From Strasbourg, Erdo?an blasts France over burqa ban

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

Speaking in Strasbourg yesterday (13 April), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an accused France of violating freedom of religion, after Paris began to enforce a law barring Muslim women from wearing full face veils in public.

Erdo?an told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that Turkey was the only Muslim country that had copied France's law on secularism, or separating church and state.

"It's quite ironic to see that secularism is today under debate in Europe and is undermining certain freedoms," he is quoted by Reuters as saying.

Turkey currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, the decision-making body of the 47-nation Council of Europe, the oldest European institution, specialised in human rights.

Erdo?an is leader of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), a political party which portrays itself as conservative, while advocating a market economy and EU membership for Turkey. Foreign media often describe AKP as mildly Islamist. Erdo?an's wife wears a headscarf.

"Today in France, there is no respect for individual religious freedom," Erdo?an said. The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe monitors human rights across the continent.

France's conservative government has banned full face veils in public and held a divisive national debate about secularism that Muslims there say portrays them as a problematic minority rather than a group of mostly law-abiding French citizens.

At five million, the Muslim minority in France is Europe's largest and makes up about 8% of the French population.

The national debate on secularism split even President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, with Prime Minister François Fillon and some other conservatives refusing to take part. Critics said the debate sought to attract far-right voters.

When a French parliamentarian rejected his accusation, Erdo?an invited her to visit Turkey to see the situation for herself. "In Turkey, we say 'he comes from France' to describe someone who's a bit out of step," he commented.

Turkey's tiny Christian minorities have complained about bureaucratic limits on their communities and several Christian leaders have been killed in recent years.

Speaker for the Arab world?

In his speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Erdo?an said that Europe must heed and support the calls for freedom emanating from the Arab world without self-interest.

"We have to start focusing on the human tragedies in the Middle East and North Africa, without being fixated on the oil wells," he said.

The Turkish prime minister also insisted that any intervention should be limited to humanitarian purposes, to assure the legitimacy of democratic movements in the countries concerned.

"We do not want the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq to repeat themselves in the Middle East and North Africa," he warned.

Erdo?an also repeated the well-known Turkish mantra that the EU needs Turkey as a member perhaps more than Turkey itself needs the EU.

"Those who view Turkey with a given agenda and open its membership of the EU to debate in pursuit of their own goals and with political greed cause injustice, not just to Turkey, but more to their own countries, to European values and their own people," he said.

Belgium became the first European country to initiate legislation banning the Islamic veils that completely hide a woman's face. However, the legislative procedure is not completed, as the country is still struggling to form a new government after early elections held last June.

France initiated legislation to ban the burqa in September 2010. But as the Senate approved the bill, it was reported that the Eiffel Tower had to be evacuated following a false bomb alert. The French press writes that the police took the alert "seriously" following the burqa ban.

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