Too Muslim To Be French?

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Secularity has been a pillar of France's republican values for over a century. It's the strict privatization of an individual's faith, with the intention of making it impossible to discriminate against anyone because of their religion.

But there are times when France's adhesion to secularity seems to generate the same prejudice it's supposed to prevent. On Friday, it was revealed that the nation's highest administrative authority has denied a woman's naturalization application on the grounds that she's effectively too Muslim.

The July 27 decision was revealed in Le Monde, which began its story asking whether "the burqa is incompatible with French nationality" The story suggested the answer is apparently yes, and unfurled that tale of a 32 year-old native Moroccan woman identified as Faiza M. as evidence. Though married to a French citizen and the mother of their three, French-born children, Faiza M. was denied citizenship on the grounds that she has "adopted a religious practice incompatible with essential values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes".

Documents filed by immigration and social service officials reviewed by France's Conseil d'Etat stated Faiza M. had turned up for her naturalization interviews covered in black from head to foot, her face veiled with only her eyes visible. The reports said she explained her attire, her aversion to leaving her house, and full submission to her husband's authority as part of the couple's practice of Salafism — a literal reading and rigorous observance of the Qu'ran.

Faiza M. noted that she "never questioned the fundamental values of the Republic", and had never given authorities and cause for concern or complaint since arriving in France in 2000. The Conseil d'Etat's ruling didn't contest that, and even acknowledged Faiza M.'s fine command of French, which is one requirement for naturalization. It also took into account she had repeatedly accepted treatment by a male gynecologist — even as fundamentalist Muslim couples in France are increasingly refusing any treatment for women by male doctors.

Still, the Conseil d'Etat rejected Faiza M.'s application on the grounds the observance constituted "a radical practice of her religion (and) behavior in society incompatible with the essential values of the French community, notably the principle of equality between the sexes".

That decision — which can not be challenged — came in response to Faiza M.'s appeal of an initial rejection of her naturalization application in 2005. The earlier decision faulted her "insufficient assimilation", and cited her form of dress, virtual seclusion, and submission to her husband as justification. In her petition to the Conseil d'Etat, Faiza M. argued the 2005 ruling violated France's constitutional right of freedom of religion by condemning her observance of Islam. The rejection of that appeal is final.

Initial reaction in France has been muted ahead of the Monday's Bastille Day holiday, though activist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissive) that champions secular and feminist causes said it was "relieved" by the ruling. "The Republic can in no manner validate this kind of tool of oppression and submission of women," a communique by the group said-referring to what it has called the "green fascism" of misogyny practiced in many of France's blighted suburban housing projects under the cover of Islamic fundamentalism or Arab cultural machismo.

Passions are still high, meanwhile, over a law passed in 2004 banning ostensible religious symbols from public schools — a measure primarily aimed at keeping Islamic headscarves out of classrooms. And each new report of commotion — or even violence — in hospitals when Muslim husbands refuse to allow male doctors to tend to their wives sparks renewed outcry and debate that secular French society is under siege from foreign religious influences. The Conseil d'Etat's ruling may allay some of those fears-but not without generating cries of discrimination among many of France's five million Muslim.