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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. Frogstomp

    Does everyone remember the incident in Saudi Arabia in 2002 where the "religious police" killed 14 school girls by forcibly preventing them from escaping a burning building because they were not dressed correctly? These are the situations where they show their true colors.

    July 13, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  2. Sarah S.

    These garments you are trying to ban allow these Muslim women freedome to go out and do the things they need to do daily. without the nikab, these women would be sentenced to a solitary life at home without any chance of getting out. Did anyone think of that? you are basically imprisoning these women if you take away their clothes.

    July 13, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
    • Tom

      That is absolutelyt silly and objectionable. You will not make us feel guilty about banning the burqa. If these women feel imprisoned by not wearing the burqa, it is their own fault. They have to break out of this self-confining custom.

      July 13, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  3. Tom

    re: the catholic rosary. The rosary is not a screening object, by any stretch of the imagination, so come off it; don't be silly.
    You people will try any senseless argument in order to get your way. You cannot be trusted. If the "great majority" of Islam does not require a burqa, then scrap it and stop making a fuss wherever you go.

    July 13, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  4. Tiger

    mohammad murdered peaceful Jews with his own hands

    July 13, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
  5. Tiger

    mohammaed fought 26 battles and accepted woman slaves in his harem.

    July 13, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      He made an exception for himself to the 4-wife limit. He beat his wives too. We was a great guy.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  6. Tiger

    I love France.

    July 13, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Turnipghost

    I've never been to France, but I think its time to book a trip. Lets get thousands of us over there and wear burqas at a peaceful demonstration. Yes, it may be intolerant and war mongering but I am so tired of the narrow-minded and scared ruling the world. Let the old, traditional, racial, persecuting world fade away and a new world community take its place. Even if we disagree on religion or any other number of issues, we all need air... Let's start there.

    July 13, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      I don't even know what you are trying to say.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
    • Turnipghost

      Simply this: peace. Let's start with what we have in common. We all need air to live.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  8. dnsmith

    Burqa is not Muslim dress. It is nothing but good old boy Islamist and disguise for terrorists and should be prohibited world over. The great majority of Islam does not require Burqa.

    July 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Frogstomp

    I am living in an arab country and girls have to start wearing the full burqa with face covering as young as 7 or 8. If the intent of the burqa is to prevent men from lusting after women, that says A LOT about arab men.

    July 13, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  10. Bluebird

    A woman can be modest without being mummified. If they want to have this extreme interpretation of Islam so bad, my question is why even bother moving to Western countries that are considered hot pots of sin? What point does that serve? I don't move to a Middle Eastern country and insist on running about in a miniskirt or Bikini, so why come to the west and insist on a Burqa? Being tolerant of other faiths is one thing. Having a group take advantage of that tolerance for the sole purpose of sqeezing the rest of us out eventually, and taking over, is quite another. The Burqa is a sign of the latter. Personally I believe Western countries should take the Netherland's lead in dealing with this. Check out their immigration policies.

    July 13, 2010 at 10:06 am |
  11. Erin

    Most banks in the US don't allow patrons to walk in wearing baseball caps and sunglasses. There are usually signs at the door requesting people to remove them. So why in the US are we allowing burquas??? We're often too politically correct when it comes to things that cross ethical and safety boundaries in this country and it's got to stop.

    As a woman, I think the idea of forcing Muslim women to wear burquas is mysogonistic and another way of showing male dominance and disrespect over women. We're not talking about a headscarf here that non-fundamentalist muslims feel suffice, but rather a full sheet over a woman allowing only her eyes to be shown. Think about it. How awful.

    July 13, 2010 at 10:00 am |
  12. George

    Does any muslim think that America will one day embrace them with loving arms? Stupid thought.

    July 13, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  13. George

    Let's set aside some craphole somewhere on the earth and let all these freaks go live there, where they can wear whatever they want, behead whomever they want, stone each other to death, and basically do those other dark age activities. Also, by having them all in one place will make it easier to nuke them all in one fell swoop. When the real war starts you can be sure the pilgrimage to Mecca will receive several nuke strikes, thereby eliminating a large number of this scourge from the planet.

    July 13, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  14. George

    How easy one of these costumes make it for a criminal to forever hide from the police is reason enough to ban them. Let's be real here folks, these people are a bunch of freaks. I saw one of these creatures parading around in an American store and then asked the cashier how she felt when the costumed freak came through her aisle and she said, "it scared me". Try entering a bank with one of these Halloween suits on.

    July 13, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  15. Masi

    Truth sets you free, that statement is perfect for your ignorance in your understanding of Islam. *Do not wrong [others]…and u will not be wronged (quran [2:279]

    July 13, 2010 at 5:40 am |
  16. Daniel Solow

    This is obscene. At least this gives me something to be proud of as an American. This has changed my opinion toward our European allies so much. This is something that would not even get past midnight meetings of crazed tea-partiers in the US, and it's getting passed into law in these supposedly free countries?

    What a joke. The sane Europeans should take a long look at how quickly their governments are able to take away fundamental freedoms.

    July 13, 2010 at 2:52 am |
    • Frogstomp

      Like the right to treat your women like slaves?

      July 13, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  17. Noble9

    "Tory MP introduced in the UK a Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public"

    What if it's really, really cold in England and you need a scarf? What if you have a face injury and need bandages? What if it's Halloween and you're going to a costume party dressed as a Transformer robot? What if you're sleeping on the train and cover your face with a newspaper? This is a very dumb law.

    July 12, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
  18. skar

    I dont understand the contradiction. I agree with many intelligent members that some bad elements may use burqa to blowup something. But if burqa is damaging to the social fabric of society (some people argue).... how come nudity is not. We have strip clubs, nude beaches, play boys, legal prostitution (some countries in Europe). I think these things are more damaging to any society than just covering your face. Dont you think people are just as intolerant as they were when there was no sign of democracy and media few hundred years ago...There must to be some sane solution?? I think it will get to a point where in muslim countries, christians will not be allowed to build churches and west (christian?) wont allow mosques to be built? I think only thing that unites every ideat on this planet is money.... its definitely not religion. Because we still need to do business with all the countries we hate because we need money. If we were so strong in our opinions about someone wearing burqa or whatever, why dont we stop doing business with those countries that supply terrorists etc. It may be because we dont know what we want. may be just we are paranoid. Our belief system may be weak.

    July 12, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
  19. Frogist

    The level of discourse on this topic is disheartening. Where is that "love your neighbour" sentiment now, Christians? Where is the freedom of expression ideology now, non-religious?

    As much as we love to bash each other's place in the universe, I might remind you, it is NOT religion that makes for violence. Violence belongs to all humankind. And it starts with the idiocy of comparing a world religion and all it's people to Nazis. Islam does not create terrorism. Economic and social instability does. And WTF is this "islamification" nonsense? Here is a little heads-up. All these people came to our countries for a reason. They are not taking over just because they want you to uphold your rights and freedoms so they have the capacity to live freely and have a better future for their children. They are your rights. Uphold them! Because in a generation, their children will be our children. They will adapt their ways to our ways. But if we don't give them room to be themselves and appreciate their culture and religion, they will pull back and refuse to adapt. We will have taught them that the hatred they have heard about the West is true. There is no truer call to violence than a child will seek in retribution upon those who have wronged his parents.

    OK... had to get that out of my system...
    About the security risk... The long flowing gown can conceal things. But long flowing garb can also be a long skirt, kimono, priests robes, saris (which can also cover the face), raincoats, pregnancy wear etc etc... Is it ok to ban all of these due to the possible security risk? No. Things that cover the face are surgical masks like those used in many asian countries to prevent illness, Halloween garb, face paint, a beard etc etc... Are those banned in public? Of course not. So to me there is no extra security risk in a burqa (sp?). Also it does feel like the only reason people are saying it's a security risk, is that it's Islamic garb.

    Women's rights... Yes, I understand that these are not comfortable clothes for warm weather. But we can't legislate a ban on things that are uncomfortable. A lot of women wear high-heeled shoes which can be painful and cause injury, but we don't ban them.
    Seems to me the more we try to deny another people's culture, they will hold on to it tighter, no matter how unreasonable the practice. How about we try to be a little curious which may lead to an exchange of ideas which could lead to integration which will dispel the misunderstanding? That is what will truly create change regarding women's rights and the practice of wearing the burqa. Hearts and minds, anyone?

    When it comes down to it, the reasons for the ban don't seem strong enough to overide a person's right to freely practice their religion or express their identity. The evidence should be overwhelming before we start to consider infringing on personal rights.

    Also sorry bout the long post...

    July 12, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      How is it freedom of expression to force women to wear a burqa?

      July 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      We are not giving muslim women the freedom to express themselves, we are allowing their pig husbands the tools to keep their slaves in line.

      July 13, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      Where DO we draw the line? Do we allow them to do whatever they want to each other, just because they are muslims? What if they want to force their daughters to undergoe genital mutilation?

      July 13, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
    • Liz

      Banning high heels sounds like a good idea to me. Those things are torture and terrible for the back and feet. Burqas are a sign of oppression, and when used, are almost always because the father or husband is making the woman (or the government, in the case of many middle eastern countries). If they were banned though, these abusive people probably would not let their daughters or wives leave the home. I think any woman in a burqa needs to be investigated and helped if she is in an abusive situation. I often wonder what bruises these poor women are hiding under those things.

      July 13, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  20. Logiczilla

    The most common refrain for burqa haters seem to be security concern and for the burqa lovers, it seems to be the right of muslim women to cover their body and face as Islam preaches. to reach common ground, muslim women should be permitted to wear a helmet, pants, shirts, socks, shoes, gloves so that no part of their body is visible. They wouldn't be able to hide a bazooka anywhere and must therefore be acceptable to the burqa haters.

    July 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
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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.