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     Jul 24, 2010
Burqa over the Bastille
By Chan Akya

An Australian friend recently jolted me with an apparently aesthetic but obviously puerile suggestion, "Mate, can we amend this burqa ban so that only ugly women are required to wear them while the good-looking ones are mandated to wear bikinis?" He was referring to the boiling controversy in Europe over the body-covering burqa and the niqab face veil that has swiftly become one of the most hotly debated issues on the continent this summer.

France became the second European country on July 13 to pass a controversial ban on the wearing of burqas (traditional all-body robes, usually black, with a gauzed slit in front of the woman's 

eyes); after Belgium passed a similar law in April. Now, it turns out that Spain - that place of Moorish conquests and a confluence of Catholic and Islamic architecture - is considering a similar ban on the public displays of the burqas.

The move by the French, which came a day before the celebration of Bastille Day (and apparently with no sense of irony with respect to the timing) has elicited widespread public and media reaction. Tellingly, it appears that Europe and America have polar opposite points of view. As a news report on the Voice of America on July 16 highlighted:
A new poll by the Pew Research Center [1] shows that more than 82 percent of the French public approves of the ban. Majorities in Germany (71 percent), Britain (62 percent) and Spain (59 percent) said they would support banning the full-face veils in their own countries. By contrast, in the same poll, a majority of Americans said they would not approve a similar law.
Rather than a mere story on the sidelines of the ongoing "clash of civilizations", the controversy over the burqa may well point to the differences in the way that Europe is reacting to the twin issues of secularism and immigration; in marked contrast to the US.

That former allies of the US such as the United Kingdom and Australia are also heading in a similar direction as the rest of Europe indicates that this isn't merely an issue that separates "Anglo-Saxons" from other societies.

The day after the ban (July 14), the UK's conservative-leaning Daily Mail reported:
Britain faced growing calls to ban the burka today after French MPs voted overwhelmingly to outlaw full-face veils in public. Politicians in France united yesterday to ban Islamic veils that cover a woman's face, which some described as "walking coffins".

Deputies in the country's 557-seat lower house, the National Assembly, voted in favour of the ban by 335 votes to one. Support for a ban in Britain has come from Tory backbencher Philip Hollobone and the UK Independence Party.

Mr Hollobone has tabled a private members' bill which would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. The Kettering MP, who has previously likened full face veils to "going round with a paper bag over your head", said: "It is unnatural for someone to cover their face and it not a religious requirement.

"We are never going to have a fully integrated society if an increasing proportion of the population cover their faces." His Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill is the first of its kind in Britain, and is one of only 20 private members' bills drawn in a ballot for the chance to make it into the statute books.
A few days later, on July 18, Minister for Immigration Damian Green was quoted in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper denying the case for such a ban in the United Kingdom:
A government minister has signalled that a French-style ban on women wearing burqas is unlikely to be replicated in the UK, because, he said, the idea was "unBritish" and "undesirable". The immigration minister, Damian Green, said banning Muslim women from covering their faces in public would be at odds with the UK's "tolerant and mutually respectful society".

... But Green told the Sunday Telegraph: "I stand personally on the feeling that telling people what they can and can't wear, if they're just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do. We're a tolerant and mutually respectful society.

"There are times, clearly, when you've got to be able to identify yourself, and people have got to be able to see your face, but I think it's very unlikely and it would be undesirable for the British parliament to try and pass a law dictating what people wore."

He said he thought the numbers of women in France wearing the burqa were limited. He added: "They [the French parliament] are doing it for demonstration effects. The French political culture is very different. They are an aggressively secular state. They can ban the burqa, they ban crucifixes in schools and things like that. We have schools run explicitly by religions. I think there's absolutely no read-across to immigration policy from what the French are doing about the burqa."
To some extent, the issue could be assimilation rather than immigration per se. The aforementioned Pew Research Center published a study over four years ago that highlighted the following startling table, which showed that Muslims in Europe had greater identification with their religion as against their state:

Source: "Muslims in Europe: Economic worries top concerns about religious and cultural identity", dated July 6 2006.

The contrasting data for Christians in many countries - particularly in Europe - identifies the greater hold of secular nationalism that contrasts the apparent tribal religiosity of new Muslim arrivals in those countries. Then again, the phrase "other things being equal" usually suggests that other things are usually not. In particular, I would submit that there is a vast difference in the quality of immigration in Europe versus the United States.

Essentially, the US tends to attract "aspirational immigrants", that is, people who wish to improve their lives; while Europe may well be attracting a more desperate group of immigrants who are more eager to flee persecution in their home countries. Even the ones who consider emigrating to Europe for aspirational reasons could tend to be in the less-skilled categories, in contrast to the greater skills that are generally brought in by immigrants to the US.

Human rights issue?
Facile descriptions on the Internet would have it that Europeans have stronger views on upholding human rights, and that a ban on the burqa is part of that stream of consciousness. Americans tending to be more laissez faire have no such social considerations, in this view.

A more telling narrative may simply be the relative advancement of women in European politics as against in the US. Too many times, American women politicians - ranging from Geraldine Ferraro to Sarah Palin (with Hillary Clinton thrown in between for good measure) - have been greeted rather poorly by the popular media; in essence becoming cartoonish renditions of their personalities. Granted that media tend to do that to most politicians these days in most countries, it still appears to me that women politicians score much higher in Europe than in the US.

The relative advancement of women in Europe could well be playing a part in the more aggressive state attitudes towards the burqa. A host of European columnists have argued in favor of the burqa ban, using points of law, the feminist movement, human-rights issues, the alleged enforcing of the attire by Muslim men often using violence and the sheer inconvenience associated with wearing the bulky garments through European winters.

When we summarize the various arguments, the European bans on burqas come down to the following key issues in my opinion:
  • The growing fear and distrust of Muslim minorities in various European countries arising from increased visibility due to rising immigration and populations.
  • Economic fears posed by the ongoing recession, which has increased the focus on visible minorities.
  • Human-rights issues that have become more germane due to rising populations, leading to an attendant rise in social fractures.

    In contrast, the US and perhaps sections of the UK do not favor the ban on the burqa for the following factors:
  • Their "war on terror" that has widened the gap with local Muslims, thereby rendering rather risky any notions of the majority taking steps such as banning the burqa to "help" Muslims.
  • The more aspirational immigration of these countries as against the lower-skilled immigration into Europe.

    Seen from that perspective, there really isn't much choice for the religious but economically-oriented Muslim between Europe and the US.

    1. "The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is an independent, non-partisan public opinion research organization that studies attitudes toward politics, the press and public policy issues. In this role it serves as a valuable information resource for political leaders, journalists, scholars and citizens. The Center conducts regular monthly polls on politics and major policy issues as well as the News Interest Index, a weekly survey aimed at gauging the public's interest in and reaction to major news events. Shorter commentaries are produced on a regular basis addressing the issues of the day from a public opinion perspective. In addition, the Center periodically fields major surveys on the news media, social issues and international affairs. Formerly, the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press (1990-1995), the Center has been sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts since 1996. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world."

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