PARIS (AP) — The head of France's Muslim council said Wednesday that the full-body veil worn by a minority of Muslims in France is an "entry way" to radical Islam, but that a national debate over whether to ban the garment in public is stigmatizing the entire Muslim community.
Mohammed Moussaoui told a panel of lawmakers that any decision to outlaw the veils that cover the body and face risks feeding a sense of discrimination.
The debate "has taken on unexpected proportions" and "Muslims are increasingly finding themselves confronted with stereotypes whose consequence is the stigmatization of an entire religion," Moussaoui said, referring to what many Muslims say is a tendency to group them into a single unit be they moderate or radical.
Moussaoui heads the French Council of the Muslim Faith, or CFCM, which groups the various tendencies of Islam in France and serves, among other things, as a conduit for dialogue with French authorities.
The council, which includes some Muslim fundamentalists, was called to testify before parliamentarians holding hearings that could lay the groundwork for an law banning Muslim women from wearing head-to-toe and face-covering veils in public.
Some claim the number of women — and girls — covered by niqabs or burqas is rising.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that such robes make "prisoners" of women and won't be welcome in France, a position that spurred the parliamentary inquiry.
Islam is the second religion in France after Roman Catholicism. With an estimated 5 million Muslims, France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Moussaoui said the council agrees the wearing of full-body robes is not required by Islam but is instead a religious practice of an "extremely marginal" minority of Muslim women.
Still, he said in a prepared speech approved by all factions in the Muslim grouping, such a garment "should not be a motive for incriminating those who wear it."
The Muslim grouping said it preferred to try to dissuade women from wearing the veil through dialogue, saying any law could prove counterproductive, raising sympathy for those who wear the garment and feeding radical agendas.
The council asked lawmakers to form a commission to inquire about what it said was a rise in Islamophobia and find ways to fight it even such anti-Islamic prejudice, like the full-body veil, "is marginal."
Some lawmakers took exception to what the said was the "timid" approach of the five-man Muslim panel, saying the full veil has implications for a range of issues from women's rights to public safety and terrorism.
"It is an extreme practice and we don't want it to install itself on the national territory," Moussaoui then said.
He later told The Associated Press that he considered the wearing of the full-body veil to be an "entry way" to a radical interpretation of Islam, "and there is a risk of falling further."