updated 7/16/2008 9:58:02 PM ET 2008-07-17T01:58:02

The case started quietly, when a Muslim woman who sheaths herself in a head-to-toe veil was denied French citizenship because she had not assimilated enough into this society. France's highest body upheld the decision, and politicians across the spectrum agreed it was the right move.

A few dissenting voices, though, are now questioning whether the decision pushed France's secularist values too far.

"Where does it begin or end? What we are calling radical behavior?" asked Mohammed Bechari, president of the National Federation of French Muslims. "Will we see a man refused citizenship because of the length of his beard ... or a man who is dressed as a rabbi, or a priest?"

On June 27, France's highest administrative body, the Council of State, ruled that the woman, identified only as Faiza X, had "adopted a radical practice of her religion incompatible with the essential values of the French community, notably with the principle of equality of the sexes, and therefore she does not fulfill the conditions of assimilation" listed in the country's Civil Code as a requirement for gaining French citizenship.

The council said the decision to refuse her citizenship did not aim to "attack (her) freedom of religion."

Breeding fear and intolerance
But critics accuse the French justice system of breeding fear and intolerance of Islam under the guise of upholding secularism. The country is home to western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated to be at least 5 million of the nation's 63 million people — and growing.

French officialdom has struggled to instill secular traditions in Muslim immigrant communities, passing a law in 2004 barring the Islamic headscarf and other highly visible religious symbols from public schools. Proponents of that law welcomed the decision denying citizenship to Faiza X, who wears a niqab, or full-body veil, to her meetings with immigration officials.

"The burqa, it's a prison, a straitjacket," France's minister for urban affairs, Fadela Amara, herself born to Algerian parents, was quoted as saying.

The terms burqa and niqab are often used interchangeably in France, though the former refers to a full-body covering worn largely in Afghanistan with only a mesh screen over the eyes. An official state document said the woman wore a full-body niqab, which left her eyes uncovered.

"It is not a religious sign but the visible sign of a totalitarian political project preaching inequality between the sexes, and which carries within it the total absence of democracy," Amara was quoted as saying in the daily Le Parisien.

Amara told the paper she hoped extremists would get a strong message from the Council of State's ruling, which upheld immigration officials' refusal to grant citizenship to Faiza X.

Ruling did not refer to veil
The council's ruling did not refer to Faiza's niqab, which she said she adopted after arriving in France from her native Morocco, according to a report from a government commissioner to the Council.

The woman told immigration officials that she did not know anything about secularism or her right to vote, according to the commissioner's report. All the immigration officials handling her case were women. They asked her to remove her veil to identify herself, which she did only when no men were in the room, the report said.

Later, in a letter to immigration officials, the woman defended her lifestyle by noting that other immigrants granted French citizenship also maintain "ties with their culture of origin."

The woman and her husband told immigration officials that they adhere to Salafism, a strict strain of Islam.

Her statements to immigration officials indicate that "she leads a life almost of a recluse, cut off from French society," leaving the house only to walk with her children or visit relatives, the report said.

"She lives in total submission to the men in her family ... and the idea of contesting this submission doesn't even occur to her," the government report said.

Mixed reactions from Muslims
Politicians on talk shows this week spoke out in support of the ruling. But Muslim groups had mixed reactions.

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the moderate French Council for Muslim Communities, issued a cautious statement that did not come out strongly for or against the ruling. He said only that his group "rejects all forms of extremism and stigmas that would keep the Muslim component of the nation's society from living its spirituality in peace."

But Fouad Alaoui, vice president of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, said, "It's a turning point in our judiciary that should make us think.

"I don't think that clothing is part of this country's values. Clothing is personal freedom."

Then he added, "On a personal level, I too am disturbed when I see a woman hide her face."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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