Bad news for religious freedom and for relationships with the conservative Muslim community: Burqas have been banned in Belgium and are likely to be banned in France. Belgium bans wearing of Islamic burqa in public April 30, 2010. In part,
Belgian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to ban the wearing of the Islamic burqa in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.
But the move was condemned by Muslim leaders, a Catholic bishop and human rights group Amnesty International.
In the lower house of federal parliament, 136 deputies voted for a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.
Arguments used in favour of the ban on burqas in public spaces and my response to them:
1. The ban will restore dignity to Muslim women who are forced to cover themselves with the burqa.
But who are other people to impose their views on women who choose to wear the burqa? What about the much vaunted ‘human rights’, including the freedom of religion, of these Muslim people? Why should the state have authority to ban symbols of personal belief?
2. It is not possible to relate to a person whose face I cannot see.
But this is the Muslim woman’s choice. Most transactions in public do not require personal identification. Where this is needed then a woman official can invite the Muslim woman into an appropriate private space to do so.
3. The burqa can hide physical abuse.
But a track suit and beanie can just as readily hide physical abuse.
My arguments against this ban:
1. Governments in defining the state as non-religious are in fact denying the reality of people’s religious commitment. This ban finds support from those who deny people’s spiritualty. But spirituality shapes people’s understanding of life. People who hold religious convictions must be treated with respect and understanding; not by the banishment of their religion from the public square.
2. This will damage relations between Muslim and non-Muslim people by breeding resentment and victimhood among Muslims.
3. This is not the way to build healthy communities and good relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. I recognise that this ban is sought in part by people who are fearful of the growth of conservative Muslim communities and Muslim extremists. As has been noted elsewhere the challenge of integrating Muslims into multi-faith nationhood is immense.
4. The banning the wearing of burqas is contrary to respect of difference and human dignity.
5. The banning of burqas will be followed by the banning of crosses and other religious items. This is but the thin edge of the wedge in non-religious authorities marginalising people who hold religious convictions.