The burqa ban: Thoughts and clarifications

By Fred Martin

France was the first country to ban face-covering veils, but what does the text of law actually state? Where does religious freedom end, and where does religious privilege begin?

In October 2010, the French Parliament voted to pass a law that banned the niqab and the burqa.

This event sparked a debate all over the world. Even now, almost six years later, I often find myself in discussions with non-French people who condemn this law. They call it discriminatory and a violation of personal freedoms, such as freedom of religion and the freedom of citizens to wear what they want. I have even read comments and articles comparing France to Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Here are three arguments always put forward by the detractors:

1. It’s an attack on religion and freedom of thought.

2. People should be able to wear whatever they want.

3. It is discriminatory and targets Muslim women specifically.

These points would be arguably valid if the law in question specifically targeted Muslim women, their religion and their face covering, but it does not.

Indeed, ‘journalists’ and commentators omitted and still omit the most important fact: It is not a law specifically banning the burqa and the niqab. It is simply a face covering ban. The law states that, for security reasons, one is not allowed to cover his or her face in public. Since France is a secular country, in which the laws of the Republic supersede the laws of any religion, no exception was made for the niqab and the burqa.

If it is accepted that you cannot conceal your identity in public, how can one justify making an exception for the face covering veils without explicitly advocating a religious exception or privilege? The answer is easy: One cannot.

Let us review the arguments used by the detractors, one by one:

1.  It is an attack on religion and freedom of thought.

In a pluralistic secular democracy, freedom of religion exists and is a fundamental right. However, freedom of religion has to be practiced within the confines of the law. Religious freedom is limited to the practices that do not pose a threat to the freedom and security of others.

If some religious practices are incompatible with the laws of the land, the laws of the land supersede religious laws. It is as simple as that. Freedom of religion, yes, but religious privilege, no.

Religion is just another set of ideas and nothing more. It should not be respected more than others and there should be no exception or accommodations for it. This would be contrary to the fundamental concepts of equality under the law and separation of church and state, codified in the French law of 1905.

Sadly, these notions are sometimes questioned in favour of religious privilege.

Let us take the concrete example of the kirpan, the dagger that the Sikhs must carry in the name of their religion.

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Photograph by Hari Singh

Since carrying this weapon is a religious commandment, there have been accommodations made for the Sikhs, even in places where any kind of weapons, including knives are prohibited.

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Photograph by Charles Haynes

This is a clear case of religious privilege and a very dangerous one. How is this acceptable?During the 2012 London Olympics, all weapons were banned from the premises but an exception was made for the kirpan for religious reasons

Can one just get away with almost anything, including putting fellow citizens’ safety at risk just as long as it’s in the name of God? It seems to be the case.

2. People should be able to wear whatever they want.

I agree with that point but again, this has to be within the confines of the law. Personal freedom without any kind of restriction whatsoever is anarchy. Many factors come into play when it comes to living, not on your own, but with other people in a pluralistic society.

Showing your face is a basic requirement in a civil society, in order to be identified and be held accountable for your actions. The freedom to conceal one’s identity infringes on the freedom and the security of others.

We are living in dangerous times and the growing number of terror attacks in France and in Europe is proof that security measures do matter and should not be taken lightly. There has to be a right balance between individual freedoms and the security of society as a whole, and concealing one’s identity opens the door for many potential abuses.

Some of the people who have an objection to banning face covering seem to have no problem with laws prohibiting nudity in public. Why is that? If the idea is to defend individual freedoms, why not protest in favour of the freedom of naturists, whose philosophy of life advocates being naked all the time? Why the double standard? I see no objective reason for that other than internalised puritanism. Does concealing your identity not cause an objectively greater threat to security than nudity?

If someone protests the burqa ban in the name of freedom but agrees with laws prohibiting nudity in public, this person is at best inconsistent or at worst, a hypocrite advocating religious privilege.

Almost everywhere you go in public there is a dress code (e.g. at restaurants, schools, private companies and government buildings). This principle, while being a restricting the right to wear whatever you want, is widely accepted. If concealing one’s identity goes against the dress code for just about everywhere, why should an exception be made for face covering veils?

All over the world there are cases of criminals and terrorists who have been able to avoid prosecution and flee because they had concealed their identities using a niqab or a burqa:

Man dons burqa to flee anti-terror police

Man who escapes mosque in burqa was under counter terror restrictions

Man escapes from Danish prison by donning burqa

Murder suspect fled under Muslim veil

American mother murdered by knife-wielding burqa clad woman

Burqas worn by robbers in $500k Toronto jewelry store heist

I find it absolutely ridiculous and dangerous to enable this practice.

We live in societies in which we are filmed on CCTV nearly everywhere we go, whether it be in banks, airports, train and subway stations, shops, government buildings and even on the streets. If someone approves of that, how can they argue that niqab or burqa wearers be exempt from this kind of identification? This goes beyond the debate over the invasion of privacy and civil liberties for the sake of security. This is a clear case of a very small group of people getting preference above everyone else, just for religious reasons. Again, this goes against the very concept of equality under the law.

London is a city in which the CCTV system includes over 7,000 cameras to fight against any type of crime or misdemeanour: from speeding, to assault, to terror attacks. This is how the 7/7 bombers were identified. Yet, the UK has not banned the burqa and the niqab.

I have asked the following question to many Brits: What is the point in having such a sophisticated security camera system if you allow people to hide their identities, thus making these security cameras useless? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question, simply because there is none.

The terrorists from the Brussels attacks were identified thanks to security cameras (the face covering veils are also banned in Belgium). The Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack, were wearing ski masks to conceal their identities. The authorities managed to identify them only because one of them had left a photo ID behind.

Authorising the burqa and niqab is an invitation for any criminal or terrorist who wants to hide their identity to use them. They will be almost impossible to identify.

3. It is discriminatory and targets Muslim women specifically.

There were debates over this issue in France, in the media and in Parliament, before the law was voted on.

Some politicians and commentators campaigned specifically against the niqab and the burqa because of what the symbols represent. They considered these veils incompatible with the values of the French Republic. Niqab wearers also went on TV claiming to be victims of ‘Islamophobia’.

On October 28 2009, Dalil Boubakeur, Mufti and rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, the largest and most influential mosque in France, and former president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, testified to parliament during the bill’s preparation.

Despite his doubts over the law itself and his concerns over the difficulties in applying a general ban, Mr Boubakeur declared that neither the niqab nor the burqa were prescribed in Islam. He associated them with radicalisation and criminal behaviour, and claimed that they were incompatible and inconsistent with the humanist values of France and the country’s concept of a secular state.

“France is a secular state, vector of humanist values, linked to human rights that are freedom, equality, parity between men and women … This republican modernity is the guarantor of the diversity of our society,” he said.

While I personally consider the burqa a barbaric and misogynistic symbol of oppression, I would never support a law that specifically and explicitly targeted Muslims.

When you look at the law itself, the text clearly states that it is a face covering ban.  It applies to all citizens, including men and non-Muslims. It targets no group of people in particular. It is by definition a law which is anything but discriminatory. Claiming that it specifically targets Muslim women and discriminates against them is simply a lie.

The law was challenged and taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The court upheld the French law on July 1 2014, accepting the argument that it preserved “a certain idea of living together”.

No matter what your views on the burqa, secularism and religion are, no honest and constructive conversation can be had if the actual text of the law is misrepresented, never quoted and reduced to an apparent attack on Islamic face covering veils.

An interesting and even fascinating discussion about topics such as security, religious freedom, Islam and women’s rights is possible and highly recommended. But it has to start with facts, and not misrepresentations and half-truths that will only aggravate hysteria and contribute to making an already difficult conversation toxic.

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