Islamic dress controversy in Europe

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The right-wing British tabloid Daily Express campaigned for a ban on veils in 2006.

Islamic dress (mainly worn by women) has become a prominent symbol of the presence of Islam in western Europe. In several countries it has led to political controversies, and proposals for a legal ban. The Netherlands government has decided to introduce a legal ban on face-covering Islamic clothing, popularly described as the 'burqa ban', although it does not only apply to the Afghan-model burqa. Other countries are debating similar legislation, or have more limited prohibitions. Some of them apply only to face-covering clothing such as the burqa, chador, or niqab, some apply to any clothing with an Islamic religious symbolism. (Some countries already have older laws banning the wearing of masks in public, which can be applied to a burqa or niqab). The issue has different names in different countries, and "the veil" is often used as a general term for Islamic dress, not just for a veil itself.

Although the Balkans and Eastern Europe have indigenous Muslim populations, most Muslims in western Europe are members of immigrant communities. The issue of Islamic dress is inextricably linked with issues of immigration, with the position of Islam in western society, and with fears of Islamisation in Europe and it comes as multiculturalism is being questioned or abandoned.


[edit] Perspectives

The reasons given for prohibition vary. Legal bans on face-covering clothing are often justified on security grounds, as an anti-terrorism measure. However, the public controversy is wider, and may be indicative of polarisation between Muslims and western European societies.

For some critics, Islamic dress is an issue of value conflicts and the Clash of Civilizations. These critics - prominently among them is Ayaan Hirsi Ali - see Islam as incompatible with Western values, at least in its present form. They advocate the values of 'Enlightenment liberalism', including secularism and equality of women. For them, the burqa or chador are both a symbol of religious obscurantism and of the oppression of women. Western Enlightenment values, in their view, require prohibition, regardless of whether a woman has freely chosen Islamic dress. A related view is that freely chosen Islamic dress is a declaration of allegiance to radical Islamism, and the wearers are enemies of western society, if not terrorists.

Islamic dress is also seen as a symbol of the existence of parallel societies (de:Parallelgesellschaft), and the failure of integration: British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as a "mark of separation". <ref>Blair's concerns over face veils BBC News Online. October 17, 2006</ref> Visible symbols of a non-western culture conflict with the national identity in European states, which assumes a shared (non-Islamic) culture. Proposals for a ban may be linked to other related cultural prohibitions: the Netherlands politician Geert Wilders proposed a ban on the burqa, on Islamic schools, on new mosques, and on non-western immigration.

In France and Turkey, the emphasis is on the secular nature of the state, and the symbolic nature of the Islamic dress, and bans apply at state institutions (courts, civil service) and in state-funded education. These bans also cover Islamic headscarves, which in some other countries are seen as less controversial, although law court staff in the Netherlands are also forbidden to wear Islamic headscarves on grounds of 'state neutrality'.

An apparently less politicised argument is that in specific professions (teaching), a ban on 'veils' (niqab) is justified, since face-to-face communication and eye contact is required. This argument has featured prominently in judgments in Britain and the Netherlands, after students or teachers were banned for wearing face-covering clothing.

Public and political response to such prohibition proposals is complex, since by definition they mean that the government decides on individual clothing. Some non-Muslims, who would not be affected by a ban, see it as an issue of civil liberties, as a slippery slope leading to further restrictions on private life. A public opinion poll in London showed that 75% of Londoners support "the right of all persons to dress in accordance with their religious beliefs". <ref>Guardian: Livingstone decries vilification of Islam , November 20, 2006, [1] </ref> In another poll in the United Kingdom by Ipsos MORI, 61% agreed that "Muslim women are segregating themselves" by wearing a veil, yet 77% thought they should have the right to wear it.<ref>Ipsos MORI Muslim Women Wearing Veils.</ref>

[edit] European Union

European Commissioner Franco Frattini stated in November 2006, that he did not favour a ban on the burqa. <ref>Reformatorisch dagblad: Brussel tegen boerkaverbod, 30 November 2006, [2]</ref> This is apparently the first official statement on the issue of prohibition of Islamic dress from the European Commission, the executive of the European Union.

[edit] Turkey

Turkey is a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk more than 80 years ago. Ataturk saw headscarves as backward-looking, an obstacle to his campaign to secularise and modernise the new Turkish Republic. Kemalist ideology continues to emphasise secularism, although most Turks are Muslims. Headscarves and other Islamic coverings are banned in public spaces, including schools and universities (public and private (from 2000)) as well as courts of law, government offices and other official institutions. It has also been prohibited to wear headscarves on photos on official documents like licenses, passports, and university enrolment documents.

In October 2006 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university ban, rejecting a complaint filed by a Turkish university student<ref>Strasbourg court's ruling upholds headscarf ban [3]</ref>. Earlier, in June 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a petition by a Turkish student who was banned in 1998 for wearing a headscarf at Istanbul University<ref>Ban on headscarves and Turkey [4]</ref>. In 2000, a court in Turkey sentenced Nuray Bezirgan to six months jail for "obstructing the education of others," for wearing a headscarf at her college final exams, which led to disturbances<ref>Ban on headscarves and Turkey [5]</ref>.

Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer in October 2006 refused headscarves at a ball marking Turkish independence, saying it would "compromise" and undermine the secular state founded by Kemal Atatürk.<ref>Turkey in veil controversy [6]</ref>

[edit] The Netherlands

Immigration and Integration minister Rita Verdonk announced in November 2006 that the Netherlands will introduce legislation to ban face-covering clothing in public. <ref>Al-Jazeera: Netherlands moves to ban burqa, 17 November 2006, [7]; Der Spiegel: Niederlande wollen Burka verbieten, 17 November 2006, [8]; BBC: Dutch government backs burqa ban, 17 November 2006, [9]</ref> Although a ban was publicly debated earlier, the legislation results directly from a motion tabled in the Netherlands parliament by the anti-immigration <ref>Wilders Party for Freedom advocates a 5-year moratorium on all non-western immigration, party website: [10]</ref> politician Geert Wilders, calling upon the cabinet to introduce it. The cabinet proposals was delayed because of concerns about conflict with freedom of religion. The Third Balkenende cabinet thinks that these issues are no longer an obstacle to legislation. The proposal was condemned by Muslim organisations. <ref>BBC: Dutch Muslims condemn burqa ban, 18 November 2006, [11]</ref>

In the November 2006 general election, Wilders' Party for Freedom won 9 seats: a complete ban on the burqa and a ban Islamic headscarves in the civil service and schools, is part of its platform, but all other parties refuse to include it in a coalition. <ref>Party website: [12]</ref> A group of Muslim women organised a pro-burqa demonstration at the newly elected parliament in The Hague, on 30 November 2006. The demonstration, probably unique in a western democracy, attracted national media attention, despite having only 20 participants. <ref>IHT: Muslim women protest outside Dutch parliament against burqa ban , November 30, 2006, [13]; Weinig demonstranten in Den Haag, [14]; De Volkskrant, 25 November 2006. Moslima’s betogen voor recht op boerka. [15]. Text of manifesto online at [16]</ref>

Malaysia protested against the proposed ban soon after it was announced. Foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar called it a discriminatory treatment of Muslims, and said it infringed freedom of choice. The Islamic headscarf tudung is a political issue in Malaysia itself. According to the UNHCHR, female students in Malaysia itself are pressured to wear the tudung, and it is compulsory for female shop workers in Kelantan, while Malaysian politicians have protested against its prohibition in public schools in Singapore. <ref>UNHCHR, Minorities and the state in Malaysia and Singapore: Provisions, Predicaments and Prospects. [$FILE/G0314161.doc]</ref> According to memo leaked to the Algemeen Dagblad, the Netherlands foreign ministry has warned of a possible controversy, similar to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. <ref>Algemeen Dagblad: Woede moslims dreigt, 20 November 2006, [17]</ref>

The proposed legislation in the Netherlands applies nationally. Earlier, schools and other institutions had enforced their own bans on Islamic dress, although usually not on the Islamic headscarf. Employers also have their own policies. Cases of dismissal or exclusion from school are sometimes handled by the Netherlands Equality Commission, creating de facto national guidelines on what constitutes discrimination. <ref>Website in English: [18]</ref> In Amsterdam, school policies attracted media attention after an incident in 2003. A higher vocational college, banned three students for wearing the niqab. One was removed by police when she tried to enter the school wearing the niqab: the school regulations are legally enforceable because unauthorised entry is trespass. The students appealed to the Equality Commission, which ruled (in March 2003) in favour of the school. <ref>CGB: school mag gezichtssluier verbieden, [19]</ref> The school justified the ban on the grounds that the niqab "hindered eye contact, which testifies to mutual respect". The Commission agreed with the school, indicating that the educational necessity of contact and communication within the school building overrode the religious-freedom aspects. The education minister, Maria van der Hoeven, of the Christian-Democratic party CDA, publicly approved the Commission decision. The Amsterdam CDA subsequently called for a national ban on chador, burqa and niqab in schools, partly on the grounds that they conflicted with common national values. <ref>CDA wil algeheel verbod op sluier in de klas, [20]</ref>

The cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht have proposed cutting social security benefit to unemployed women wearing a burqa, on the grounds that it makes them unemployable in a predominantly non-Muslim country. <ref>Spiegel International: Amsterdam Mulls Axing Dole for Women in Burqas, April 21, 2006, [21]</ref>

[edit] Belgium

Several Belgian municipalities have used municipal by-laws on face-covering clothing to ban public wearing of the niqab and burqa.<ref>[22]</ref> The town of Maaseik was to first to implement a ban. A Moroccan immigrant, Khadija El Ouazzani, was fined €75 under the by-law for wearing a burqa: in 2006, a local police court upheld the ban and the fine. According to mayor Jan Creemers (Flemish Christian Democrats), 5 or 6 women in Maaseik had "caused feelings of insecurity" by wearing a burqa, and he had received complaints about them. He personally warned the women to stop: after that only, El Ouazzani continued to wear the burqa, and the by-law was activated. <ref>Algemeen Dagblad: Burka-verbod is succes in België, 20 November 2006, [23]</ref>

In late 2004, at Creemers request, Marino Keulen, Flemish-Liberal interior minister in the Flemish government, created a standard prohibition for burqa's, and sent it to all 308 municipalities in Flanders. <ref>Het Belang van Limburg: Keulen stuurt modelreglement inzake boerka-verbod naar gemeenten, 2 December 2004, [24]</ref> The regulation states that persons on the public street and in public buildings must be identifiable at all times, "to protect the social order, which allows a harmonious process of human activities". It prohibits covering the forehead, the cheeks, the eyes, the ears, the nose and the chin. Carnival, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas are exempt. According to Keulen:

As Minister for Integration I respect culture tradition and belief, but wearing a burqa has nothing to do with religious belief, but with traditional dress in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides, wearing a burqa has an intimidating effect, and it can not be tolerated that Muslim women are excluded from society because they are isolated behind their burqa, and can't communicate with the world around them.

All municipalities can chose if they want to adopt the regulation: six have done so. In August 2006, mayor Creemers called for a national ban. <ref>VRT: "Nationaal verbod op dragen boerka", 10 August 2006, [25]</ref> The anti-immigrant and separatist party Vlaams Belang, formerly Vlaams Blok, had earlier advocated a ban at Flemish level, and locally in Antwerp. <ref>Website Vlaams Belang Antwerpen, [26]</ref>. Although Vlaams Belang is excluded from power in Antwerp, by a coalition of all other parties, the ban was adopted. It was first applied in 2005, when a woman was fined because only her eyes were visible. <ref>VRT: Gesluierde vrouw krijgt boete in Antwerpen, 22 September 2005, [27]</ref>

[edit] France

The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans all clothing which may be interpreted as a religious symbol. It is typically justified as a measure to ensure the secularism and religious neutrality of the state - the principle of Laïcité. In December, 2003, President Jacques Chirac supported a new law to explicitly forbid any "visible sign of religious affiliation", in the spirit of laïcité. The law was approved by the French parliament in March 2004. It forbids the wearing of any "ostensible" religious articles, including the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippa, and large Christian crosses. The law permits discreet signs of faith, such as small crosses, Stars of David, and hands of Fatima. The law applies to students, but parents wearing such symbolic items may be refused entry to school buildings. Without specific legal prohibition, similar policies are applied in other state organisations and buildings, such as public hospitals.

Note that the French controversy primarily relates to Islamic dress as a symbol of Islam itself, and only secondarily to other factors such as face-to-face communication, or security risks. The new law says nothing about the wearing of Islamic dress in public (on the street), which is the primary concern in the Netherlands and Belgium.

[edit] United Kingdom

The Leader of the House of Commons in the UK, Jack Straw, initiated a nation-wide controversy on "the veil" by criticising its use in 2006. Although his remarks were low-key in tone, they publicised the issue, partly as a symbol of the wider problem of polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. Straw said he would prefer to see no veils: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."<ref>In quotes: Jack Straw on the veil - BBC News. October 6, 2006</ref>

The legal status of Islamic dress in schools was clarified by the Shabina Begum case, where the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ruled that freedom to manifest religious beliefs was not absolute, and could be restricted.<ref>R (on the application of Begum (by her litigation friend, Rahman)) (Respondent) v. Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School (Appellants), [28] </ref> Conservative columnist Theodore Dalrymple, noting that Shabina Begum was represented by the Prime Minister's wife Cherie Blair, claims that the judgement was a political one, a concession to Muslim opinion offended by the camapign against Islamist terrorism. <ref>Theodore Dalrymple in National Review, March 2005: Wrong from Head to Toe, [29]</ref>

In the Aishah Azmi case, an employment tribunal held that a school could refuse to employ a veiled teacher (wearing the niqab). Unusually, government ministers intervened in the employment tribunal case, supporting the school. This case provkoked Prime Minister Tony Blair to comment that the veil was a "mark of separation", and minister Phil Woolas demanded that Azmi be sacked, accusing her of "denying the right of children to a full education". The school subsequently sacked her. <ref>Guardian: Veil row teacher sacked, November 24, 2006. [30]</ref> See The Veil and the British Male Elite

[edit] Germany

When two 18-year old students (one Turkish, one Kurdish) appeared at school in Bonn in a burqa, they were not only suspended from school for "disturbing the peace": the Finance Minister cancelled a visit to the school, and the two were investigated by the intelligence service, who suspected them of contacts with the controversial King Fahd Academy in Bonn. <ref>Rheinische Post: Burka-Verbot - Türkinnen von Schule verwiesen, 29 April 2006, [31]; Spiegel: Schulausschluss wegen Burka : "Lehrer müssen Schülern ins Gesicht sehen" (28 April 2006) [32]; Verhüllte 18-Jährige : Schulverweis wegen Burka, [33]; Bonner Burka-Schülerinnen : Ministerium sagt Schulbesuch ab, [34]; Verhüllte Schülerinnen : Geheimdienste werten Burka als Provokation, [35]</ref> The incident illustrates the sensitivity in Germany over Islamic dress, especially in schools. It led the Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries to call for nationwide standard school uniforms (itself a sensitive issue in Germany because of the association with the Hitler Youth and the FDJ).

Education in Germany is the responsiblity of the individual states, which each have their own education ministry. In September 2003, the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Constitutional Court), ruled that the states could ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves by women teachers, and that this would not infringe the constitutional protection of freedom of religion. However, a ban could only be implemented by a state law, and not by administrative decisions. Since then, 8 of the 16 states have introduced a prohibition, first Baden-Württemberg, then Bavaria, Hessen, Niedersachsen, the Saarland, Bremen and Nordrhein-Westfalen. The city-state of Berlin banned all religious symbols in public institutions, including the Christian crucifix and the Jewish yarmulke. <ref>Zeit online/Tagesspiegel: Ländersache: Der ewige Streit um das Kopftuch, 31 October 2006, [36]</ref> In Baden-Württemberg, state courts upheld an appeal against the ban by several Muslim teachers, on the grounds of religious discrimination, since Catholic nuns are allowed to teach in full religious habit. The state government (Christian-Democrat CDU) has appealed the decision.

In 2004, the then President of Germany, Johannes Rau, spoke on the 'headscarf issue' and the nature of the German state, as compared to the officially secular French state: <ref>Religionsfreiheit heute - zum Verhältnis von Staat und Religion in Deutschland. Rede von Bundespräsident Johannes Rau zum 275 Geburtstag von Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 22 January 2004, [37]</ref>

I fear that a headscarf ban will be the first step on the road to a laicistic state, which will prohibit religious signs and symbols in the public sphere. I don't want to see that happen. That is not my vision of our country, with its centuries of Christian influence.

In Germany, women in burqa or chador are forbidden to drive motor vehicles. The Federal Transport Ministry confirmed that a de facto ban already exists. <ref>Netzeitung: Keine Burka hinterm Steuer, 14 June 2006, [38]</ref>

[edit] Italy

Immigration in the last two decades has introduced Islam as a second major religion in Italy, a country where the population was traditionally either Catholic or anti-clerical. The "Islamic veil" has become a national political issue, usually in combination with other Islam-related issues, such as new mosques, and the teaching of the Quran in schools. The anti-immigrant and separatist Lega Nord has focussed recent campaigns on prohibition of the burqa, although as with the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the wider issue is immigration. After local anti-burqa campaigns, several municipalities imposed a ban, but these have been suspended by Regional Administrative Tribunals. <ref>La Padania: Salvini: «Nei comuni servono ordinanze contro il burqa», [39]</ref> The Regional Administrative Tribunal of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, suppressed, for largely technical reasons, bans imposed by a municipal government. Use of the law 152/1975 - which prohibits the use of motorcycle helmets to evade identification - can not be extended to cover the veil or burqa. <ref>Tar Friuli Venezia Giulia. Sentenza n. 645 del 16 ottobre 2006, online at [40]; Federico Punzi at Velo, cavallo di Troia dell’Islam radicale in Europa, 3 November 2006, [41]</ref>

At national level, the left-of-centre Italian coalition government led by Romano Prodi is considering a specific legal ban on face-covering Islamic clothing (the ban would be limited to this category only). A new law is preferred, even though Italy already has a national law, dating from 1931, banning masks and other face covering in public. <ref>Die Standard: Italien bastelt an Burka-Verbot, 7 November 2006, [42]</ref>

[edit] Denmark

There is no ban on religious Islamic dress in Denmark, however after a burka-clad journalist was able to pass unchecked through the airport security of Copenhagen airport<ref>Burka-clad woman unchecked at airport [43]</ref>, the government has stressed to the airports that passengers are not allowed to pass security checks without showing their faces. A string of bank and post-office robberies in 2004 by a burka-clad woman, so called “burka-robber”, has let to some tightening of bank procedures.

[edit] References


[edit] See also

[edit] External links

Islamic dress controversy in Europe

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