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France has right to ban headscarf, says top Sunni figure

AFP, France
Jan. 1, 2004 • Thursday January 1, 2004

CAIRO – The sheikh of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam‘s top spiritual authority, said yesterday that France had the right to ban Islamic headscarves in state schools.

‘The veil is a divine obligation for a Muslim woman… No Muslim, whether ruler or ruled, can oppose it,’ said Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, ahead of talks with visiting French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

But he said the obligation applied ‘if the woman lives in a Muslim country. If she lives in a non-Muslim country, like France, whose officials want to adopt laws opposed to the veil, it is their right’.

‘I repeat: It is their right and I cannot oppose it,’ he said.

French President Jacques Chirac this month called for a law banning Muslim headscarves and other ‘conspicuous’ religious insignia – including the Jewish kippa, or skullcap, and large crucifixes – from state schools.

He urged parliament to pass a law to that effect before the next school year that starts in September.

The move sparked a storm in France, polarising the society, with some groups coming out in favour of the move, which they see as necessary to curb the rise of Islamic extremism.

Others objected, saying that the ban will alienate Muslims and hamper their integration into French society.

Islamic groups around the world have decried the proposal, calling it a move against religious freedom.

Mr Sarkozy said before the talks that the proposed ban reflected the strict separation of church and state in France.

‘Secularism means neutrality in state school education, it is not aimed specifically at Muslims,’ he said.

‘You must not regard this as a humiliation or lack of respect for your religion.

‘You must understand that secularism is our tradition, our choice.’

Mr Chirac also proposed giving company bosses the right to decide whether religious symbols can be worn at work.

He also said a law should stop patients from refusing care from doctors of the opposite sex – a comment aimed at Muslim women who have rebuffed male medical workers.

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