The burqa is not a religious symbol: FNC member

High-ranking Federal National Council member says he does not blame France for banning the burqa, as it is likely to bring unwanted attention to Muslims visiting the country.

ABU DHABI // The burqa is not a religious symbol and can be used as cover to carry out terrorist acts, a high-ranking member of the Federal National Council said yesterday.

He added that he did not blame France for banning the face covering, saying it was likely to bring unwanted attention to Muslims visiting the country.

Rashid al Marar, a representative from Abu Dhabi and the second-highest-ranking member of the foreign relations committee, was speaking during and after talks with French diplomats.

The delegation included Philippe Marini, an influential senator and president of the French senate's France-Gulf friendship committee, in addition to France's ambassador to the UAE.

"Wearing [the niqab] shocks the majority of citizens, and every time one comes across people wearing the niqab, it is additional votes for extremists," said Mr Marini.

Mr al Marar said wearing the burqa was not a religious practice, and said that extremists could use the burqa as a way to mask their identity by masquerading as women.

The French senate last month passed a measure banning the wearing of a burqa in public, and it will go into effect next year. The so-called burqa ban has sparked controversy, with opponents saying it singles out a minority and contradicts freedom of expression, and proponents saying the ban has security benefits and will prevent women from being forced into wearing them.

"Their point of view is correct," said Mr al Marar, adding that the French face threats from al Qa'eda.

"Nobody can blame them, particularly since when you talk about the niqab, you are talking about something that has no relation to Islam.

"The burqa has nothing to do with Islam. The burqa predates Islam."

Most Muslims interpret the Quranic verse urging them to dress modestly as not including the face covering. The niqab is the portion of the burqa that covers the face, while the burqa is a piece of clothing that covers the entire body.

Mr al Marar said the purpose of the niqab was to deflect unwanted attention, but wearing it in France would have the opposite effect.

All religions and social groups are welcome in France, said Mr Marini, but "we need to avoid extremism, and the total veil creates reaction and nourishes extremism".

Mr Marini said he also opposes tourists coming to Middle Eastern countries and disrepecting local sensitivities and cultures. The meeting also included an overview of the FNC's responsibilities, its history and a presentation on female participation on the council.

During the proceedings, Mr al Marar was asked if Abu Dhabi's assistance to Dubai during the financial crisis had led to a rebalancing of power in the federation.

"The people of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are one," he said. "We feel that we are one body. One part cannot feel pain while the other is happy." Abu Dhabi provided Dubai with a US$10 billion financial lifeline in December to help the emirate to the north pay off its debts.

"This was the right solution, the right way to help them because we are in the same boat," Mr al Marar said.

Speaking of the UAE's relationship with France, Mr al Marar said it was of strategic significance, particularly because of the ties in the field of defence. The UAE military owns a large number of French planes.

The relationship between France and the UAE has grown closer since a visit last year by Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, and the opening of a French military base in Abu Dhabi.

Close to half of the UAE's fighter-jet fleet is French, including 70 Dassault Mirages and several French helicopters. The UAE is in talks to replace the Mirage fleet with a more advanced multi-role fighter jet, the Rafale. The military also has close to 40 LeClerc tanks, manufactured by France, in its fleet of armoured vehicles.

"The relationship between the UAE and France has been strong for a long time," said Mr al Marar, adding that it was perhaps the "best relationship" the UAE had with any European country.

"A lot of our military purchases are from France; there was a friendly relationship between President [Jacques] Chirac and the President of the UAE. They like to visit the UAE and stay in contact with executive and legislative authorities," said Mr al Marar.