French nationalist Le Pen cancels meeting with Muslim cleric, refuses to wear headscarf

The leader of France's National Front Party, Marine Le Pen, canceled a meeting with Lebanon's grand mufti because she refused to cover her head in the presence of the Muslim cleric.


Le Pen, among the frontrunners for the presidency, is using a two-day visit to Lebanon to bolster her foreign policy credentials nine weeks from the April 23 first round, and may be partly targeting potential Franco-Lebanese votes.

Many Lebanese fled to France, Lebanon's former colonial power, during their country's 1975-1990 civil war and became French citizens.

After meeting Christian President Michel Aoun - her first public handshake with a head of state - and Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday, she had been scheduled to meet the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian

He heads the Dar al-Fatwa, the top religious authority for Sunni Muslims in the multireligious country.

"I met the grand mufti of Al-Azhar," she told reporters, referring to a visit in 2015 to Cairo's 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning. "The highest Sunni authority didn't have this requirement, but it doesn't matter.

"You can pass on my respects to the grand mufti, but I will not cover myself up," she said.

The cleric's press office said Le Pen's aides had been informed beforehand that a headscarf was required for the meeting and had been "surprised by her refusal".

But it was no surprise in the French political context.

French law bans headscarves in the public service and for high school pupils, in the name of church-state separation and equal rights for women. Le Pen wants to extend this ban to all public places, a measure that would affect Muslims most of all.

Buoyed by the election of President Donald Trump in the United States and by Britain's vote to leave the European Union, Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front (FN) hopes for similar populist momentum in France.

Like Trump, she has said radical Islamism must be faced head on, although she has toned down her party's rhetoric to attract more mainstream support and possibly even woo some Muslim voters disillusioned with France's traditional parties.

After meeting Hariri on Monday, Le Pen went against current French policy in Syria by describing President Bashar al-Assad as the "only viable solution" for preventing Islamic State from taking power in Syria.

Lebanon has some 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

No doubt some on the French left will accuse Le Pen of insensitivity to Muslims, but that's nonsense.  Not only is Le Pen only following through and acting on her political philosophy, but she is teaching Muslims all over the world a valuable lesson.

If Islam is to survive into the 21st century, it must give up its medieval dictates regarding women.  There can be no compromise on this point.  Women must be afforded equal rights, or Muslims will be marginalized. 

Le Pen's base will cheer her decision, which I'm sure played a part in her defiance of the mufti.  But she also sets an example for Western female politicians to follow: no compromise with oppression.

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