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VARON: Muslim veil is political, not religious

Restricting extreme practices is not infringement on freedom of religion

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If France's Senate votes to approve a full ban on the burqa next month, debate over Muslim dress will only intensify around the world. Concern centers around how a liberal democracy can create legislation determining religious practice without compromising its core democratic principles. Surprisingly, support for a European ban on Islamic dress comes from an unlikely source: Syria.

In July, Ghiath Barakat, Syria's minister of higher education, banned students and teachers wearing head and face veils from registering for classes or even stepping on university campuses, saying head coverings were against academic principles. Previously, Mr. Barakat transferred approximately 1,200 female teachers in full head coverings to administrative jobs. Of course, in an authoritarian dictatorship like Syria, the minister of higher education alone does not have the authority to pass such a radical policy. To be sure, such a decision must have been made at the highest levels of the Syrian political and security apparatus.

For Syria, which has historically French ties, banning the head covering in the educational system shows a zero-tolerance policy for radical elements that pose a threat to the survival of the secular regime. These actions specifically reduce the influence of Islamic radical elements within the secular Muslim population. Coming from a secular Muslim regime, Syria's ban of Islamic dress is not anti-Islamic; rather, it recognizes the intense internal debate of religious justification occurring within Islam.

The burqa ban raises an interesting question for all of Europe: Does a Western secular republic have to respect a Muslim's religious freedom more than a Muslim country does? The appropriate comparison should not focus on the country's system of government, but on a secular regime's tolerance of political Islam.

The religious obligation of Muslim women to wear a head covering is only one of many signs of rising Islamic radicalism in today's society. Banning the head covering will not necessarily solve the deeper issues at play; already women who wear it have said since the ban they will simply stay home rather than go out in public without it. Making women stay in the home is the opposite result desired, yet it is the apparent outcome of the ban both in Syria and Europe.

The growing influence of political Islam is not just a French, Belgian or European issue. Islamism, political Islam and Wahhabism are increasing their ideological influence on Muslim communities in Europe, the Middle East and around the world.

There isn't a clash occurring between Muslims living in Europe and Europe itself. As similar social tensions are occurring within Syrian society, the effects are a clear and serious internal debate about the legitimacy of diverse religious practices within Islam itself.

Secondly, the relevant issue is not whether Muslims as a whole are challenging secularism, but that Islamism is challenging and seeking to triumph over any system of government - Muslim or non-Muslim - that does not align with its mode of thought.

Political Islam is a threat to secular regimes not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East. Syria's actions prove that secular governments have every justification to prevent the growing influence of political Islam. The internal Islamic debate on appropriate Islamic behavior - not just attire - is increasing, and there is a pressing need for greater understanding of the various ideological perspectives within Islam. Legislation that differentiates between these is the key to both enhancing the integration of Muslims into European society and further isolating radical Islam.

Europe as a whole - and France in particular - can learn from Syria. Preventing political Islam from increasing its influence within secular society is not anti-Islam. Rather, lack of tolerance toward political Islam and greater efforts to coordinate with moderate Muslim community leaders could create a more stable environment for integrating Europe's Muslims into European society.

Ari Varon served as the deputy foreign policy adviser to the prime minister of Israel from 2005 to 2009.

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