Sally Neighbour; 26/4/10
France’s move to extend its ban on the Islamic headscarf and outlaw the full-face veil appears to be catching on. Belgian MPs will vote on whether to prohibit it and similar laws have been drafted in Italy. Europe’s rising Muslim population, which exceeds 20 per cent in some cities, has ensured a groundswell of support for these moves. The debate in Europe has stirred interest in Australia too. Some commentators have seized on calls to ban the burka, which they judge to be “un-Australian”. Others, including this writer, saw the French move as a xenophobic overreaction, more likely to inflame social tensions than ease them. However, this glib interpretation does not withstand an hour’s conversation with a key architect of the hijab ban, French scholar Gilles Kepel, who visited Australia recently.Kepel was a member of a commission established by the French government in 2003, which recommended forbidding the hijab, along with other religious symbols such as the Jewish yarmulke and large Christian crosses, from government-run schools. Kepel is no xenophobe. He’s the son of Czech migrants and has an Algerian wife. He is also one of the world’s most esteemed authorities on political Islam.