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Banning Burqas in Europe

How did such an un-American-sounding idea as banning someone's religiously inspired clothing choice take root in Western countries?

Last week, Belgium almost became the first European country to ban wearing full-face veils, before the prime minister attempted to resign and the government collapsed.

"We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen," parliamentarian Daniel Bacquelaine, a member of the Reformist Movement party, argued in the weeks before a government crisis in Belgium took everyone's attention off the law he had proposed. "It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual. Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society."

His logic is as curious as it is trendy. The so-called burqa ban has gained steam in Europe on the argument that full-face veils - burqas, niqabs - belong to a backward interpretation of Islam and disrupt the Western democratic ideal of equal citizenship in an open, level, public space.

"If we want to live together in a free society, we need to recognize each other," Bacquelaine has said.

Really? Enlightenment tradition has simmered along for centuries in Europe undisturbed by the idea of a woman in a full-face veil walking lawfully down the street. Now Bacquelaine and his allies have concocted the unusual argument that wearing what you like, in Europe, is illiberal.

Prime Minister Yves Laterme tendered his resignation to the Belgian king on April 22 over a different matter (a conflict over a bilingual voting district in Brussels). Bacquelaine's bill is fairly uncontroversial. The Reformist Movement party is "liberal" in the European sense, meaning pro-business, laissez-faire, somewhat libertarian. But Bacquelaine's position doesn't belong to the left or right in Europe; in fact the burqa ban has united Belgian politics like no other issue. Majorities from the Green Party to the far right, from the Francophone south to the Flemish-speaking north, agree with Bacquelaine that people can and should be fined for covering their face.

It's not that Belgium has a large population of Muslims — about 500,000, out of 10.7 million — or a dangerously rising population of fundamentalist women. The laws have simply grown fashionable in the years since 9/11. In some cases, they reflect plain European intolerance, but they also correspond with a peculiarly European idea of the secular public space that sees the scarf not as fashion but as threat.

In 2004, France passed a law against wearing religious ornaments, including Muslim headscarves, in public schools. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the law in 2008 because it applied to all religions. "The court ... reiterates that the state may limit the freedom to manifest a religion, for example by wearing an Islamic headscarf, if the exercise of that freedom clashes with the aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, public order and public safety," the opinion read.

This notion of a secular public space also explains why a German state levied fines on a Christian family for trying to home-school their kids - driving the family, of all places, to Tennessee, where an immigration judge recently granted them asylum.

The ban on burqas will probably pass into law because there simply aren't enough veiled women in Belgium to oppose it. Bacquelaine and other supporters have argued that the ban prevents a foreign sort of oppression of women that just isn't welcome in Europe — since Muslim women tend to wear full-face veils, not out of free choice, but under duress by conservative Muslim men.

"If that's the case," one American-raised Muslim participant argued last Thursday on a BBC call-in show, "instead of making the law against a particular item of clothing, why not make the law against anyone compelling women to wear, or not wear, whatever it is they choose?"

The logic is hard to refute; less enforceable laws have been passed in Western societies.

"If that's the principle behind the law," he said, "then why not make that the law?"