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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.


Veiled clash of civilizations

Published 06th May 2010 - 3 comments - 5867 views -

When in February two burqa-wearing people entered a post office bank in Athis Mons near Paris, guards let them pass through the security double doors. Once inside, the pair flipped back their head coverings, pulled out guns and terrorized staff. They made off with 4,500 euros (and got caught some time after).

Accidentally the robbers found themselves in a center of one of the most important debates in today’s Europe, that goes straight into the heart of the continent’s cultural identity: to ban burqa or not to ban?

The tide is going up. One week ago Belgian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to ban the wearing of the Islamic burqa in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe. Likely next in line is France, where president Sarkozy declared that "Burqas are not welcome on French national territory." There are similar voices from German lawmakers. And this week in northern Italy a Muslim woman has been given a €500 fine for wearing a face-covering burqa in public, under anti-terrorism law that bans clothing preventing easy identification in public buildings. Interestingly, the law was passed in 1975, in the midst of Red Brigade terror campaign, intended to prevent wearing of masks or motorcycle helmets. Well, we are at war again, this time against Muslim extremism & terrorism.

Public opinion is in favour of the ban. FT’s latest Harris poll shows some 70 per cent of respondents in France said they supported plans to forbid the wearing of the garment which covers the female body from head to toe. There was similar sentiment in Italy and Spain, where 63 per cent and 65 per cent respectively favored a ban – twice as much as respondents in the USA! Only UK sticks out, with 9 per cent approval.

The Europeans seem still proud of their moral high ground over America. But this pride is less and less justifiable. Since 9/11 we are slowly enfringing our freedoms by silently introducing total surveillance culture (in this UK is best boy), closing our borders, and projecting “Muslim=terrorist” stereotype over whole immigrants’ community. While going to war against burqas, Europe is falling in exactly the same trap that America fell when launched a world war against a group of extremists: taking sledgehammer to crack a nut, or, as we say in Poland, “shooting a sparrow with a cannon.”

There are some few thousands of Muslims wearing burqa in Europe, no more. Do we really have to enact special legislation to deal with them?

There are two arguments to justify the ban: security and liberty. The first one is easy to comprehend: should we allow to be terrorized by burqa-wearing criminals? Definitely not. Probably the woman in Italy would show her face if asked by policewoman, not man. To prohibit robbers in burqas from entering a bank, internal bank security rules would be sufficient. Each bank would weight what desires more: money of their Muslim clients or security. There are Islamic banks operating in Europe, and I’m pretty sure they would not ban burqas.

The second argument is more subtle: burqa is a blow to the European freedoms. In common perception Muslim women are forced to wear veils, which may be true in some cases, but not as a rule. Usually they come from very traditional families where women do cover their faces, and that’s it. Not long ago women in the West were socially obliged to wear huts or caps in public... And the cases of forcing women to anything – dress or marriage – regardless of their religion, should be subject of prosecution.


"The problem is that if we limit one personal freedom we will also inhibit the expression of a second personal freedom: when women no longer have the right to wear a veil, their right to not wear a veil disappears and they are simply left with an obligation not to wear one," says Rik Torfs, a professor of religious law at the University of Louvain, writing in De Standaard.

You probably do not wear burqa – me neither – but don’t feel too safe. European governments stand in front of following problem: how to regulate what adults wear in the street, without specifically targeting Muslims? Most Muslim women don’t wear this suit, but all who do are Muslims... To show this is not about certain faith, our politically correct governments may stretch the ban: today burqas, tomorrow Sikh turbans or Jewish yarmulkes. And why not to ban long, bin Laden style, beards? They cover appearance too, and sometimes robbers stick false beards... Gosh, but what about Santa Claus?!

This seems to be the way of France, where in 2004, in the name of secular Republic, a law was passed against wearing various religious ornaments, including Muslim headscarves, in public schools. But a border between religious and non-religious symbol is very thin one. And – what a paradox – Muslim girls wanting keep their scarfs found an asylum in... catholic schools. Don’t you by chance feel that we stepped into a circle of madness?

This seems to be wrong way to integrate Muslims in our societies. What more, the meaning of the ban goes beyond Europe. By putting unnecessary restrictions on immigrants – like forcing dress code or denying them right to build a shrine in traditional design, with minaret – Europe deprives itself from moral right to demand respect of human rights from other governments. The same moral right that America had already lost. Even rightful demands from Brussels or Paris will be countered with accusations of double standards.

Last but not least, the ban serves as grist to the extremists’ mill, like – though not at the same scale – war in Iraq. You can not fight against extremism with oppressive laws, because oppressive laws are nourishment of extremism. Should Iran be a model for Europe? Secularists’ dictatorship in place of ayatollahs’?

Or Turkey, where staunchly secular government bans headscarves in public buildings such as parliament and universities? In 2002 Istanbul University's Capa Hospital admitted 71-years old Medina Birzan, dying from cancer, but refused to approve the paperwork for her outpatient treatment. The reason: Bircan wore a headscarf on a photograph in her national health identification card, a document required for treatment at public hospitals. She died a week later as her son tried to alter her ID photo by digitally removing the scarf.

Memento mori.

Category: Human Rights | Tags: europe, france, terrorism, belgium,


  • Mirza Softic on 11th May 2010:

    It’s really weird that nobody commented such a great article, like this one. Thank you for your work on this theme, it is very important to speak about European double-faced standards and its consequences. I agree that every word from this article and I hope more people will read it. I saved it on my hard disk smile.

  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Wow, really good article! Thank you for sharing it! I remember discussions in France, and in the UK, around women wanting to teach with covered faces. Yest again you are touching upon a complicated issue - thx for challenging me as a reader!:)

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