New Limits on Religious Freedom
David Johnston, author of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, Christine Schirrmacher, a scholar with the Institute of Islamic Studies of the Evangelical Alliance in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and Joseph Cumming, director of the reconciliation program at Yale Divinity School, discuss whether Christians should support laws that ban Muslim women from wearing the face veil in public.
Christians Should Oppose the Muslim Face Veil Ban
Recent efforts in Europe to ban the face veil (the niqab or burqa) are not so much concerned with women's rights and security as they are with obtaining votes from an electorate that is increasingly xenophobic and anxious about national identity.
Indeed, it's a convenient tactic for politicians to unite people from the Right (concerned with the "threat of Islam") and the Left (moved by issues of gender equality and secularism) in order to draw attention away from pressing social and economic issues.
First, let's clear away some false problems. The specter of "Eurabia" is a no-show. Studies point to the decline of Muslim birthrates in ways that parallel other populations worldwide. Also, over the centuries Islamic jurists never agreed on the specifics of modest dress for women. Local cultures determined what women wore. The face covering is mostly a recent invention, and, in fact, a rarity, even if numbers seem to be growing. Some sources put the number of women wearing it in all of Europe at 2,000.
The wider issue is that worries over identity have been exacerbated by globalization and a wave of religious revivalism across the board. France has by far the highest percentage of Muslims in Europe (8.3 percent, more than double the UK's figure), and its brand of extreme secularism (laïcité) requires minorities to shed their cultural distinctives to conform to the majority. Perhaps it's no coincidence that in France the burqa ban, passed by Parliament on the eve of Bastille Day, was followed by threats to strip people of their citizenship for crimes like polygamy, female circumcision, and threatening a policeman, and the deportation of hundreds of Roma, or Gypsies. Issues of cultural and national identity are rolled up under the burqa heading.
The proposed law would fine burqa-clad women $190 and men who are convicted of forcing women to wear it $20,000. Muslim organizations are divided on the issue. Some see it as a problem of extreme coreligionists and prefer to back the secular state. But most also point to its discriminatory nature: only Muslims are singled out. If security is the issue, then why does the law explicitly exempt motorcycle helmets, carnival costumes, fencing gear, and the like? Furthermore, should a state whose motto includes the word liberty presume to tell people what to wear?
Why, then, should Christians support a law that reinforces discrimination against a particular group (Muslims) and appears to exploit feelings of vulnerability for political gain? Jesus showcased love—even love of enemy—as the central virtue of his kingdom, and therefore consistently defended society's most despised: women, lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Shouldn't we who claim to follow him do our utmost to build bridges of love and trust with fellow citizens who feel beleaguered today? It seems to me that this call would mean opposing the burqa-ban law. Other solutions may be found to resolve legitimate security issues.
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