A fad for outlawing Muslim veils has swept northern Europe this spring. France is on the verge of following Belgium with a bill to force veil-wearing Muslim women to uncover their faces in public or government-managed areas. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who's backing a bill the French parliament will consider this month (May), has claimed the ban is not in any way an attack on Islam. The veils "do not pose a problem in a religious sense," Sarkozy spokesman Luc Chatel said in April, "but threaten the dignity of women."
Most Americans might see this European trend as a strange encroachment of personal freedom in the name of "upholding Western values." But a North American government is caught up in the same fervor: The Canadian province of Quebec has also prepared a bill to outlaw covering one's face when dealing with government workers — meaning in government jobs, government job interviews, or even in private work for companies that do business with Quebec officials.
This ban would be mild compared to the French bill, which seeks to unveil women in public areas from government offices to city buses. But the justifications are the same.
"It is an effort to promote or enhance racial and gender equality," wrote a commentator for the Toronto Sun, Peter Worthington, in late April. "Having to do business with someone who refuses to have their face seen, is offensive and demeaning - to both parties. Ours is a society that prides itself on face-to-face dealings. ..."
In other words: Don't freak us out with your weird medieval clothes.
Worthington is right that doing business with a woman in a veil is bound to seem strange and even, to some people, demeaning. But his arguments are emotional, and "pride in face-to-face dealings" is not a principle of law.
The principle at work in France is la laïcité, the doctrine of secularism codified in the French Constitution. It's a young and generally healthy tradition of distance from the Catholic Church. France's devotion to its legal system rivals American love for the U.S. Constitution, and one way of redefining what it means to be "French" in this era of Muslim immigration to Europe has been a return to ideals of citizenship.
The principle at work in North America is religious freedom, which is strong in the United States for obvious reasons; it's also guaranteed in Canadian law. "All Canadians, whether Muslim or not, are guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms the freedom of religion and conscience," the Muslim Council of Montreal has declared, rather sensibly. "The state has no business in the wardrobes of the nation."
The Quebec law will try to dodge this problem by failing to mention burqas, niqabs, veils or religion at all. But then the lawmakers will have to explain why a state in Canada can tell its people what to wear.
Burqas and other full-face coverings belong to small, conservative wings of Islam that are alien even to most of the Muslims who live in North America or Europe, which is the reason some moderate Muslims have come out against them, too. They suggest a backward notion of women — a fear of their bodies, a prudeness long gone from our society — that can't be defended in terms of Western values.
But it simply isn't true that every woman in a burqa has been forced into it by a man. A number of Muslim women wear the veil willingly, so until the Western laws deal directly with the oppression of women, instead of symbolic veils, they won't have much foundation in Western tradition, either.
For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on Miller-McCune.com
The riots across France in 2005 and 2006 were a good indication of how well French ideals of citizenship have worked in practice. French-born Muslim teenagers, the children of generally North African immigrants, learn about French ideals in school — liberté, egalité, fraternité — but find themselves excluded from jobs when they graduate, because of their religion or the color of their skin. That was the emotional reason for the violence, which resembled American race riots from a generation before.
A law against full-face veils will probably lead to the ridiculous spectacle, someday in Paris or Quebec, of a Muslim woman standing up for Western freedoms by stepping onto a bus in a burqa and then refusing, like Rosa Parks, to leave. In this sense, America has plenty to teach both the Europeans and the Quebecois.
"Either Europe develops and supports the idea of a mixed culture, or Europe has no future," Abdelkarim Carrasco, a Muslim leader in Spain, told the Associated Press in 2005. It's always hard to hear lectures on your own society from an outsider, but Carrasco was right. "Europe has to learn from what the United States has done," he said. "It is a country that has taken in people from all over the world."