The burqa ban: it's complicated

Is Nicolas Sarkozy's so-called burqa ban, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf writes, an expression of rising intolerance in France? Perhaps. Coupled with his expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma, it sure looks like le président is trying to use a cultural wedge to shore up his flagging popularity.

Still, I think the "burqa" issue (or, alternatively, the jilbab + niqab, or abaya issue) is more complicated than David allows. For one thing, France has a long and well-known convention of laïcité -- a far stricter notion of secularism, enforced by the state, than the American variety. Banning burqas falls well within that tradition.

Second, one has to admit that critics of full veiling have a point. From 2005 to 2006, I spent about a year and a half in Cairo, Egypt, where full veiling is relatively rare but hijabs -- headscarves -- are increasingly common. That was one thing, but I've just moved to Doha, Qatar, which is more culturally conservative and currently filled with women cloaked in black and covering their faces (many of them likely Saudis visiting for the summer or the holidays).

Although many women here personalize their abayas with elegant embroidery (and it seems that most Qatari women do not wear the full face veil), I find it disconcerting and dehumanizing not to be able to read people's emotions, to tell if they are frowning or smiling, or even know what they look like. Some Muslim women may find the anonymity liberating or believe that their religion commands it, but full veiling is one cultural practice that I would be more than happy to see killed by globalization.

(I find it particularly absurd when I see a man dressed in, say, an Armani Exchange T-shirt and Diesel jeans walking along with a fully veiled woman and several kids in tow. If you're going to make your wife wear a shroud, at least man up and throw on a thobe and ghutra.)

Having said all that, I don't like the notion of French gendarmes arresting or fining people on the street for what they wear. If the French government wants to prohibit state employees from veiling, or require people to uncover their faces when they drive or enter government buildings, fine. Private businesses, like banks, should be allowed to do the same. But we shouldn't pretend there are easy answers.



Jon Stewart explains the war on terror

Jon Stewart hosted Tony Blair on The Daily Show Tuesday night, and he barely let the former British prime minister get a word in edgewise. Stewart evidently had some things to get off his chest, because he harangued Blair at length in one of his occasional moments of earnest seriousness. And in so doing, he just may have eviscerated the logic of the war on terrorism:

Stewart: As a pragmatist, is our strategy to rid the world of extremists practical? In a long-term... You talk about this as a generational conflict. Are we being practical in that pursuit?

Blair: Well, I think we're being realistic that it exists, that it exists as a more or less a global movement, with a narrative that's quite deep. And I think you know it's not just about hard power but about soft power as well. It's about how we can bring people of different faiths together, and resolve the Middle East peace process, as well as the hard business of fighting. But I think we don't have an option but to confront this extremism and defeat it. Because when the extremism came here, to New York, on 9/11, it wasn't a provocation.

Stewart: No. But I think the point I'm trying to make is: A very small group of people can do a great deal of damage now. And the amount of resources that we're putting into changing regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan...

I live in New York. We have cockroaches. I'm rich. I hire people to come in; they fumigate... I will never, as long as I live in New York City, be totally rid of cockroaches. Now, I could seal my apartment; I could use bug bombs so that it was nearly unlivable and reduce the amount of cockroaches. But what kind of life is that for me? [Applause.] Do you see what I'm saying? Do you see where I'm going here? Our strategy seems idealistic and naïve to some extent.

Blair responded that he didn't "see what the alternative is" but to stand and fight. Then, after some back and forth about the wisdom of taking out Saddam Hussein, Stewart launched this monologue, with Blair trying vainly to interrupt:

"This is what I mean by naive: Omigod, we have cockroaches. We have to get rats to eat them. Omigod, now we have rats! Oh no, we better getter cats! Oh no, we're overrun by cats; let's get dogs! Omigod, we need to get polar bears!

Do you understand what I'm saying? We are chasing our tails around...

Our resources are not limitless. We cannot continue to go into countries, topple whatever regime we find distasteful, occupy that country to the extent that we can rebuild its infrastructure, re-win the hearts and minds because here's my point: Ultimately within that, there could still be a pocket of extremism in that country... So all that effort still would not gain us the advantage and the safety that we need, as evidenced by the attacks in England by homegrown extremists. So don't we need to rethink and be much smarter about the way we're handling this?"

The interview that aired was edited, but I recommend the entire dialogue, in which Blair and Stewart also tangle about the threat of Iran.