A French woman driving while wearing a niqab, a full face veil with only space for the eyes, was recently issued a ticket for unsafe driving. Apparently, the niqab hinders the full vision of a driver. (Surely, the peripheral vision of someone wearing a niqab is no less than that caused by wearing a motorcycle crash helmet?) Hence, the traffic summons.
Having lived in the Middle East for many years, I can say that female drivers (with or without the niqab) probably have a lower probability of causing traffic accidents than their male counterparts. I am sure international road accident statistics will back up my claim.
Let's not fool ourselves. The French police action is hardly linked to road safety. It is also not about human rights. The controversy is about the amplified prominence of Islam in Europe.
For a variety of reasons, Muslim consciousness has increased rapidly in the post 9/11 environment. The outward appearances of religiosity, including the hijab and the niqab, have found their way onto city streets all over the world.
Some may legitimately argue that segments of the Muslim population in the West use the hijab and other religious symbols as a form of silent protest against Western cultural domination.
And here lies the problem.
'Islamic' culture, if there is such a thing, cannot be clearly defined. Even if Muslim culture could be defined, undoubtedly it has been in the doldrums for many centuries with signs of life appearing only since the 1900s. It's hard for Koran recital contests to compete with Hollywood blockbuster movies.
That the Islamic world cannot speak with pride of even one international cultural capital is embarrassing.
Think of the world's vibrant cities. The cities that come to mind include London, New York, Paris and perhaps Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Stretch the imagination slightly. Will cities like Cairo, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore, Damascus or Dubai enter the list? Unlikely.
The dynamic has improved with the beginnings of an Islamic cultural renaissance visible. However, the picture is not entirely clear as much of the renewed intellectual activity is based in Western nations around Muslim émigrés. The fact underscores the weak academic 'enabling' environment found in most Muslim countries.
Between the radical Mullahs who find most things un-Islamic and the weak research infrastructure, including a lack of world class higher educational institutions, an academic is better off working in New York, London or Paris versus Cairo, Istanbul or Islamabad. And, of course, most research material is not available in Urdu, Turkish or Arabic. That is, unless one conducts research on Islamic theology.
Although Islamic theology has a place in the world, it does not create doctors or teachers. Nor does theology help construct electric power plants, railways, hospitals or any of the other things in modern life which we take for granted.
So what's with the current European predilection with Islamic symbols? Whether we speak of minarets in Switzerland, the niqab in France or simply halal only restaurants there is obviously a deeper trend at play.
It concerns the awakening of a more assertive Islam. The world has a new generation of Muslims who are questioning their own identity. In the process, these Muslims are making the Europeans question the notion of 'Europeanness' and the European identity.
Ultimately, I suspect one will have to wait for the European Court of Justice to determine whether the niqab is an acceptable part of Europe or not. However, we already know that Turkey is not an acceptable part of Europe, with or without the headscarf.