Monday, 4 June 2012

Burqa ban leads to rioting in Brussels

The area of Molenbeek in Brussels was the scene of low-level rioting at the end of last week following the arrest of a woman for wearing a full face-covering niqab. It is the largest and most violent incident of resistance since France and Belgium enacted bans on face-covering in 2010 and 2011.

For those who oppose the burqa ban, the rioting is evidence that it is causing more problems than it solves and giving the garment more power as a symbol of resistance. For those who support the ban, the rioting is evidence that the state was right to take a stand against the increasing radicalisation they say is taking place among Belgium’s sizable Muslim minority of mainly North Africa immigrants.

On Thursday, Brussels police arrested a 23-year-old woman in Molenbeek – one of the neighborhoods of Brussels with a very high Muslim population at over 50% - for refusing to take off her face covering. That night, police say about 100 people surrounded the Molenbeek police station where she was being held, throwing stones at officers. A large number of riot police were deployed, giving the area the feeling of a city under siege. After Muslim prayers on Friday afternoon additional skirmishes broke out in the area, forcing the authorities to shut down some metro stations. The police say the violent demonstrations were organised by the group Shariah4Belgium

Continental divide

The scenes of violence were all over the Belgian news this weekend. Discussing the incident with a group of friends at a Brussels café on Friday night, I found people taking sides in a familiar way based on nationality. The people around the table were Belgian, French, Italian, Polish, Irish and American (me). Those from continental Europe universally defended the Belgian and French bans. “They have to respect the culture of the country they live in,” one said. “If a woman from my country went to Saudi Arabia or Iran, she would have to cover her head.”

The person from Ireland, however, was very strongly against it, saying the ban was not only blatantly racist but counter-productive: a bad solution to an imaginary problem. Forced to pick a side, the Anglo-Saxon blood flowing through my veins won out. “It’s just stupid public policy,” I said, “it achieves the exact opposite outcome of what they would want.” But eager to take a more nuanced stance now that I am on the continent, I added, “But it is Belgium’s right to enact such a law.”

I’ve found that the ‘burqa ban’ issue, and the very different way it is viewed in continental Europe versus the English-speaking world (what the French dub ‘Anglo-Saxons’), is reflective of a deeper difference in how people view 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 socio-economic or cultural problems. In this case, the fact that Muslim immigrants are not integrating is perceived as a threat, and the burqa ban is, rightly or wrongly, thought to be a remedy.

It is also seen by continental Europeans as the state protecting women from cruel and degrading oppression by their husbands or the male members of their community. A further argument they make in support of the law is that it is not targeting Muslim face-coverings specifically but instead says all people cannot cover their face – be it with a mask, a helmet, a balaclava or a veil. To carve out an exception for Muslim women for religious reasons would be a violation of the secular nature of the state, they say.

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. 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.

This divide has been born out by polling. In 2010 at the time the laws were being considered, 88% of the French said they favoured the veil ban. In Germany, 71% said they would support one in Germany, as would 59% of the Spanish. Among Americans surveyed, the results were exactly the opposite. Only 28% of Americans approve of banning face-covering veils in public.

Rising tension

Whether or not the burqa ban law is nonsensical in its objective, its symbolism is clear to those who support it. It passed through the Belgian parliament by an overwhelming majority, and it remains largely popular with the public. I saw this photo (right) being circulated on the Belgian internets today, modifying an old Tin Tin comic book cover where he is in North Africa to say he is in Molenbeek. As crudely racist as it is, it does reflect a deep anxiety people are having about the Isalmisation of Brussels. There are wide areas of this city that can feel like another continent, with most women wearing headscarves and signs in Arabic.

Over 25% of people in Brussels are of Muslim origin, and that figure is growing. These communities remain largely alienated from the rest of Belgian society (which is, of course, divided amongst itself anyway). For many native Belgians, the Niqab is a symbol of a refusal to integrate by the immigrant population. But for many Muslims in Belgium, the anti-niqab law is a symbol of the disdain with which they are treated in the country they live in.

It is estimated that before the ban, only 30 women in Belgium wore the burqa. If you add up the number of women who have worn the burqa in protest since, that number has aleady been surpassed. It may be that the burqa ban is only fuelling the antagonism between native Belgians and Muslim immigrants and adding to their alienation. But the fact that both the burqa and the law banning it have become such a powerful symbol to the respective populations speaks to a larger conflict simmering here, just waiting to explode.


Daniel said...

Interesting piece. I'm really torn on this issue too, but tend to agree it's probably counter-productive and heavy-handed public policy.

Daggi Elehu said...

As Swede I would probably come down on the "Anglo-Saxon" side as well. Even though Sweden is well known (especially in the US) as a society with big trust in government and laws to affect positive change in the society.

But this law is, in effect, kicking someone who is already down. I found it very interesting to read the anti-DOMA ruling by the republican appointed judges recently. One of their main points, as I understood it (IANAL), was that even though the state can pass bad laws, they have to be very careful when those laws specifically target an already discriminated group.

Anonymous said...

Sadly we also felt some tension last weekend when we were out in central Brussels after attending a British Jubilee party with our children. Our son had a Union Jack painted on his face at the party (he is 4) and was sitting on my shoulders as we walked about. I was pushed and jostled on quiet a few occasions, some of which was probably due to the crowds but some was certainly done on purpose. The people responsible were mainly young men who you could suggest were from a certain racial background (but I couldn't say for certain as I didn't ask them for their iD). This is a sad reflection of the current tensions between different racial groups...

Anonymous said...

mmmh. The person originally detained in Molenbeek is ethnically Belgian and a converted to islam.