During French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen's visit to Dar al-Fatwa in Beirut, an aide of the Grand Mufti offered her a veil (headscarf), asking her to wear it, in accordance with traditional procedure inside Islamic centers.
The cameras caught her puzzled reaction and ensuing smirk as looking at the white headscarf. Ultimately, Le Pen decided to leave without meeting with Grand Mufti Abdel Latif Derian.
The far-right candidate has long been vocally opposed to the phenomenon of veils in France, and pointed to her firm attempts to ban it, promising that this would become reality if she wins the election. She also noted that her aids informed the Dar al-Fatwa of her refusal to don the veil ahead of the visit, but they did not receive a response, which she took to signify an approval for her notice.
Upon Le Pen’s arrival, Dar al-Fatwa officials attempted to “present [her] with a fait accompli” resulting in her departure and refusal to conform. Before leaving, she referred to her visit to Al-Azhar, the Egyptian centre of Sunni Islamic learning, and her meeting with Grand Mufti Ahmed al-Tayeb. “The highest Sunni authority in the world did not require wearing this, so I have no reason to,” Le Pen said.
The Mufti’s media office issued a statement in turn, saying that Ms Le Pen’s aides were informed beforehand of the importance of following Dar al-Fatwa’s protocols, and that they were surprised by her refusal to comply with this well-known rule.
Ms Le Pen’s incident in Dar al-Fatwa stirred up controversy around two main points:
First, Le Pen’s announcement of her visit to Dar al-Fatwa, and what this far-right visitation might hold for the Lebanese and the Arabs in general. The veil incident revealed Le Pen’s intentions.
The second point is the protocols surrounding visitations in religious institutions, which recalls several incidents similar to Le Pen’s. Discussions erupted regarding the protocols, personal freedom, and the implicit (or, in some cases, explicit) political messages.
Ms Le Pen’s Visit and the Exploitation of the Veil
The visitation of Le Pen—who was the de facto inheritor of her father’s leadership of the French National Front party—to Lebanon was a part of her presidential campaign. Several other presidential candidates have previously visited Lebanon, considering it a crucial hub in their presidential campaign, inside and outside of France.
The visit was met with a degree of polarization among the Lebanese population, posing questions around Lebanon’s future relations with France, whereby France as largely perceived as the benevolent mother-state. Several Lebanese citizens signed a petition, to prevent the “fascist, extremist, and Muslim- and Arab-hating” Le Pen from visiting Lebanon. Others yet mocked the petition, in light of what they perceived as the latent racism in Lebanon.
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Against the historical political enthusiasm (particularly among the Christian population) accompanying the visits of French officials, many prominent journalists and newspapers penned highly critical articles against Le Pen’s visit, particularly in light of her staunch support of Israel. Others recalled the refugee crisis in the elections, pointing to Le Pen’s fostering of xenophobic sentiment, from which refugees are already suffering in Lebanon.
Amid the already heated debate, Le Pen’s stunt exploded tensions, leading to questions regarding how the political scene had arrived at this point.
Initially, the incident appeared on the surface as a miscommunication and defect in protocols. However, the devil was in the fact that the issue was tied to the veil, which Le Pen firmly opposes, having led the fray against it in France.
Those who praised Le Pen’s reaction at Dar al-Fatwa were met with theories that she had arrived with prior intent to embarrass the Mufti, and exploited the situation to show Islam as an extreme religion, refusing to meet guests, or have a discussion with them about the veil.
However, the incident opens up different considerations regarding such protocols and their proponents, whereby such exchanges often serve as accurate indicators as to whether the power lies, and what can and cannot be foregone in light of existing interests.
Protocol is Relative—Interests Come First
According to the protocols for official visitations, everything is agreed on in advance, from the minutiae of details, to clothing, and personal disposition. Focusing on these details becomes even more pertinent when religion is a factor, particularly during visits to religious leaders, or Islamists countries like Iran, or Saudi Arabia.
The visits take place only after both sides agree on all the details, reaching a compromise that satisfies every side, and respects protocol to avoid any controversy.
However, protocol has been broken before, notably during Michelle Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia, in which she did not wear the traditional veil or abaya (cloak). Moreover, during Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Italy, the nude statues remained uncovered, and at the official dinner hosting former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami at the Élysée Palace, alcoholic beverages were served.
The respect for or breaking with protocol holds hidden political messages, indicating the stronger player in bilateral relations.
Protocol experts explain that these exceptions occur for the “greater good”, for which rules can be neglected or avoided. Major interests reveal that even the stiffest protocols can be broken, and the stronger side sets the rules.
With every breach of protocol or compliance to it, discussions about latent political messages reignate, as with Le Pen’s incident. The veil in particular is an issue that surfaces not only during official visits face with religious leaders, but is also faced by female media presenters.
In 2015, Michelle Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia stirred controversy, when she appeared with her hair exposed and in clothes that do not adhere to Saudi law.
The conservative kingdom’s religious police held their tongues, and no one demanded penance, while officials received her with a warm welcome, due to her status as the First Lady of the most powerful country in the world, warranting her the very rights that Saudi women suffer to obtain.
Obama’s photos spread around the world, leading others to recall her meeting with the Pope in the Vatican, in which she covered her head with a veil, and during a long visit to a mosque in Jakarta.
Yet, US ties with Saudi Arabia on the military, security, and political scales dictated that Michelle Obama was in the clear; nor was she alone in that regard.
During former First Lady Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia, she also remained unveiled. Conversely, when breast cancer survivors offered her a veil in support of breast cancer awareness, she wore it in solidarity. This discrepancy indicates a clear political message.
Ursula von der Leyen
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen similarly refused to don the veil during her visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016, to meet with Saudi Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. She refused the veil and abaya, and insisted on wearing trousers. “Of course, I respect the customs and customs of a country; I strive to comply with such rules. But for me there are limits to the way I adapt to the country,” said von der Leyen.
This caused anger among some, while others explained that it is in the benefit of the mutual interests between the countries.
It was unclear whether Germany had requested this beforehand, or if Saudi Arabia waived the protocol especially. However, it appeared as though the German minister was careful not to anger the German opposition, who do not necessarily share the same views regarding the government’s relation with Saudi Arabia. It also indicated the kingdom’s good intent in maintaining mutual relations.
French Minister of Environment Ségolène Royal faced major criticism for wearing a veil during her visit to Tehran in 2016.
The press commented on Royal’s adherence to Islamic traditions, while France’s right has been calling for the banning of the veil inside the country. They also questioned her decision to wear the veil of her own free will, while other women face opposition for wearing it.
Royal faced yet another hurdle when she tried to shake hands with an Iranian official and he refused and blocked it, and bowed instead.
Queen Elizabeth and Kate Middleton
When it comes to protocol, Queen Elizabeth is considered the inventor. During her visit to the UAE, a photo surfaced of her wearing a veil in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, while Kate Middleton was caught in a similar situation.
Other photos of the Queen in close quarters with Emirati officials surfaced, in which it appears that she allowed them to touch her hand, despite protocol prohibiting the Queen from shaking hands with anyone or being exposed to any physical connection. This breach indicated friendliness and mutual interests between the UK and the UAE.
Discussions over personal freedom and adhering to protocol, especially religious protocol will never reach a conclusion so long as there are bilateral visits and interests between nations. Le Pen’s actions in Dar al-Fatwa are debatable, but protocol is nonetheless driven by interests, political messages, and whoever wields more power. In the midst of all this, such protocols can at times be used to pontificate over the moderation or extremism of Islam, and the prioritization of personal freedom.