Excessive step

The decision to ban street prayers has put the French government and Muslims on a collision course yet again. Coming close on the heels of a ban on the wearing of the burqa in public, the government’s threats to use force against those who put out their mats on the streets to pray will heighten the widespread feeling among France’s Muslim population that they are being singled out.

Overcrowding of mosques has forced thousands to pray out on the streets. Pending the construction of a new building, the government has offered a fire brigade barracks as a temporary prayer space, which Muslims have turned down. With both sides refusing to back down, a collision is in the offing.

The possibility that it will turn violent cannot be ruled out. The ban on street prayers is the latest in a series of moves by European governments in response to the rising tide of Islamophobia in the continent. The Swiss government, for instance, has banned construction of minarets in the country.

Instead of reassuring their anxious populations that Islam or Muslims do not pose a threat to them or their identity, governments are feeding their fears. Of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, for instance, just two have minarets. Yet they are interpreted as symbols of fundamentalism. Understandably, the growing restrictions on the cultural and religious rights of Muslims have left the community feeling cornered and hounded. 

The French government says that its commitment to keeping public places secular is behind the ban on street prayers. But it is hard to dispel the feeling that the ban has more to do with upcoming presidential elections. The issue of street prayers was first raised by far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of Paris ‘without the tanks or soldiers.’

President Sarkozy is flexing his muscles vis-à-vis the Muslims in a bid to attract the support of the French far right. The ban on street prayers is excessive. After all, street prayers are limited to two roads in the Goutte d'Or district of Paris’ eastern 19th arrondissement. Can the president explain why this merited a nation-wide ban? The problem could have been defused through dialogue but Sarkozy has chosen the path of confrontation.

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