By Jabeen Bhatti and Aida Alami
June 28, 2010, USA Today
BERLIN — A growing movement in Europe to ban burqas and niqabs, the face coverings worn by some Muslim women, is igniting a debate over individual religious freedom vs. broader cultural values.
The movement started in Belgium when a bill making it a crime to wear a face veil in public passed unanimously in the lower house of parliament in April. The penalty would be a $19-$31 fine or a week in jail. The measure is likely to become law by fall, says Denis Ducarme, co-author of the legislation.
France followed and lawmakers across the continent are considering similar measures.
Belgium already has a law that forbids wearing masks in public, but lawmakers said they wanted to enhance the security of the country, promote gender equality and send a signal to extremists.
"Above all, this law was based around the question of security," Ducarme says. "We think that it is important that all people must be able to be identified when in public. But we are also concerned over women forced to wear (a burqa or niqab). If the state doesn't say 'stop,' the few wearing them today might be 2,000 in 10 years."
The Muslim Executive of Belgium, an association of Muslims, estimates that between 30 and 100 women there wear a burqa. In France, fewer than 2,000 cover their faces, according to the Interior Ministry.
Ducarme says lawmakers are not concerned about Muslims in general but about the minority who hold extremist views. "It is really dangerous for our values in Europe," he says.
Anthropologist Ruth Mandel of University College London, author of Cosmopolitan Anxieties, says the proposed bans are a stand-in for a deeper concern. The veils "are a symbol," she says, "touchstones for more substantial debates on whether and how those still seen as outsiders fit into mainstream European society."
Many European countries, including France, Belgium and Germany, restrict head scarves and face-covering veils for government employees and in state schools.
In France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population — an estimated 7%-10% of its 64 million people — the Cabinet approved a ban on face-covering veils in public areas in May. The legislation, to be considered by the National Assembly next month, could mean a fine of $186 and a citizenship class requirement. Someone convicted of forcing a woman to wear a burqa or niqab faces up to$18,575 in penalties and a year in prison.
"There are extremist gurus out there and we must stop their influence and barbaric ideologies," says Community Party lawmaker André Gerin. "Covering one's face undermines one's identity, a woman's femininity and gender equality."
France banned all religious symbols, including large crosses and head scarves, from public classrooms and buildings in 2004. The draft law states that the French republic's founding values of liberty, equality and fraternity are at stake — that a face covering undermines a women's liberty by keeping her separate from society, violates fraternity by excluding others because it hides her face, and undermines gender equality by keeping women in an unequal position.
The proposal is popular in France — a poll in the weekly Le Point in January showed public support at 57% — but criticism is mounting. Roman Catholic Church officials oppose a ban, saying it places Christians in Muslim countries at risk of retaliation. French police unions say it is unenforceable. France's Council of State, which advises the government on legislation, warns "it is not in accordance with" the constitution.
Lawmakers in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands voice support for banning veils but have been held back by similar legal concerns.
Politicians "are using these women for their own political ends," says Isabelle Praile of the Muslim Executive of Belgium. "Those imposing this ban are guilty of the same extremism as those forcing women to veil themselves."
Others say such measures are further alienating European Muslims still reeling from Switzerland's vote last fall to ban the building of minarets, the crowned spires that distinguish mosques.
"Muslims in Europe feel that they are not welcome," says French political sociologist Jocelyne Cesari, author of the book Muslims in the West after 9/11: Religion, Law and Politics. "They say, 'We are French, we are German,' but no one sees us this way."
The niqab "symbolizes my freedom of expressing my religion," says Kenza Drider, 31, a French national of Moroccan heritage who lives in Avignon in southern France. "The niqab is my dignity, my spirituality and my submission to God."
Drider says she donned the niqab 11 years ago to delve deeper into her faith.
"I will continue to go out the way I do, wearing the niqab," she says. "If they give a fine, I will accept it with pleasure, because that is what I will take to the Constitutional Council and the European Court of Human Rights."
Praile says the bans"will force women to stay behind closed doors and become invisible again."
"We need a massive coordinated campaign (against burqas and niqabs) just like the one we have to stop people smoking," says British imam Taj Hargey, chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, who opposes the bans. "The veil is not a requirement of Islam but a cultural one."
Hargey says Muslims need to integrate their religion into the culture where they live. He argues that they need to demonstrate that being European and Muslim are not mutually exclusive by being productive and responsible members of society, upholding its values and taking full part in its democracy.
"Islam is not here to impose minarets or (women in burqas) on this society but to assimilate to it," Hargey says. "We don't do enough to show that we aren't a threat."
Cesari says European societies also have a responsibility: to fight an Islamophobia that has grown since 9/11. She argues governments need to ease citizenship laws that have been based on native heritage instead of civil definitions, combat discrimination, promote education and social mobility, and sell the idea that European Muslims of migrant background —— many now in the third generation — are an integral part of society.
"Islam has always been seen as incompatible with human rights, equality, democracy and modernity," Cesari says. "We have to rewrite the narrative."