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
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 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
 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
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
"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
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:
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
"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
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
Economic fears posed by the ongoing recession, which has increased the focus on
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
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,
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politics, the press and public policy issues. In this role it serves as a
valuable information resource for political leaders, journalists, scholars and
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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
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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
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make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides
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