In 2006, Jack Straw, then leader of the House of Commons in the UK parliament, published a now famous piece on the face veil, or niqab, worn by some Muslim women. And so began the political mainstream's campaign against the niqab across Europe, sparking controversy within the Muslim community, as well as outside it. Four years later, with the latest ban proposed by the French parliament, the story continues - but what is this really about? Is it really about a stubborn Muslim minority that is so set on its women covering their faces? Is it about a liberal Europe, coming to grips with the limits of liberalism? Is it about both?
Within the Muslim community, the views are more nuanced than one might suppose. For years, there have been debates among Muslims worldwide about the niqab. Take one such debate, which goes back several centuries: within the Shafi'i rite of Sunni Islamic law, the practice is theoretically considered to be compulsory, at least according to a common position among scholars. That explains its practice across Yemen, a predominantly Shafi'i community - but it does not explain its rarity across South-east Asia, where the overwhelming majority of Shafi'i Muslims reside. Why? Covering of the face simply does not fit with South-east Asian norms - and, as such, Shafi'i scholars in that region rely upon other legitimate positions within the Shafi'i rite, as well as in other Sunni rites, that do not regard the face veil to be compulsory.
Regardless of the Taliban's opinion in Afghanistan, or the opinions of some government officials in the Arab world, there is not universal agreement that the niqab is an obligation, nor can one honestly say that it has no basis at all in Islamic law. Both stances are simply false. And that is that. That explains why so many Muslim women in Europe today, even if they regard themselves as very pious, do not wear the niqab, and why so very, very few do. It also explains why those same people who reject wearing it equally uphold the right of others to do so. Very liberal, one could say - and in this regard, they have far more right to consider themselves the inheritors of Voltaire than the European politicians who insist on banning it.
So, if the numbers of Muslim women who don the niqab are so few, why is it such an issue in Europe? Why has France taken such an interest in it, and why is Italy threatening to follow suit, with no less than four draft bills on the subject already circulating in parliamentary committees?In Europe, the question is linked deeply to the internal struggle on what constitutes "Europeanness". Even before 2006, populist politicians across the continent had been trying to get the niqab banned, on the grounds that it constituted a "threat" to European values. But when Mr Straw criticised one of his constituents for wearing it, the gates were flung open.
His criticism raises important questions. Didn't the constituent actually express her commitment to British democracy by visiting his office? What happened to the freedom of choice for any Briton to wear what he or she liked?For years, particularly after the July 7 bombings in London, Muslim European communities have been in the spotlight - not merely seen as a security threat, but as a cultural one. The fear is that Muslim Europeans are a fifth column, dedicated to the destruction of European civilisation through conversion and high birth rates. It's an incredibly dangerous line of discussion, but one which Europe is familiar with looking back at reports about Jews in the early 20th century.
The "EurArabia" thesis has only been postulated by an extreme minority. Nevertheless, over the last few years, the idea has been given more respectability by populist measures - an example being the minaret ban in Switzerland last year. As a result, the political mainstream has tacked more to the right to keep their base on board. Arguably, this is far more problematic for Muslims - when it is the British National Party or UK Independence Party (both far-right parties) pushing for a ban, that's one thing. When it is the political elite and mainstream in France doing the same, that's quite another. A recent report from the University of Exeter reported in this newspaper details how the political mainstream itself is partially to blame for the rise of anti-Muslim violence in London - and there is evidence to back up such a claim.
Immediately after saying that the niqab was "not welcome" in the country, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that no law should stigmatise any section of French society. Many Muslim French citizens, nearly all of whom do not wear the niqab, have protested against the law, arguing that it will indeed stigmatise all Muslims in France similar to earlier legislation that partially banned the headscarf, or hijab. Recent history lends credence to such a fear - and surely, does not the French slogan of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" protect a woman's right to dress as she sees fit?
Already across Europe, populist parties are leading the debate on the Muslim community, narrowing their role in the public sphere down to issues like minarets, hijabs and niqabs. The political mainstream in Europe has the responsibility to confront this discourse rather than make it respectable. France and Italy - indeed, all European countries - are dignified nations with a lot of proud points in their histories. One of those things is the right that people may live as they choose, as long as they harm no one else by their choice. In so doing, they will not be betraying European liberalism - rather, they will be upholding one of its most basic principles.
H A Hellyer is a Fellow at the University of Warwick's Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Europe Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding