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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. Gil T

    Yes, of course, Americans in particular would view it as a threat to religious freedom. Actually, the ban laws in European are age-old tests. It is one thing to profess, practice and impose at-will for centuries within the borders, people, language, culture and laws of one's ancient past. However, the true test of these comes when the same people who profess, practice, etc. step outside of those parameters. If they could legislate successfully to overturn bans in the same manner of societies governed by law that would be great for them. Otherwise, and there need be no malice construed into the words, Adapt or go home. What many of those same people fail to remember is they left their old way of living because that society was no longer able to satisfy their need for safety and well-being.

    July 10, 2010 at 9:58 pm |
  2. ross

    The way i see it: Western countries are not tied to religion, and must of muslim countries are tied to religion. Where ever you go..you follow their rules, saying that...if you come to western countries, be ready to embrace the culture and not to keep yourself in your getto. If i would go to any country where they rule themselves with the islamic law, i would respect that...well, who ever lives in a western country, should respect as well that multicultural doesn't mean you won;t respect where you live, so, please , for so many reasons the Burka is not welcome in the west.

    July 10, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  3. Reality

    First, a nun in full habit (they are rare these days) does not have her face covered.

    And in reality, burkas are simply another means Islamic males use to dominate Muslim women and keep in mind that said domination is simply more of the con job Mohammed pulled in ~600 AD/CE when he convinced his followers that he was getting revelations from the mythical "pretty, wingie, talking thingie" named Gabriel. An analogous con job is/was pulled on nuns with the "married to Christ" hype.

    July 10, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  4. Cindy

    It is the equivalent of telling a nun that she can't go in public in her full habit (I think that's what it is called).

    July 10, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      Far different, actually. For one thing, there are few nuns and they have all dedicated themselves strictly to their Religion. Nuns are more likely to wear "normal" clothes in public unless they are out on business. They don't cover their faces. By far the majority of Religious Orders have adopted somewhat more modern–though still modest–forms of the typical habit. No, not the same as ruling against burkas at all.

      July 10, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  5. chewie

    I am surprised at the muslims and some Americans that continue to say that women can wear what they choose and that burkas are a way they can show their support for a variety of "stuff". I have been to the middle east (various countries) and I assure you women have NO choice in whether or not to wear a burka or anything else. I agree with a posted comment that said the muslim man presents the passports and the women stand far behind him (at least it should be a woman under all those clothes and mask) with their head held low, I had dinner with a business client at his home in Saudi and the women were not even allowed in the dinning room. Our servers were young males and the women ate in the kitchen. Nice religion ?

    July 10, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  6. Sazzad

    I am an Arab and I can tell you one thing for fact. Burqua is meant for women having STD. A lot of Muslim women due to their way of life as not shaving, bathing regularly, etc. tend to get diseases and burqua is the only way to hide it.

    July 10, 2010 at 10:27 am |
    • Drew

      @ Sazad, what a sheltered, poorly informed life you lead. Please tell us how non-Muslim 'western' woman do not suffer from these illnesses as they do NOT have to wear a burqa. How easily your mullah has pulled the wool over your eyes.

      July 10, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
    • MahJ

      ^Actually a mullah would not have told him that. If you are referring to mullahs in the typical sense as followed by most of these somewhat ignorant posters, wouldn't a mullah be telling him that the burqa is to protect women from STDs? Not for the women who already have them...

      July 10, 2010 at 11:16 pm |
    • Islam is Wrong

      does that mean all saudi & muslim have STDs, since almost all wear some form of head cover?

      July 11, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  7. Manuel J.

    There have been a lot of good, and bad/inappropriate, comments. That said...

    People of faith don't have the corner of the market when it comes to immoral issues and behaviors. Extremists in ALL beliefs, ATHEISTS INCLUDED, have hijacked our religious, social, and political beliefs. Until we are rid of these people, we will continue to have social chaos.

    So instead of just writing into blogs, call your elected official AND vote for what is right and just!

    July 10, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  8. SurfBird

    When Islamic countries allow crosses and yarmulkes in their parks, schools, etc then I'll have no objections. They demand religious freedom from us but want to blow something up if you ask it from them. Yes, I'm looking at you Saudis. I've been to your country and seen how you treat people who aren't Muslim. You have no grounds to open your mouth in anybody else's country.

    July 10, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  9. Captain Obvious

    That girl in the burqa looks hot. I really want to bring some hot, uninhibited shame on her family.

    July 10, 2010 at 9:34 am |
    • Thorrsman

      You SURE that's a female? A bit of eye liner doesn't mean anything. Remember Johnny Depp as Captain Jack.

      July 10, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  10. SHANNON

    There are laws in place to protect religious freedom. People get offended so easily on whats on the outside. I am sure there are people who believe in banning the goth look or punk in public. Nose rings may offend you. but no one is using stereotypes that these people are all druggies or violent people?? My concern again is when it starts where will it end... ? some people draw conclusion that there is a link to extremist and covering the face?? I do agree Muslim women even if they do cover or don't cover need to be more in public eye doing public services and active in communities to show a more positive face to Islam. I hear so much that many are afraid of being negatively influences by nonspiritual things. But they need be more apart of the countries they live in. If it is not Haram ( against Allah's laws) then they should show a positive face to islam. Join in community activities and interfaith dialogue. So much mistrust and anti islamic thinking will always be there, but at least some of the ignorance would be corrected. I think some people are upset that they don't seem apart of the countries they are citizens of. And to an extent I do believe. BUT WE SHOULD NOT WRITE NEW LAWS TO DISCRIMINATE.

    July 10, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  11. Drew

    People on both sides are missing the real point, here. Humans are hard-wired to identify people and their emotions and intent by LOOKING AT THEIR FACES. Our brains NEED to see faces to understand who (and what) we are dealing with. In open societies here and in western Europe and everywhere, plainly seen faces are an essential component. I'll remind all that the KKK wear those funny white hoods for a reason. Because of this neurophysiological need to see a face, I for one, support a 'burqa ban.'

    It really is too bad it has a component of religious freedom to it. But that is a red herring in this debate.

    July 10, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  12. cover or not to cover

    What about orthodox Jews who cover their head and wear long beards that concel their faces?? Or the nuns who wear the Habits?? Personally, I don't think its an obligation of faith to cover ones entire face. In the Quran it says (like in the Christian Bible) for women clothe themselves in modesty. And not to out wordly desplay the womenly figure. I have many Muslim friends who are vary on their self expression of religious devotion. I have friends in School who cover all in black burqa, those that cover just the head, and then does that wear jeans and t shirts. One of my friends who, wears jeans is very devot and active in the mosque, she prays five times a day and does charity drives for people of all faiths. Soo, my point is it is more inside then what is outside. Still, as a advocate of religious freedom of expression. Muslim women have the right to express themselves religiously. If they make the personal decision to cover, out of their own free will and submission to Allah, so be it. Covering is not an easy thing, when there are so many anti-islamic people. I do agree, the whole security risk arguement is a load of Crap!! With our modern technology we have to strip ones religious identity in public to safe guard our people?? Give up what makes us special as a Nation, our right to religious freedom and worship?? to protect our people. My huge fear is if it starts at the Burqa where will it end?? These same people who posted at this site will be the same people who will extend the no Burqa law to include not covering ones head: hijab??? If start at face why not top of head?? To a Muslim women to be asked to unviel or to uncover in the presense of a man who is not family, is like asking them to walk naked??? Who would you christian women feel like if someone told you to walk without your shirt on!!

    July 10, 2010 at 8:14 am |
  13. Dee

    If there is a ban on covering faces, does that mean when it's 20 degrees farenheit, people can't wear scarves or facial coverings also?

    July 10, 2010 at 8:11 am |
  14. Matt

    They should be banned in all public places. If Christians can not display their crosses and commandments in public places, then neither should burqas be allowed in public.

    July 10, 2010 at 7:54 am |
    • Frogstomp

      Who is preventing christians from displaying crosses in public?

      July 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  15. MrLeN

    "And that is how Americans see it. Here only 28 percent approve of a ban on full veils, with 65 percent disapproving." – Buahahaha! BUAHAHAHA! That's the funniest thing I've heard in all my life. Man, reporting is just getting worse and worse. Next, I'll be reading that 90% of Chinese love their government, Africans are happy with their life and see hunger as a good thing and that 70% of Australian's would support becoming a state of Estonia.

    July 10, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  16. G

    if you want to live in rome behave like romans ...people who come to western countires should be willing to adopt at least be open to living little bit like them if not more.
    talking in thier language, dressing litle bit like them, eating litle bit like them etc ... if this is not acceptable then people should not have dreams of comming to the western countries stay in your own country.

    this applies not just to muslims but alos hindus, jews, africans , chinease etc.

    July 10, 2010 at 7:39 am |
  17. rinsac

    I just don't understand why anyone cares about what other people choose to wear, religious or not. How does that hurt you? Culture will change, no matter what anyone does. It is the natural way. Europeans went all over the world not just changing cultures, but destroying them....now they are weeping and gnashing their teeth about people from other places changing theirs. Grow up!!!!!

    July 10, 2010 at 7:27 am |
  18. BIGBYRD

    As an American in France, I have had to adapt to French culture, language, and worldview. This is a natural process and as a foreigner, I must respect the laws and customs in the country where I currently preside. Muslims see the world quite differently. They have a much different worldview than Europeans and rather than respecting the French way of life, they have chosen to not conform under the pretense of "religious freedom." The reality is that Muslims use a country's religious tolerance as a strategy to spread their "religion" of intolerance. My opinion, as well as most French citizens is to conform to the country you live in, or GO HOME!!!!

    July 10, 2010 at 6:59 am |
  19. Rojas

    The burqa is the religion making a statement that it has conquered a woman, and overthrown her mind and dignity. It's ridiculous that all the liberal multiculturalists love to pal around with Islam, which is far more religious right wing than the fundamentalists Christians they despise. They'll change their tune when Western Muslims get enough numbers to attack gay marriage, abortion, etc.

    July 10, 2010 at 6:34 am |
  20. dee2

    I'm right now in France and last week saw my first, in a train station –and it wasn't pretty feminine eyes looking out at me through a dark covering but something must less kind, much less obviously feminine, something truly fearful although I am not sure whether it was fearful to me or to her (or him?) or both? Like a prisoner looking out of a dark chamber–it was, genuinely, a frightening and disconcerting appearance, this one. Now, this is not alone justification, of course, for anything, the fact that it really looks scary to others. But added to the fact that here there is a heat wave and this woman (I'm assuming it's a woman but who would know in this case) is covered in all black and has to be suffocating in her black prison and added to the fact that one really couldn't tell who is in there –all this tends against these things in public. What is more, if outlawed–then these poor women (yes, I am making a judgment here–that their men and/or religion have, as Christianity has done in many ways as well, persecuted them and is suppressing them), then these women will be by law freed to some degree. Like if America had outlawed chains on servants back when we had black slavery.

    July 10, 2010 at 6:33 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.