Muslims in the Arab world are incensed and Muslims in France are walking a delicate line after President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for an all-out ban on full Islamic veils like the burka.
"Ridiculous" and "misplaced," said a Muslim vendor Thursday at an outdoor market in a working class, ethnically mixed Paris suburb. "Racist," said a Sunni Muslim cleric in Lebanon.
The rector of the Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque, however, held off on harsh criticism, saying only that any ban should be properly explained, and noting that the Qur'an does not require women to cover their bodies and faces.
Sarkozy upped the stakes Wednesday in France's drive to abolish the full veil, ordering a draft law banning them in all public places — defying France's highest administrative body, which says such a ban risks being declared unconstitutional.
Such a measure would put France on the same track as Belgium, which is also moving toward a complete ban amid fears of radicalism and growing Islamic populations in Europe. Sarkozy says such clothing oppresses women and is "not welcome" in France. French officials have also cited a concealed face as a security risk.
France's top government official for family issues, Nadine Morano, said the conservative government wants to "break this dynamic of invasion of burkas in our country."
'Every person has the right to practise their religion, in whatever way they want to.' —Abdel Halim Laeib, a Parisian market vendor
While France has western Europe's largest Muslim population, only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France wear the burka, which has only a mesh screen for the eyes, or the niqab, which leaves a slit for the eyes.
"France is addressing a very strong message. It is a message on an international level to women. How can we explain that while women are fighting in Afghanistan for their freedom, for their dignity, in France we accept what they are fighting against?" Morano said on France-Info radio Thursday.
Abdel Halim Laeib, a market vendor in Livry-Gargan northeast of Paris, is worried that outlawing the veils would inflame tensions in a nation struggling to define its modern identity.
"I find it totally ridiculous," he said. "Every person has the right to practise their religion, in whatever way they want to. Personally, it doesn't bother me if someone wears the full veil, like a woman who can wear a miniskirt, or a low-cut top where we can see her breasts."
Middle East reaction
In Lebanon, Sheik Maher Hammoud, a Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern city of Sidon, called the French actions racist.
"Whenever Islamic thought and culture clashes with Western democracy, racism rears its head and under various names," he said. "Muslims do not need lessons from Sarkozy or anyone else to teach them about human rights or the rights of women."
In Damascus, Mohammed Habash, Syrian lawmaker and head of the Centre for Islamic Studies, said "such decisions only serve to encourage Islamophobia." Given the small numbers of women in France who wear the niqab, he said, "I don't think this constitutes a security or cultural threat."
"This does not bode well for the relationship between Islamic countries and Western governments," he said.
France drew similar criticism when it outlawed Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.