Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Belgium and France in race to ban the burqa

Who will emerge victorious? Belgium and France are currently falling over each other racing to be the first country in Europe to ban full face coverings. Whoever wins the race, both bans are guaranteed to eventually become law. The bans are illustrative not just of the conflict between Europeans and Muslim immigrants, but also of the ideological divide that separates continental Europe from the Anglo-Saxon world.

Both European and the Americans/British may dislike the burqa, but when it comes to how to deal with it, the English Channel and the Atlantic present a wide gulf. On the continent I don't know one person who thinks the ban is a bad idea. Yet I don't know a single American or British person who doesn't think it is a semi-fascistic disgrace.

Yesterday French MPs voted 335 to one in favour of legislation to ban face coverings in public areas. The ban does not specifically mention the Islamic burqa, a full-body garment that covers the entire face except a small slit for the eyes. Rather, it forbids anyone to cover their face in a public place. This would include costume masks or ski masks. A police officer would first ask a person to remove their face covering, and if they refuse, they can be fined €150.

Though the ban doesn’t specifically target Muslims, many Islamic groups and human rights activists are saying its main intent seems to be to send a hostile message to Muslims. They have accused French President Nicolas Sakozy of purposefully exacerbating tensions for electoral purposes. Though only a small minority of French Muslims would be affected by the ban (police figures say fewer than 2,000 of France's 2 million Muslims wear the burqa), Muslim groups have said they think the law stigmatizes all Muslims.

Belgium was set to become the first country to ban the burqa, but just before the parliament was set to vote on it the government collapsed, and a new one has still not been formed. No government means no laws can be made, so it looks like France will beat them to it. Like in France, every political party in Belgium supports the ban – even the far left parties and the Greens. It seems to be the one thing political parties in Belgium can agree on. And in Belgium, it has been found that only 30 women in the whole country wear the burqa. Italy, which has a similiar low proportion of women wearing the burqa, may follow suit shortly with its own ban.

Can the government regulate what you wear?

It’s been interesting to compare the media coverage on the continent of these bans with the media coverage in Britain and the US. The vast majority of people here in Belgium and in France support the law, and I haven’t been able to find one person here in brussels who opposes it. In their minds, it is not a question of freedom of religion but instead granting special rights to people because of their religion. These are, after all, fiercely secular countries.
“Why should a Muslim woman be allowed to walk into a public building covering her face simply because of her religion?” one Belgian friend asked. “If I walked into a government building wearing a mask I would be made to take it off. And I wouldn’t reasonably expect that I should have the right to leave it on.”
By contrast, I haven’t been able to find one British or American friend who doesn’t think these bans are an absolute travesty. In their minds, people should be free to wear whatever they choose, and the state doesn’t have the right to tell them they can’t cover their faces. They also generally think the bans will cause more problems than they will solve. They will only serve to make the burqa a political symbol of resistance and encourage more women to wear them.

The media coverage has reflected this. American news arrticles and editorials have been aghast at the French law and have been quick to label it racist. In the UK the media coverage has also been fairly critical, though not as much as in the United States. Even the hard-right Daily Mail has been observably torn during this debate, unsure which of the papers two most vilified groups – Muslims and the French – it should side with. The British tabloids may fill endless pages with rants about how horrible burqas are, but for the state to step in and ban them, that may be a step too far for them.

In recent Pew polls, 88% of the French said they favour the veil ban. In Germany, 71% would support it, as would 59% of the Spanish. Among Americans surveyed, the results were exactly the opposite. Only 28% of Americans approve of banning veils in public. (Incidentally, 70% of the British public said they would support a ban, which may mean the British media is not reflective of British public opinion on this issue.)

This reflects a very different attitude about the role of the state. In continental Europe, it is accepted that the state has the ability and the duty to step in and take action against perceived threats. In this case, the growing influence of extreme Islam is perceived as a threat, and the burqa ban is, rightly or wrongly, thought to be a remedy. The burqa is perceived to be no less of a threat in the Anglo-Saxon world, but their historical distrust of the state far outweighs their fear of burqas.

And of course in America, the free expression of religion is not only considered a sacred right, it is also considered a virtue. Americans would have a natural aversion to any law restricting someone from doing something they say is necessary for their religion, not only because of their distrust of laws themselves, but also because of their adulation of religion. By contrast, religion is often distrusted in Europe and seen by many as something that can possibly present a threat.

The US media has also had a tendency to equate the recent referendum on banning mosque minarets in Switzerland with these burqa bans. But few people I know in Belgium or France would see much similiarity between the two. The minaret ban was largely a laughing stock in Europe; it looked ridiculous, was an embarassment for Switzerland and the referendum was extremely close. By contrast, the burka bans are supported by a strong majority in their countries and they passed overwhelmingly. One ban was quite blatantly symbolic, whereas there is an actual practical concern at the heart of the burqa banning issue. Few papers here are equating the Swiss ban with the burqa bans..

The bizarre thing is that the UK is observably the country in Europe with the largest number of women who wear a burqa. I’ve never even seen one in Belgium or France, but I think I must see at least one each time I go to London. I particularly saw a lot of them when I lived in the Chelsea neighborhood last year, where I would see many burqa-clad women from the gulf clustered around Harrods and Harvey Nicks. Otherwise I would usually see them in poorer areas of East London. I have yet to see one here in Brussels. With these bans soon coming into force, chances are I won’t be seeing one any time soon either.


Anonymous said...

It's also quite interesting to note that there are bans that are even stricter in (muslim) Turkey & Tunisia, where even headscarves are banned from public buildings (although not all public spaces).

The potential bans in Belgium & France seem like ridiculous postering to me, and postering that is likely to backfire.

I also think that the opposition to the ban in the UK isn't just because of opposition to the state but also because we are far more accepting of multiculturalism in the UK than most mainland European countries, and therefore accept that different ethnic and religious communities have a right to their traditions.

Tom said...

just as an addition to your piece (from a Belgian):

1) the European Convention of Human Rights provides the possibility to limite freedom of speech/religion if it is in the interest of public safety, to protect public order, health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. (art.9 §2)

2) Identification and "recognizability" in public spaces are since long present in most belgian town codes (though there is no such a law on a federal level) --> in most towns wearing a mask in the street is already forbidden

Tarik said...

From a German:

Think of it this way - what if you moved to a Muslim country and wanted to not wear a head scarf or face coverage as a western woman. Do you think the Muslims in that country would be equally as tolerant to let you wear what you want to? European countries, and Germany most of all have been too nice to Islamist migrants, and they themselves... See more admit that nobody is forcing them to have respect for the new country they move into. They don't have to learn the language and can behave however they want to behave. If it was the other way around, European women moving to Muslim countries, they would have to follow strict rules. I firmly believe that if you move to a secular country you should learn the language and in public behave in a non-fundamentalist way.

Pedro said...

‎(from a Portuguese in Brussels)

"[...]women who wear a burqa. I’ve never even seen one in Belgium[...]" - Oh I have.... more than once. Not really around the EU parliament or in Uccle, not even in the center. It was in those areas around the center that sometimes don't even feel like you're in Belgium anymore. :)

Tom said...

in the 12 years I'm living in Brussels I only saw two or three burqa, I admit. But there are loads of face-covering veils around (which is in principle the same problem: faces being covered beyond recognition)

I'm sure that in those parts where I'm afraid to go (Étangs Noirs, Compte de Flandre, Chaussée de Ninove) there must be some burqa hovering around :)

itinerantlondoner said...

i still don't understand what's so offensive to other people about a woman covering her face - i'd totally understand a law that said people have to be willing to uncover for the police or for identification purposes, but if they want to wander around shopping or whatever then why shouldn't they be allowed to? I've never seen anyone get upset about catholic nuns covering their hair, and yet when islamic women do it people get offended.

Tarik said...

The issue is about extreme religious practices. In a secular society these should be held in private. Part of that is that you cannot be an integrated part of a secular society if you want to have special rights and also discriminate against other parts of that society.

itinerantlondoner said...

wearing a veil is not discriminating against other people. wearing a veil is not a special right - anyone could, if they wanted to. it doesn't hurt other people, therefore why is it our business to ban it? to be honest, i'm not a big fan of any religious practice but if people want to go around wearing wimples, or skullcaps or burkas then it's fine by me. dicriminating against other people is a separate issue that has nothing to do with burkas.

Pedro said...

I don't think the law is against people who cover their hair (be them catholic nuns or muslim housewives). I see a lot of ladies on the street wearing stuff that covers their hair but leaves their face visible and allows others to still see who they are, and to recognize them in a crowd. The laws are not against, for example, the Chador, which ... See moreleaves the person recognizable. It's against the Burqa ( and Niqab ( which make the person under them irrecognizable as an individual. The person I have seen wearing a Niqab at the supermarket the other day could have been an adult woman from 18 to 65... or for all I know could even be a man! All I could see was there was a body under the clothes, and that there were 2 brown eyes eyes with no glasses. Laws adjust to the reality of a place/society at a given point in history. In Belgium/France in 2010, I think most people are less disturbed by someone riding the metro wearing a bikini, than by someone wearing a Burqa or any other piece of clothing that prevents their identification as an individual; the laws are adapting accordingly.

itinerantlondoner said...

but why do you need to identify an individual if they are nothing to do with you? like i said, i'd fully support a law that requires people to remove the part covering the face if required to by a policeman, or for ID purposes in e.g. a bank. That just makes sense. But why should other people on the tube have a right to see a stranger's face? or tell them how to dress?

Little Green Lies said...

I haven't seen so many women wearing burqa in the 3 years I have been living in Belgium as I saw two weeks ago in Hyde Park. It is quite evident that burqa in not the actual problem in both France and Belgium, but rather a pretext to say they had enough: "we're already afraid to go in certain areas, we pay for your unemployment, and in return we want to make you do something the way we want it". I recently found my car vandalized in the street and the police told me it was probably done by the "little muslims". I thought this to be quite an offensive remark and I actually voiced my opinion, but the policewoman replied this is a thing the little muslims do in the area where I parked my car. "Plus, they may have seen you are with your boyfriend?!", she added. Let's not forget that everytime we are in a muslim area my boyfriend and I have to put on a str8 act so we won't create any problems for ourselves. It doesn't matter gay couples can actually get married in Belgium, we still have to be careful not to offend some people. Of course, it is silly to ask for their burqa to be taken off just for that. But let's face it, there is much depth to this problem than just a cloth on someone's face.