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.