels in our digital age. Before long, the North African arm of al-Qaida issued a response on various Islamic Web sites, vowing "vengeance," and calling for followers to "respond to this hate" and defend "the honor of our daughters and our sisters." Now, says Foreign Ministry spokesperson Eric Chevallier, the country is exercising "very great vigilance" toward the threats and is determined "to fight terrorism."
Well, this is unfortunate, to say the least. Just about the last thing needed in France's debate about banning the burqa is a threat of terrorism from Islamic extremists. The chances of a fair, levelheaded conversation about the issue already seemed slim, now it seems damn near impossible. Here we have an illustration of exactly the kind of black-and-white, good-versus-evil reactionism that almost always undermines conversations about Islamic garb. And, as always, the battlefield is women's bodies.
On a related note, Christopher Hitchens belligerently argues today in the New York Daily News that the U.S. should consider a burqa ban, too. He compares the veil to "the compulsory growing of beards for men," arguing that they are are a symbols "of a denial of rights and the inflicting of a tyrannical code that obliterates personal liberty." Yet, he doesn't seem concerned with outlawing Sikhs or Orthodox Jews from leaving their beards unshaven. Maybe that's because, as Hitchens argues, the terrorists behind "faith-based suicide attacks on our civil aviation ... have not been caught wearing crucifixes or Stars of David around their necks." In other words, we should ban Islamic garb because Muslims have a corner on terrorism in this country? Tell that to all the abortion providers whose clinics have been bombed by Christian extremists.
One can only hope that the French commission charged with considering a burqa ban will rise above the xenophobic hysteria.