France Niqab Arrest
Wearing the face-covering niqab garment in public is against the law in France. Reuters

The arrest of two veiled women in Paris on Monday, on the grounds that they were attending an illegal demonstration against France's "burka ban", brought into sharp focus the clash of cultures that is consuming much of Western Europe.

In banning burkas, niqabs and other face coverings, France has become the first major country in Western Europe to attack what might generously be called Islamic conservatism. Is it however right to do so?

Many of those who support the ban claim that the niqab (which is what we are really talking about mostly despite all the headlines about "burkas"), is oppressive towards women. The fact that this is one of the prime motivations behind the new legislation can be clearly seen from the punishments that can be meted out for breaking it.

A woman caught wearing a burka can expect at most a fine of 150 euros, while a man found to have forced a woman into wearing a burka can be fined tens of thousands of euros and get a year-long prison sentence. Clearly it's the oppression rather than the fashion which irritates French sensibilities the most.

Despite this apparently noble motivation, there do seem to be a number of Muslim women who actually want to go around looking like what French immigration minister Eric Besson called a "walking coffin". There are even some non-Muslim women who rather like the idea of covering more than they reveal.

How could this be? Why would women living in modern, progressive and prosperous Europe want to revert to a mode of dress that cuts them off from said society and would appear to be nostalgic for the Middle Ages?

One interesting fact in this debate is that in France, around 90 per cent of those who will be affected by the new law are under the age of 40. Even if one assumes that half of these (and we have no way of knowing) are forced into their niqabs and burkas, we are still left with a rather sizable chunk of generally young women who want to wear the niqab.

This apparent Islamic conservatism on the part of the young does not appear to be confined to women. Young Muslim men also seem to be more prone to Islamic fundamentalism than their parents, those who first made the journey to Europe from Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Again how can this be? It is, one suspects, down to ignorance to a large degree, ignorance mainly on the part of these young enthusiasts for conservative or even fundamentalist Islam as to what it is they are so hankering for.

The most extreme and conservative Muslims of course wish to see the restoration of the Caliphate, which will ideally cover the whole world with the rule of Islam and Sharia.

This cause goes back at least to the years immediately after the First World War when the centuries old Caliphate, then located in Turkey, looked like being abolished by the victorious British Empire.

Strangely though the greatest opposition to getting rid of the Caliphate came not from Turks, nor from Muslims living in the Middle East and North Africa, but from those Muslims living in what was then British India. Indeed even Gandhi campaigned for the preservation of the Caliphate, in a bid to create than long elusive goal, Hindu-Muslim unity.

One theory suggests that the reason the Muslims of the Raj felt so passionate about keeping the Caliphate is that they, unlike the apparently indifferent Muslims in the rest of the world, had never had to live under it or anything like it.

It seems likely that a similar phenomenon is occurring today, with many younger Muslims seemingly dreaming of an Islamic wonderland with at the very least Sharia and invisible women and, for the real hardliners, death for blasphemers and amputations for criminals. The parents of these young ideologues on the other hand, having lived in and come from countries with such regimes, seem in many cases to be rather less enthusiastic.

Youthful ignorance however is not the only reason that Islamic fundamentalism appears more attractive than western secularism.

Western European countries may themselves be partly to blame for the rise of a more conservative, reactionary and in some cases fanatical form of Islam within their own borders.

When the nations of Western Europe opened their borders to large scale immigration, whether for good motives or for bad, they did so whilst indulging in a kind of mass cultural suicide.

New migrants hoping to make a better life in Europe and to integrate into European society and culture found that in many cases even Europeans no longer wanted to live by European values. All the confidence and swagger of empire was replaced with post-colonial guilt (some of it justified) and a loss of faith in the values and culture of the West.

A ghastly cultural and moral relativism took hold. Actions involving drunkenness, promiscuity, heavy drug taking and violence, which would have been condemned just a couple of generations ago are now often accepted and even in some cases encouraged.

Now one does not necessarily want to return to the days of Dickens with unmarried mothers dropping off their unwanted children at prison-like workhouses, but it's not surprising that relative newcomers to Western Europe might find it difficult or even undesirable to integrate into what can appear at times valueless society.

It has been said by some who propose "burka bans" that the sight of a burka/niqab clad woman is offensive. This may be so, but one might also say that the sight of semi-naked women staggering in the streets on a Saturday night with their knickers round their ankles, while shirtless men shout at and fight one another, also offends the sensibilities of many and not just Muslims.

It would be rather amusing to produce an ad campaign in which a woman wearing a niqab was shown next to that of a lady lying worse for wear on a street bench while wearing next to nothing. The caption might read "Which is worse?" or for the more patriarchal types, "Which would you like your daughter to be?"

Such a campaign would not of course answer the question it poses, but one hopes it would at least get people thinking. After all no politician is going to propose a ban on wearing mini-skirts or other revealing clothing in public, to do so would be somewhat Saudi Arabian (incidentally one wonders what those protesting for a woman's right to choose to wear a burka in France think about a woman's right not to wear one in Saudi Arabia).

What the new French law fails to see is that the problem facing Western Europe is not that there are too many burkas, but that there are too many people who see little of value in the West and so are tempted to revert to Islamic medievalism. It does not have to be so, while the countries of Western Europe still champion some of their values (for example democracy), they have often forgotten, become ashamed of or even rejected many of their others, such as patriotism, personal responsibility, pride in historical achievements and morality.

Curtailing the freedom of burka wearers is one way to deal with the problem, a better one might be to rediscover some of the things that made European culture civilised and so help rebuild a society that newcomers may be more likely to actually want to join.