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July 9th, 2010
12:06 PM ET

Europe's burqa wars: broad support for banning veils

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Legislation banning full veils for Muslim women is now under consideration across Western Europe.

On April 30, Belgium's lower house voted to ban Muslim women from wearing veils that cover their full faces. On June 30, a Tory MP introduced in the UK a Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. And on July 6 the French parliament began debating legislation that would outlaw the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public places.

According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released yesterday, support for a ban on veils that cover the whole face except the eyes is widespread across Europe, with strong majorities in Spain (59 percent), Britain (62 percent), Germany (71 percent) and France (82 percent) all supporting legislation outlawing such veils in schools, hospitals, and government offices.

Prohibiting a citizen from wearing religious garb—a yarmulke, a clerical collar, a Hare Krishna robe—would seem on the face of it to be a violation of religious freedom. And that is how Americans see it. Here only 28 percent approve of a ban on full veils, with 65 percent disapproving.

Proponents of the various burqa bans, however, cast themselves as defenders of the rights of women and even public safety. A fully veiled woman cannot be easily identified by police. Neither can a male drug dealer posing as a burqa-bound woman.

Professsor Kecia Ali, my Boston University colleague and the author of Sexual Ethics and Islam, sees this “current European fixation on Muslim women’s clothing” not as “a systematic push for gender equality” but as “a symbolic statement” that “plays into an us-versus-them mentality with brutal real-world consequences.”

The current furor, she told me in a recent e-mail, "distracts from real issues of class injustice, racial oppression, and continued discrimination and violence against women, Muslim and non-Muslim."

Anti-burqa legislation in Belgium, France, the UK and beyond raises all sorts of questions about immigration and assimilation, church and state. But lurking around each of these questions is the overarching matter of what the veil means. Is it a symbol of Islamic identity? A rejection of the hyper-sexualization of the female body? Or is it, in the words of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "a sign of debasement"–a stiff-arm to country and community, and a symbol of sexism and misogyny?

How this question will settle out across Europe is anyone’s guess, but it is hard to deny that the burqa wars have already unsettled facile notions of Europe as a bastion of multicultural understanding. France, which has long prided itself on its cosmopolitanism, seems to be taking the rhetorical lead here. (Immigration minister Eric Besson has described the burqa as a "walking coffin.")

But what becomes of France's Holy Trinity of liberté, fraternité and equalité when bureaucrats start to dictate not only how people dress but also how they express their religion?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belgium • Britain • Culture wars • Europe • France • Islam • Polls • Religious liberty

soundoff (332 Responses)
  1. William

    The burqa has nothing to do with religion. Burqas existed way before Islam, in Afghanistan where it means "blanket". In the Koran one verse mentions that women should be covered when venturing outside of the house, it does not specify that face, hands and feet should be covered. The arguments used that it protects women is absurd as it makes them stand out more and become a target of ridicule. If a population feels that a popular habit that originated in the harsh climatic conditions of mountainous or desert surroundings do not fit in urban societies in relative mild climates, I think they have a point. The ones defending that dress code are mostly misinformed and bigots, as they profess a form of masculine dominance.

    July 10, 2010 at 6:26 am |
  2. salayem

    Islam is the most tolerant of all religions. What the teachings of Islam are not tolerant about is discrimination, injustice and sin.

    July 10, 2010 at 6:14 am |
    • peace2all

      @salayem........Hi salayem..... Well, you certainly have made a good point in the first part of your statement.......but where I think you may get into some strong debate from others is where you state "what the teachings of Islam is not tolerant of is discrimination, injustice and sin."

      Many would argue the same words as christian, but I think as you well know that we have to look at the behaviors of each individual and find if that is really true.

      Some would say that Islam is extremely discriminatory or women..(looked upon as second class citizens)..submissive to men. I know that some muslim women say they are o.k...with that dynamic within your culture, but quite a few others have come out strongly against the submission of women....and....say that the ones who do practice the old traditions(in general) are doing so out of fear and ignorance.

      Is it a sin to strap a bomb to yourself and kill others ....?

      Certainly in the U.S....we have along way to go on these issues of tolerance, discrimination and sin as you say....

      Food for thought.....

      I wish you nothing but peace and happiness....

      July 10, 2010 at 6:26 am |
    • Matt

      "Islam is the most tolerant of all religions."

      You have obviously never been to a Muslim country or you would know just how inaccurate your statement truly is. Islam is not tolerant in the least . Muslims have been persecuting Christians for centuries.

      July 10, 2010 at 8:00 am |
    • Frogstomp

      Islam is so very tolerant. Just ask Theo Van Gough. Oh, wait, you can't. He's dead.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      Ask Salman Rushdie. He is still alive... for now.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      Drawing a picture of Muhammed is enough to get you killed. Tolerant?

      July 13, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      Muslims will kill for mere insults. Even if they are TRUE insults! HOW IS THAT TOLERANT??

      July 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  3. Tim Vidmar

    Any sort of organized religion is a crime and should be banned by law everywhere in all its forms and practices. It would make the world an inifinitely better place.

    July 10, 2010 at 6:05 am |
    • peace2all

      @Tim Vidmar........Hi Tim,......I certainly understand and respect where I (think) you are coming from about religion, but to say that ALL ORGANIZED RELIGION is=CRIME.....maybe a bit harsh...? Not to mention inaccurate, as they are not crimes, at least legally as far as I know.

      And as far as doing away with all forms and practices, would make the world a better place.......I can certainly see and resonate with you where you are coming from......Don't know that getting rid of ALL religion is the answer though....

      Peace to you....

      July 10, 2010 at 6:12 am |
    • Matt

      @Tim Vidmar "Any sort of organized religion is a crime and should be banned"

      Not in the least. Banning all religions would completely destroy this world faster than you could ever imagine. In fact, religion is the only thing left that is keeping this world together, and protecting it from atheist attitudes like yours. Turning away from God is turning away from life itself.

      July 10, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  4. Filipe

    If western women are able to walk around in western clothes
    in the streets of any fundamentalist islamic country's capital, then I think that
    fundamentalist islamic women should be allowed to walk around in burqas
    on the streets of european capitals.. it is not like that, is it?

    July 10, 2010 at 5:44 am |
    • peace2all

      @filipe......I may be wrong, but I am not sure that western women 'are' allowed to walk around in western clothes in the streets of 'any' fundamentalist islamic capitol.....at least not that I am aware of. Aren't there customary laws that women have to abide by...? I don't think there is total freedom of expression in that sense, nor any other sense that I am aware of....

      But, muslim women certainly, at least at this point do have more freedom to where burqas in europe and america....certainly more freedoms at this point anyway....

      Peace to you...

      July 10, 2010 at 5:57 am |
  5. kara

    Burqa, niqab and all these veils are not "Liberté, égalité et fraternité" ! There are the opposite of liberty, equality and fraternity. Have you ever heard of INTEGRATION? I support banning all these veils. When you are in YOUR country of liberty, equality and fraternity and extremist muslims oppress you because you don't wear a veil, there is a problem you have to fight. There are a lot of moderate muslims who don't wear veils, who don't bother people with their religion, they are integrated in the society and respected but in France extremists tend to be a majority and their problem is that they want women (no matter their religion) to wear it. I lived that fear.
    You can go in Jordan, in Qatar and some moderate islamic countries, even there you won't be forced to wear it. There are several books published by muslim women who talk about how veils are oppressing, you should read them before talking of liberty. "Liberté, égalité et fraternité" doesn't mean "free to do what you want" or you have not understand our motto.

    July 10, 2010 at 5:36 am |
    • peace2all

      Hi @kara......Interesting and enlightening post.......I certainly agree that if muslims in the U.S were attempting to make 'all' women, including muslim women wear burqas, yes.......that would certainly be imposing there cultural standards on us....Not good...agreed. I also know a number of muslims that I am proud to call friends....some where the veils, some don't....some do out of traditional respect(my guess is that they really would rather not where them), but most don't.

      However, I was not aware that in France....you are saying that their is a muslim movement to have all women, regardless of faith, race, etc....where veils... am I understanding you correctly....? If so, well, I am not cool with that too..

      If....and that is a big if.......a women 'truly' wants to where what she wants to where, without pressure from the males in the muslim world, or any religion for that matter, as long as they are not inflammatory, distracting, etc....IN GENERAL, I am o.k...with it... Even in schools nowadays, if any kid is wearing anything inflammatory or distracting, etc....they are told to change or remove their garments, jewelry, etc...

      So, I think we pretty much are in agreement here.....

      Peace to you.....

      July 10, 2010 at 5:50 am |
    • Frogstomp

      I applaud France for having the backbone to stand up to muslims on this. I'm not sure we would in the U.S. We are too PC.

      July 11, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Tired of the Ignorance

    I am surprised (though I should not be) about the comments and ignorance regarding the teachings of Islam. Many of you have said that Christians acting with evil intentions are going against the religious teachings. However, Islam teaches hate, anger and killing. You should actually read instead of just believing everything you read that is posted in another blog somewhere. Maybe you should try attending a Friday afternoon session at a Mosque. There are rules for teaching those that do not believe in Islam, but it does NOT included killing or maiming if they choose not to believe. If this occurs, then it is against Islamic teachings and any TRUE Muslim would not do these horrible actions. I can truly believe that those people with such negative comments posted on this site about Islam have never even met a Muslim, much LESS become friends with one. By the way, I am an American born and raised Christian.

    July 10, 2010 at 5:14 am |
    • peace2all

      @Tired of the Ignorance.......I agree. I have been posting on this quite a bit.....

      @Waiting Mans post....see several above my post......is extremely radical and...well quite crazy....

      This is how wars get started and it sure doesn't help in the peace process...

      Peace....

      July 10, 2010 at 5:30 am |
    • Frogstomp

      That's great except that muslims are not allowed to become friends with non-muslims.

      July 10, 2010 at 5:59 am |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      @Frogstomp.

      That is blatantly not true. Otherwise my high school prom date would have had 0 friends.

      July 10, 2010 at 9:11 am |
    • Frogstomp

      Your high school prom date is a bad muslim if he became friends with kaffers.

      July 10, 2010 at 9:33 am |
    • Luke

      Frogstomp – Ignorant reply. i am friends with dozens of Muslim people. My favorite photograph, which is framed on my desk at work, is in Toledo, Spain, on top of a mountain with five friends from Business School. It includes, 1 non practicing Christian, 1 non-religious Jew and three Muslims, each of whom comes from different parts of the globe.

      July 10, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
    • GodIsForImbeciles

      Frogstomp is correct. Muslims are NOT ALLOWED to have non-Muslims as friends. It's in the Koran. Your HS pal does not trump Islamic jurisprudence. Maybe you should graduate from high school before you form opinions on subjects you clearly don't understand.

      July 11, 2010 at 3:36 am |
    • GodIsForImbeciles

      PS: I lived in Saudi Arabia (Al-Khobar) for 4 years. Somehow I think the Saudis have a stronger grasp of the religion they invented and still control more than your neighborhood chums who will tell you anything you need to hear to remain blissfully ignorant.

      July 11, 2010 at 3:40 am |
  7. Hammy

    Remember when the US had all those innocent Japanese American citizens rounded up in internment camps during WWII? Or remember when during the McCarthy(sp?) era just reading a pamphlet on communism could get you imprisoned? Or how about the constant "We're tolerant until 1% of your culture does something to us, then screw you all."

    Also, just so you know, banning veils in Europe is just as stupid as banning mullets haircuts in Iran. Don't give me that "but they endanger our people" crap either, as there has not been a single, completely veiled woman involved in any terrorist attack (look it up).

    Guess it just goes to show that none of you all are tolerant at all.

    July 10, 2010 at 5:04 am |
  8. joe

    it is not new for all dislike the wearing of burqas as you are still racialism running in your body the vaital example for that "78 protesters arrested after verdict in killing of unarmed black man"

    July 10, 2010 at 4:51 am |
    • peace2all

      @joe.......Hey joe, with all do respect, I sincerely don't understand your posting....or in other words, what is the point....what are you trying to say here....?

      Peace...

      July 10, 2010 at 4:59 am |
  9. Chris

    Women who wear burqas (or those who want them to) see and define women/themselves only as potential sex objects, not as individual and respectable human beings.

    July 10, 2010 at 4:39 am |
  10. Lambikins

    Sarkozy: 'a sign of debasement–a stiff-arm to country and community, and a symbol of sexism and misogyny' as oppose to say, pornography? or pornographic advertising?

    July 10, 2010 at 4:31 am |
  11. P.B.

    I'm a conservative Christian and don't agree with Islam... but banning the burka is just ridiculous. Let these people believe and express their faith how they wish. Europeans do not understand their culture. It is modesty to them, no matter how ridiculous you may think it is, it is important to them and akin to persecution and a continuance of the crusades.
    TThe argument that it prevents police from identifying people, etc. is also flawed. Why not ban hats and sunglasses too? Don't they get in the way? Any advantage, small as it may be, to the police would be outweighed by the tremendous discord it would create by the ban.

    July 10, 2010 at 3:55 am |
    • Frogstomp

      If you are a conservative Christian I suggest you read about the Crusades. They have gotten a bad rap, mostly because of muslims bringing it up as an atrocity against them. In actuality they were a series of defensive battles against forced conversion of Christian lands. I am an athiest but I always see Christians unnessesarily ashamed of the Crusades. It was a turf battle and Islam lost.

      July 13, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  12. M I Soregreu

    It is an uncalled for comment by Professsor Kecia Ali, about " this issue being applicable to non muslim women"

    Please Professor , talk only of muslim women – we cannot appreciate your magnanimously inclusive stand here – will you
    comment the same way about freedom for any muslim to embrace any religion he or she likes ?!
    dont run away with diversionary remarks

    July 10, 2010 at 3:43 am |
  13. Sheikh Muhammad Umar

    The cries of hatred towards muslims today really shock me and makes me think is this what islam really teaches? The acts carried out by Taliban and some other extremist group murdering hundreds of innocents in the of Islam, are these the teachings of Islam? Then I simply visit a well renowned scholar in Karachi known across the world as a great economist and a scholar and he says to me "No, these people cant be muslims, leave alone muslims these people cannot have relation with any faith or religion in the whole world. They are just barbaric who have only taken up Islam as a sheild, voilating it. They are the true enemies of Islam and anyone thats backing them up."
    Im not forcing you to change your views guys and i can never do that. All I am saying is that dont finalise your judgements about Islam after only witnessing the acts of people that even dont belong to our community or even if they do represents less than 1% of our community in the whole world.

    July 10, 2010 at 3:34 am |
    • M I Soregreu

      s, this is quite correct – about a tiny 1% or less being hateful
      but the world would welcome action by the other 99% – for instance – why not some learned schloars declare
      osama to be anti-islamic for his terrorist acts?
      it would help then

      July 10, 2010 at 3:54 am |
    • Frogstomp

      I like what you are saying. It needs to be other muslims that fix the problem of extremism. All the rest of us can do is defend ourselves from this threat to our way of life.

      July 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  14. Max

    I just hope this proposed ban doesn't create more problems and more terrorist attacks because with muslims and muslim extremists you never know. But I completely agree, Muslims want everybody to be tolerant towards them but they are not tolerant towards anybody elses religion. Its sickening. Im glad they are proposing this.

    July 10, 2010 at 3:17 am |
  15. sev

    As a French reader, i fully support those laws. It's not against religion, it's against fundameltalism. France has to face some difficulties and has to express laws for safeties. Islamic fundamentalism doesn't respect french laws, we have to make some barriers. Women are free to wear a veil in the streets, it's just the fully covered face that is prohibited. It doesn't concern many women, but maybe the most disturbing thing is that it's often fully chosen. We have to face new challenges.
    And the fully covered face is not even an islamic tradition !

    July 10, 2010 at 3:06 am |
  16. Jake

    For those who claim banning of the burqa on grounds of security since it hides the face and could pose a risk in places such as banks, that alone is not sufficient cause to ban the burqa in other public places. Banks and similarly security conscious institutions could rightfully ban face coverings within their premises, but the logical extension of that ban is not to outlaw burqa wearing in shopping malls or public sidewalks. In Western societies, women have the freedom to choose the religious culture they adhere to, and if they are subjugated and repressed by the clothing their faith dictates that they were, they are free to choose a different belief, or divorce their husband who forces it upon them. The reality, for most burqa wearing women, is that they accept wearing their burqas and feel it liberates them in ways that western clothing does not. Have you ever thought to yourself that women today are captives of the physical ideals and pressures that magazine covers and Hollywood impose? Burqa wearing women are free from the shackles of lipstick, blush, and eyeliner. They are less likely to be objectified as beauty objects when wearing burqas.

    What you and I as westerners deem normal is simply a relative value, not an absolute. Just as some of us view the burqa as harsh and restrictive, the Muslim nations view western women as indecent and provocative. To take this logic one step further, just as members of nudist colonies feel suppressed by covering their bodies, you and I view them as indecent and provocative. Would it be fair for a society that accepted nudists to ban those who are clothed? If not, it's equally unfair for a society accepts western attire to ban those who choose to wear burqas. I for one, would never choose to dress my daughter up in a burqa because I'm not muslim and wearing burqas is not part of my tradition. Our society is great because we give people the freedom to choose how to dress.

    July 10, 2010 at 2:42 am |
  17. Saad

    to all of those who are planning to ban veiling of women...
    Allah ( The Almighty God) says in the Quran,"Remember how the Unbelievers plotted against thee, to keep thee in bonds, or slay thee, or get thee out (of thy home). They plot and plan, and Allah too plans; but the best of planners is Allah." (Quran 8:30) ...

    July 10, 2010 at 2:35 am |
    • lovelyme

      AMEEN!!

      July 12, 2010 at 12:53 am |
  18. nomad5326

    I think we forget that the burka was forced upon muslim women not to protect them from men, but because muslim men blame their actions of adultry, incest, rape, pre-maritial sex and out of agreement sex upon the woman and her 'flaunting her feminity' vice the inability of the man to remain moral and ethical. It has become a womans 'choice' only in the essence that it gives her freedom of movement which would other wise be restricted w/o the burka. Islam is a repressive religion much as Christianity was in its early years. The difference lies in the fact that although each has a extremely violent and repressive history, only remains to follow this path of violence and indignation.

    July 10, 2010 at 2:31 am |
  19. Sani

    I find it amusing people think muslims are going to take over the world. They're NOT the ones invading countries FORCING people to embrace democracy even if it means hundreds of thousands of deaths.

    July 10, 2010 at 2:14 am |
  20. Chris

    Every Muslim I've met has been an upstanding person and I've never had any problems with them. I don't begrudge the Muslim women their hijab (head-covering), but I do, however, regard the burqa as a very backwards and oppressive garment that should not be allowed in *any* society. The burqa symbolizes a distinct distrust of people in society. Maybe in the societies where burqas are required men are expected to rape girls who don't hide behind walls and veils, and the women that don't wear the burqas are *expected* to be encouraging such practices. The burqa is a cheap excuse to not expect more from people in society, and a means to distract from the more fundamental problems that encourage its use.

    A ban? Yes, no question. Don't let that garment pollute my society. It's bad enough it exists at all.

    July 10, 2010 at 1:38 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.