Muslim Veil Ban Sparks Riot and Reflection in France

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Sixteen months after France passed a law making full-faced veils, also known as niqabs, illegal in the country, simmering resentment and outright protest still exists within the country’s Muslim community.

Just two weeks ago in Marseille, as a number of Muslim families celebrated the end of the Ramadan fasting period with midnight meals, two patrolling policemen happened upon a woman wearing such a veil. Standing in front of the Grand Sunna Mosque, the police challenged the woman’s niqab, demanding that she remove it. She refused.

As the confrontation grew increasingly volatile, young bystanders stepped in, claiming that the police had no business patrolling the predominantly Muslim neighborhood at the late hour, or accosting its citizens. Eventually, the police and dozens of bystanders got to pushing, and the scene exploded into what would later be called a riot during a meeting of France’s National Assembly in Paris. Police reinforcements poured in to quell the battle soon after it started, but the incident, which took place on July 24, remains the largest resistance to the veil ban since its implementation.

Though France’s larger and more moderate Muslim organizations have called for their followers to respect the law of the nation, more fundamentalist and radical Muslim worshippers have little respect for the rule. Grand Sunna, which had been converted from a simple storefront, is reportedly home to some of the Marseille’s more radical preachers.

“For young militants, this ban upsets them,” Nassera Benmarnia, who heads the local Muslim Family Union, told the Washington Post. “But most people just want to be left alone.”

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, but the niqab ban has been supported unilaterally in the country’s politics. For the second consecutive year, the U.S. State Department condemned the ban as an infringement on freedom of choice in its annual report on religious freedom. The French Interior Ministry announced on the ban’s anniversary that 299 women had been given citations similar to traffic tickets for wearing full-face veils.

Similar bans are in the process of being put in place in Belgium and the Netherlands, reflecting a growing unease among Western Europe’s Christian majority. Cultural shifts are not the only source of tension between the two communities, as Muslim immigrants have been charged with burdening social service departments and taking work away from native citizens in the midst of the region’s economic crisis.

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