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.
Christians Should Support Women First
Islam has arrived in the West. It has become more and more visible through large mosques and minarets, militant jihadists, and a visible dress code, particularly the face veil for Muslim women. Increasingly seen in Europe, the face veil may soon appear on Main Street USA.
In Europe's major cities, a fraction of Muslim women wear the face veil. But this minority is growing, just as it is in large cities in Islamic-majority countries. The laws passed across Europe that forbid women from covering their faces in public are said to be based on security concerns. Many Westerners' reactions to Muslims are heavily influenced by the September 11 attacks and other horrific acts of terrorism. Thus, any symbols relating to Islam arouse our deep fears.
But the face veil is neither a symbol of violence nor of terror. What should the Christian attitude be toward the face veil? Does it belong to the realm of religious freedom and for that reason deserve legal protection?
It is not that simple. Islamic theologians sharply debate whether women should wear a veil at all. In the Qur'an, neither the face veil nor the headscarf is mentioned in clear terms. The Qur'an only mentions "garments which women [should] cast over" (Sura 33:59). What that means is subject to interpretation. For that reason, there are many forms of the headscarf, and some Muslims do not wear one at all.
Many individual Muslims reject the view that wearing a face veil is a duty. But those who see Islam as a political system declare it to be obligatory. They preach that the entire world should return to Islam as it was practiced in the time of Muhammad. They preach that Shari'ah law has to be imposed in the West, that a woman has fewer rights than a man, that polygamy is good, and that a man has the right to cast out a wife or to force her to obey.
It is these individuals who use the pulpits of mosques to refer to those who do not follow extreme interpretations of the Qur'an as "nonbelievers." They warn against too much integration into Western societies. They take away the freedom of Muslim women. When they make the face veil obligatory, they isolate women by making them invisible.
But a ban on face veils in Western countries would still not achieve freedom for women. A ban would not reform Shari'ah, or indicate equality for women, or indicate an enlightenment or liberalization of Islam. For that reason, we should not oppose the women who wear veils, but rather politicized Islam, which aims to implement Shari'ah law.
First and foremost, church leaders are called to get to know Muslims as their neighbors and exchange prejudice for Christian love.
Christians Should Defend Muslim Liberty
Christian commitment to religious liberty is rooted in Jesus' teaching, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:31). When Christians dialogue with Muslims, a vital concern we rightly address is restrictions placed on Christians in Muslim-majority countries. If we want Muslims to uphold religious liberty for Christian minorities, we must defend religious liberty for Muslims when they are the minority.
Some respond, "We will defend Muslims' freedom when Muslims begin respecting freedom for persecuted Christians in Muslim-majority countries." Concern for the suffering church is right (Heb. 13:3), but immediately after the Golden Rule, Jesus adds in the Luke passage, "Do good … expecting nothing in return" (6:35). We must defend liberty for others whether or not they reciprocate. Christians should set a moral example for the world, not wait for others to lead.
But does Islam really require a face veil? This is vigorously debated within the Muslim community. Most Muslims worldwide interpret Islam as requiring a headscarf but not a face veil for women. A minority of Muslims sees the face veil as mandatory or recommended, while an opposing minority sees even headscarves as unnecessary. Should the state adjudicate this debate?
To answer this following Jesus' do-unto-others principle, consider the parallel issue among Christians. Most Christians interpret 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 as not requiring women to cover their heads. But a significant number of Christian women (notably in non-Western and African American churches) do cover their heads in Sunday worship. And some (e.g., traditionalist Mennonites) conscientiously cover their heads throughout the week. Though we each have opinions on this exegetical question, we would not want the state to adjudicate it for us. If we would not want this for ourselves, then Jesus' teaching strongly suggests we should not impose it on Muslims.
But is the veil inherently oppressive to women? In some contexts (for example, Afghanistan under Taliban rule), women have been forced to wear face coverings against their will. In such circumstances, defending women's human rights as equal before the law is a legitimate Christian concern (Gal. 3:28).
Nevertheless, many self-respecting, articulate Muslim women make a conscious choice to veil, or they advocate their sisters' right to do so. Some even see their modest clothing choice as a feminist statement.
When the state compels them to uncover themselves in public, they feel violated. Jesus' do-unto-others principle suggests we let Muslim women speak for themselves about what their clothing choices mean to them.
But what about security when we cannot see people's faces? The state has a legitimate concern to ascertain the identity of people entering sensitive locations like airports. In such venues, however, we already offer women the option of being checked in private by female security personnel.
Jesus' words about logs and specks (Luke 6:41-42) suggest we first must defend Muslim fellow-citizens' liberty in our country, and only then will we "see clearly" enough to ask Muslims about treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. This may make us uncomfortable, but Jesus never said discipleship was anything but costly.
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David Johnston is the author of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Christine Schirrmacher is a scholar with the Institute of Islamic Studies of the Evangelical Alliance in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Joseph Cumming directs the reconciliation program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School.
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