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. Miss D.

    No one will ban you from having long hair or make up or whatever. the main point here is about showing one's identety when in public places. the same way you dont see people running around naked in the streets. Nor you will see people running around the streets with masks. Wear whatever you want, dress whoever you want. but give some identety in public places. Is all about safety. Is not about muslims, nor a religion matter. Maybe they shouldnt say burqas specifically, but hidding one's face should be banned.

    July 12, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  2. Farhibide

    Well, the world has finally gone crazy. I'm waiting for the day when they ban dresses, long hair, makeup, being a homemaker, and marriage before children. After all, those are just remants of thousands of years of feminine oppression and no woman ever actually chooses those things for herself, right?

    July 12, 2010 at 10:57 am |
    • George

      Hey goofball, the burqa, or whatever you call that Halloween suit, is one of the most obvious reminders of what women are treated as in Islamic countries.

      July 13, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  3. Miss D.

    I hear all this comments. But the truth is that in the Koran it is not written specifically that the face should be covered. Second issue, women covering it all does bring attention, and is like me wearing a blanket all over my body and wear a helmet. Muslim women may cover their hair if they like, but I do not feel safe with women covering their face, as I do not know who is beneath it. A friend of mine from dubai, have told me that it does happen men going into islamic weddings, to the women part and all covered just to see the women uncovered. If you may ask, it is actually possible for some men that want to do us harm to have weapons inside those covers they wear and never be identified.
    I do know a lot of muslims, and I currently live in UK. A lot of muslims dont even agree with the burqa. You go to saudi arabia you have to wear the veil. Muslims come to Europe or USA and they MUST show their faces. We dont ask for them to walk around in mini skirts. We just want to see who is around us. If everyone would use burqa. I am sure crime would increase dramatically in Europe. As I said, I have muslim friends, and every muslim have a different point of view. So leaves me the fact there is a lot of extremism amogst Muslims, and is from the extremists I fear.
    I aprove 100% decision in Australia, and should be applied around the world, like in saudi arabia. You dont like it, you have your freedom to leave where you would like it best.
    There is no such thing as bad or good religion. We all believe in the same God, and we should respect everyone. And get along with everyone.

    Peace and Love, Always.

    July 12, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  4. thatchamo

    I suspect that some flagrantly religious garb is an attempt to show off one's Holiness, and possibly to convey one's superiority to unbelievers. But that's just me, attempting to show off my intellectual superiority, which can always be questioned, unlike many religious beliefs.

    July 12, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  5. JJ

    Banning religious garb! Riots in the heart of Paris a few sumers ago! Oh my! It seems Europeans aren't really so tolerant and generous after all....

    July 12, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  6. Karima

    In the bible, yes woman did covered their bodies NOT THEIR FACE-its a difference. And they did this for many reasons. ONE OBVIOUS ONE is it is HOT AS HELL in the middle east even the men covered themselves FROM THE SUN.–it isnt rocket science material.

    July 12, 2010 at 12:05 am |
  7. Karima

    what book do you read out of?...cite your knowledge, I can back mines up– are you ready? Family full of preachers, deacons and a life long committment to GOD. I TOTLALY UNDERSTAND IT ALL–trust me!

    July 12, 2010 at 12:02 am |
    • lovelyme

      @karima i understand to grandmother sunday school teacher first one at church every sunday, aunt evangalist, aunt usher, grandpa deacon, uncle pastor, mom was gospel singer i know too ok trust me. Going from revival to revival bible study to bible study, gospel singer and all I always asked GOD to lead me and guide me in the righteous past.

      July 12, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  8. HeIsGod

    Hello, Karima,
    God gave each and everyone of one of us to make a choice to accept Him or reject Him. But as you see, not everyone will agree with your or my comment. God wants us to respect other people's business and as a Christian, I respect the fact that these women want to were a veil and even if they don't wear it, it is there choice...God bless you!

    July 11, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
    • Karima

      I respect it- afterall my boyfriend is Muslim. THIS IS WHY I KNOW SO MUCH. I will not covert, but it is such a joke to see the BS that we have allowed the devil to come between religions. I am thankful that I am surrounded by freedom. There choice is not their choice..THEY HAVE NO CHOICE! -Peace be unto you, which was also created by christians.

      July 11, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
    • lovelyme

      A muslimah has a choice to wear a niqab, hijab, etc it is sinful though all Muslimah don't cover if you in relationship with a muslim then ya'll must have lack communication he would have told you I assume. Oprah did a document on a white lady who 6yr old daughter chose to wear hijab not force her mom wasn't Muslim and didn't want her to but refuse to stop her from doing so because that's what made her happy. So maybe reality hasn't kicked in with you that Islam tells us to cover even Jessica Simpson said she felt comfortable when she dressed with the niqab in morocco even though she isn't Muslim because her beauty wasn't in her butt, breast, legs, and etc but somewhere more respectful. No women should want to be looked at as a sex symbol and basically undressed. I heard a rapper say that a women most respected when she is covered than half naked showing the world what GOD has blessed for her mate and that's why a Muslim women can walk on the same sidewalk and get more respect than the women whose half naked. It starts in the heart and if that's how you want to dress it's shouldn't be a crime if people can walk around with their buttocks out and men in tight jeans, heels and dresses what's wrong with someone trying to become more spiritual in their religion?

      July 12, 2010 at 12:46 am |
    • Frogstomp

      I live in an arab country and I NEVER see arab women without full burqa. Do they have the freedom to choose whether to wear the burqa? I don't think so. Maybe if they want to get disowned by their families, lose their kids and get beat by their husbands.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  9. Karima

    if women was suppose to be covered up like cattle, and not been seen, then GOD would have not made MILLIONS of powerful women in politics, in music, in real estate, in religion in all areas of the world. If GOD didnt want this to happen he would have never let it happen. IT IS BECAUSE OF GOD'S WILL (inshallah to those who dont know that this came from the bible) that he wanted women to be heard and seen. I am so grateful and I feel soory for those women who are talented and have a voice and cannot be heard of because of ignornance and jealousy.

    July 11, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
  10. lovelyme

    Why do people speak to Muslims as if they are only from the Middle East? There are so many Muslims who birth home is America from north, south, east, to west that includes many celebraties(rappers, boxers, singers, nba players, nfl players,actors etc.) and their crimes still don't cause half of the crimes that goes on in U.S. People this is the Land of the Free so since when do you have the right over another born American regardless of what religion they are. I see more terrorizing on here then from Muslims. If CNN research there sites and gathered the info and advertized info that shows most terrorizing hatred comments I wonder which Religion it would be (it's not hard to see) and believe me they have that assess.

    July 11, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  11. Karima

    Halloween is celebrated by some on October 31st. This is the only time that people wear MASKS and are allowed to wear MASKS. I think they are doing the right think by banning this in their country. When people get robbed, they are wearing masks, and therefore people must be able to see their surroundings. GOD never said for women to live like this. Remember Adam and Eve??? God created woman for man because of her BEAUTY not as a PRISONER. God never said women had to be covered form head to toe and face. This is where mohammed became controlling as a normal regular man. No other prophet had problems with women why did he? He was jealous and this is normal as a regular man, not as a prophet. Prohets from the bible did not have these problems because GOD taught them to go against their "flesh" this is why they were stronger and intelligent. As christians, we have a consistent reminder of jesus on the cross, and the muslim bows down to a BALCK BOX the kabaa. What does black symbolize? Darkness–and what is darkness???hell! Mohammed copied ideas from the bible and changed them in his own beliefs. In the bible relevation 22:17-19 it states that anyone that changes or alters this book in anyway their name will not be put in the book of life. With all the demons that Mohammed had encountered, I would not believe a word that he says, none of the REAL prophets in the bible had problems with demons or went crazy talking to the devil or witchcraft. His home made rules have made many women suffer. Because of this covering, women have committ suicide, burn themselves alive, and have blown themselves up because of the mistreatment of men. A culture with many troubles. Women have no way of protecting themselves. Some try witchcraft and the men find out and get the curse off and the men keep women stupid and dont teach them anything and treat them like 10 year old children. In the quran, it tells the men that if they obey mohammed and live the life of the quran that when they die that they canhave as many virgins as they like and can drink as much as they like–IS THIS NOT EVERY MANS DREAM HERE ON EARTH–????Which tells me he was not a messenger of GOD. If you can't drink on earth, what makes you think that you can drink in heaven. Because mohammed didnt understand, he didnt get that when you die, you will have no worries anymore and will not have the need for these things cause your reward is heaven.

    July 11, 2010 at 10:26 pm |
    • lovelyme

      @karima i'm sorry but I don't agree with you. You have been fed that evil ideology that black is evil; well when I see black I see beauty, intelligence, not easily broken, not easily moved, cautious, stylish, timeless, power, sophisticated, submission, formality. Sorry I'm black I get tired of people calling black the most horrible words possible when it's not. The bible do tell the women to cover do you think the Christians women in other countries that covers themselves as mary did are wrong or maybe they just don't go by paul version like the western Christians even their Holidays and cross are different so judge how you worship as an individual not all. Don't forget after all Catholic is the biggest sect in Christianity and nuns cover too. It shows how ignorant one can be when the say someone pray to a black box haven't you been told looks are deceiving for you to have so much lack of knowledge you should research before you comment. That black box was the first house of GOD built by Prophet Abraham and Ismail so Muslims pray towards it not to it the prayer is to GOD the Creator of you and I.

      July 11, 2010 at 11:06 pm |
  12. HeIsGod

    These women should still have the right to wear these veils if they wish to. The woman in the picture looks beautiful!!

    July 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      Should a man be able to FORCE his wife to wear it? How do you feel about that?

      July 13, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      Should the Taliban be allowed to beat women in the streets for not wearing it? Should religious police in Saudi Arabia lock schoolgirls in a burning building and let them die rather than let them out without their islamic coverings?

      Some muslim women may say they want to wear the burqa, but there is no real freedom of choice.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  13. jack h.

    how many terrorists have worn the burqa to escape capture or to get close to an area only to explode a suicide vest? it is very hard to tell if the person wearing the burqa is male or female. if a person did rob a bank dressed in a burqa, it would be very difficult to identify that person so it should be illegal in western society.muslims have many laws against what we do so why can't we ban some of their practices that don't sit well with us? oh no thats just not P.C.

    July 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  14. manal

    to-----One Whose Name Means Beloved of God
    i would like to thank for your sweet word even that i am as i -– l love every body and respect and accept every religion and there way in the life because we are human living to give our love and kindness

    July 11, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  15. Frogstomp

    From the Koran and Hadiths: Muslims are ony required to tell the truth when it serves to propogate the spread of Islam. Muslims are not allowed to be friends with non-muslims, but they are allowed to pretend to be friends with non-muslims if it serves to propogate the spread of Islam. The ultimate goal of Islam, and the "peace" that the Koran envisions, is a world where the Caliphate is restored and everyone has either converted to Islam, or if they refuse to convert are under Shariah law and paying the non-beleiver tax. This is the true character of Islam that most muslims do not want the world to know about. Muslims are using the West's accepting nature and political correctness against us. Sure, there are many muslims who would wish to remake their religion as the religion of peace that can coexist with others, but before you dismiss me as an Islamiphobe at least look into the points I have made.

    July 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  16. Islam is Wrong

    banning of the veil is an understandable pushback against aggressive islamic wrong doing. the veil is a symbol (and reminder) of islamic wrong doing. promoting killing of non-muslims in quran is islamic wrong doing. acting out on said violence promoted by the quran is islamic wrong doing. making it illegal for churches, etc to be established in many islamic countries is islamic intolerance and wrong doing. denying women the right to vote is islamic wrong doing. denying women a litany of rights is islamic wrong doing. the veil is a manifest reminder of islamic wrong doing, and the reminder is so eggregious, so complete with only the eyes showing, manifest fully how complete and thorough islamic intolerance is. While i understand the easy focus on the veil, the true focus should be much broader. In fact i would not be dissatisfied if we accept the veil (with severe punishment for any person shown to have forced a woman to veil against her will) and use said acceptance as a basis for demanding reciprocity. The debate should be exclusively about RECIPROCITY (not the veil). I urge all peoples not yet subjugated by islam to push back with all their might and shame them into RECIPROCITY(while extending to them LOVE). Demand that other faiths be able to wear their religious garb (a yarmulke, a clerical collar, a Hare Krishna robe, etc) in muslim countries. demand that other faiths be able to establish churches, synogogues, temples, etc is muslim countries. Demand RECIPROCITY! Thats what the debate should be about....

    July 11, 2010 at 8:44 am |
    • CatholicMom

      So very well said that nothing further need be said except-read and reread-understand what this is all about and demand FREEDOM the world over.....................

      July 11, 2010 at 8:59 am |
    • Reality

      Islam is Wrong,

      I ditto CatholicMom's comments. Well said about Islam and pushing back against one of the biggest con jobs ever perpetuated against mankind.

      July 11, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • Karima

      OMG...you said it all....Preach on! and its the TRUTH!!!!

      July 11, 2010 at 11:05 pm |
    • lovelyme

      For something to be so wrong it's the only Religion that has its original BOOK. It's the only Religion that can explain scientific facts 1400yrs ago that shocked scientests because they recent discovers to even find out these things was already mention by Prophet Muhammad pbuh they said it only could have been from GOD. It's the fastest growing Religion in the World. It's the Religion that even christian people has said had a positive impact in the world. It's a Religion that has been judged by many even religion that books tell them not to judge. It's a Religion that's so moving, people are scared of what they don't know about it they just go with word of mouth. It's a Religion that has most of the nicest people you could ever want to meet if you wasn't so harsh towards them. It's a Religion that take criticisim everyday by people and yet to fell. This Religion has a types of reverts(pastors, priests, singers, rappers, actors/tress, nba stars, nflers, congressmen, U.S. soldiers, doctors, lawyers, dentists, nurses and etc). It's a Religion that is practise by billions around the world. It's a Religion that you can drag through the mud with the tongue and terrorize as much as you want like they did the slaves and torture like the indians, but in the end it still is always ISLAM complete submission to the one and only truly living GOD that's why we worship him and strive to please him and no other. We shall meet on the DAY OF JUDGEMENT. May his peace and blessings excuse you for your ignorance.

      July 12, 2010 at 12:20 am |
    • Reality


      Unfortunately, you suffer from the Three B Syndrome, i.e. being Bred, Born and Brainwashed in Islam. We have a free Five Step Program to help you to recover from your Islamic ways. Ask and you shall receive!!!

      Also, stop a moment and consider the fact that your life revolves around a mythical angel who is claimed to bring god's word to a warmongering, womanizing (11 wives) Arab named Mohammed. Said story is the biggest fraud ever pulled on mankind. The second biggest fraud is the Paul et al's story about the virgin birth and the resurrection of a simple preacher man named Jesus.

      July 12, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  17. Eric G

    As an atheist, I don't care what someones religion tells them to wear. As an American, I think the government should only get involved in what a group of people choose to wear if it becomes a threat to the rest of us. What if someone thinks that their god wants them to wear a vest made out of dynamite whenever they go to Walmart? If wearing a burqa becomes a security risk to others, then the government can step in. I wonder how many Americans that are against the wearing of a burqa are all for being able to carry a gun in public?

    July 11, 2010 at 8:30 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Even if our freedom was taken away as to what we can or cannot wear to cover our bodies while out in the public eye, even as nude, someone would figure out how they could hide explosives on/in their bodies.

      July 11, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  18. Mark from Middle River

    Free- From what you get out of the Christianity it sounds as though you do not consider the Old testament the foundation where many if not most Christians do consider it to be the foundation. There is nothing like those within a faith blasting away at each other declaring that their vision and interpretation of the Bible is the exclusive path to understanding and communing with God.

    You keep asking why many avoid a discussion about Muhammed vs Jesus. Maybe because in the grand scheme of faith and the world it only matters to you and others like you. That there people defending Islam it lets me know that your time is beginning to come to a end. It probably will not be in my life time and I doubt it will ever fully happen but the time of folks pitting one group against another and there isn't a World Cup soccer ball between, has proven more pointless as time goes on.

    In other words folks like you are us who are Christians "weakest point". A total package of anger and distrust manifested in a bunch of sound clips. I was thinking that I would find here a discussion on Burqas and folks just wanting to say "my prophet is better than your messiah". What is the goal in that? Truthfully.

    July 11, 2010 at 3:33 am |
  19. Sara


    I'm a Muslim woman. It's sad how all of you think that you're in a position to say what should or should not be done. Why not ask the women that this is going to affect before saying foolish things like "Islam is like Nazism" For the love of God...

    July 11, 2010 at 2:27 am |
    • Frogstomp

      I'm glad that you don't mind it, because it is not like you have a choice in the matter.

      July 11, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  20. Sherri

    A burqa is solely used by Muslims. No one else wears this. So it IS an Islamic identifying garment. Also, these people move to Europe, but won't assimilate. They want to act and dress as they did in the 1400's. If you move to a different country, you need to assimilate. Learn the language and the culture. If you do not want to do this, then stay where you were. Michigan is having bad problems due to this type of thing. True, not all Muslims wear this, but when they take over America, you and I WILL be wearing it. And we won't have a choice. Stand up for yourselves now, before it is too late.

    July 10, 2010 at 11:16 pm |
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