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Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff


Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a Senior Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic public policy and grant-making foundation. He overseas the fund's policy programs. He was previously the Washington bureau chief of the German newsweekly, Die Zeit. Close.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff


Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a Senior Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic public policy and grant-making foundation. more »

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Democracy and a Piece of Clothing

The Current Discussion: France has rejected a citizenship application from a burqa-wearing Moroccan woman on the grounds that she has "insufficiently assimilated" to French culture. Should cultural assimilation be a requirement for citizenship?

If France denied a Muslim immigrant from Morocco the French citizenship because she wears the burqa, then we are confronted with an outrage. France’s Conseil d’Etat, the highest Administrative Court to uphold the decision of the city government of Paris this week, would have violated the very Western values it intends to protect. But is that really what we're dealing with here? Not so fast – it's more complicated than that.

The modern Western nation-state is a community of political values. Citizenship is not based on cultural values, not on blood and not on ethnicity. Freedom and democracy and constitutionalism are at the core of this community. German philosopher Dolf Sternberger has coined the term “constitutional patriotism” for a citizen’s necessary identification with the basic political principles and procedures of the democratic state. According to Sternberger this identification does not necessarily have to be “affectionate.” It is part of the freedom of every citizen to abstain from exercising his or her political rights. Citizenship may be created by birth as well as free will. This type of republicanism includes the right to emigrate as well as to immigrate. The state may reject an immigrant’s petition to become a citizen if and when an applicant rejects the basic constitutional principles. Usually there are few cultural conditions to become a citizen, the proficiency in the local language being one of them.

Faiza M., the 32-year-old applicant who entered France eight years ago, has shown that she understands important democratic principles. She wants to become a citizen, which seems to indicate that she wishes to exercise her free will as a free citizen. She goes to court when the City of Paris rejects her. She takes the case to the highest court when the lower courts rule against her. She clearly knows how to exercise her political rights. She speaks excellent French. She is married to a French citizen. She has three French-born children, citizens all. Isn’t she destined to become a French citizen?

To base the rejection of citizenship on a piece of clothing is a doubtful proposition. To wear a cross, a kippa, a headscarf or even a burqa is the right of every citizen in a democratic society. It may be a political or a cultural or a religious symbol, and it may mean different things to different people. Given this kaleidoscope of possible meanings it is a stretch to assume that a religious accessory points to nothing else but an anti-democratic mindset. Faiza M. is certainly within her rights to contend that her clothing is part of her religious freedom. We may think that a burqa is a woman’s jail and a sign of her subjugation. But that is not the question before the court in cases of controversial immigrant petitions.

The French court has now ruled that the burqa signals a “lack of assimilation”. According to the judges, Faiza M. “exercises a version of religiosity” that is “incompatible” with French society and “especially the principle of the equality of sexes”. Let’s be honest: If gender equality was a criterion of civic inclusion, we might want to expatriate whole segments of the society of Bavaria or Utah or Normandie. As the French daily newspaper Liberation put it: “Why not denaturalize all French women who are being abused by their husbands?”

So, bottom line: an outrage?

Not quite so fast. As we learn more about Faiza M., the case becomes more complicated. Facts have a potential to confuse, especially those who yearn for clarity and moral righteousness.

Faiza M. was asked to present her immigrant petition to the administration of the city of Paris. The officials asked her to show her face so they could identify her. She told them that her religion did not allow her to do this. The officials offered to have a female officer check her passport and face and that all men would have to leave the room. Faiza M. declined again. The officials might have settled on fingerprints as a means of identification, but it is obvious that a state will need to identify a new citizen. How to issue a passport without a photograph of a face? Faiza M. declared that she was not interested in her political rights and that she would not want to vote. Clearly, it is the right of a citizen not to vote. But her reasoning raised eyebrows. She told the officials that only men should have the right to vote. The court, in the end, was not sure whether it was her own free will to sue the government – or her husband’s. On all occasions Faiza M. showed up with her husband. She declared that she had not been wearing the burqa in Morocco, but has been doing so at the suggestion of her French husband. She said she did not know what the words “laicism” and “democracy” meant. Faiza M. stated that she is a disciple of salafism, a Muslim version of religious originalism. French scholar Olivier Roy describes it as “neo-fundamentalism” consisting of two distinct schools: conservatism and jihadism. It may have been unclear to the court which school Faiza M. believed in.

While a piece of clothing is not sufficient evidence to base the rejection of an immigrant petition upon, it may well be part of the evidence. In Faiza M.’s case it merely compounds the evidence gathered by the questioning. While Faiza M. may accept some principles of the democratic state, she clearly rejects others. Unfortunately, the reasoning of the court (to the degree it has been reported) stresses the importance of the burqa as a visible sign of her lack of assimilation without focusing on the questioning. In fact, it is not troubling what is on her head, but inside of it. Had she worn a bikini (or nothing at all) the court would have been within its rights to reject her petition. It is not of importance – or at least not of primary importance – what she wears, but what she says.

The case highlights a dilemma all Western countries face when dealing with immigration. They would like to base decisions of naturalization on the political and constitutional concept of citizenship, but need some additional “cultural indicators” to find out.

This is a slippery slope. A strange alliance of traditionalists and secularists would like to expand the number of “cultural indicators”. In fact, some would even sign up for a cultural definition of assimilation. They would like an immigrant to subscribe to the host society’s “way of life” – which maybe anything from capitalist consumerism to feminism to Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. Bavarian officials, for example, have stated time and again that citizenship includes a set of local customs, values and mores that they expect the immigrant to adopt in order for him or her to become a valued citizen. The French court opinion will be a treasure trove for such culturalists. While the court may have had reason to reject Faiza M.’s citizenship petition, it has – maybe unwillingly - set a dangerous precedent. Some of the public reaction to the ruling is a case in point. Fadela Amara, an undersecretary in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, called the court decision “excellent and legal”. She said it is “based on the values of our republic” and it will “strengthen the rights of women”. For Amara, a Muslim herself and descendent of Algerian Berber immigrants, a burqa is “a straitjacket for females” and a sign of a “totalitarian political project”. Amara argues that a burqa, a veil and a headscarf are pretty much the same thing. But are they really? And in all instances?

The case of Faiza M. will undoubtedly become a tool. Instead of focusing on the case of this individual and her convictions, the opinion will be remembered because of the symbolism of the burqa. Feminists will use the burqa case to make citizenship law an instrument of women’s liberation. Traditionalists will point to the case to declare cultural assimilation a precondition of citizenship. Faiza M., meanwhile, will remain the only non-national in her family. Ironically, the verdict will supply Faiza M.’s husband with another instrument of power. If she ever wanted to divorce him, she might have nowhere to go but to Morocco.

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