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Banning the burqa compromises the very principles that we value

88581156 300x213 Banning the burqa compromises the very principles that we valueNo woman should be forced to wear religious apparel by her community or family. Nobody should be forced to go to any kind of house of prayer. We say no to oppressive doctrines or laws which limit the freedom of individuals.

The European Convention on Human Rights is the basis for our rights and freedoms. Crucially, it provides for freedom of expression, the right to protest, to stage controversial political theatre or to write an independent article. It also protects the right of individuals to choose their religious beliefs.

For this reason, I cannot support calls in the UK and across Europe to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa or other garments that cover the entire body in public.

Have we become so arrogant as to believe that every woman who would wear a burqa is necessarily oppressed? Or so fearful that we see a potential terrorist behind women who cover themselves out of religious belief?

National initiatives to ban the burqa are usually explained as a way to restrict the spread of radical Islam and defend liberal values. But they miss the point of European democracy and human rights. I have always argued for the right of cartoonists and writers to poke fun at Islam if they so desire. By the same token, Muslims should enjoy the right to be Muslim, in the way they see fit.

The European human rights community, rooted in the European Human Rights Convention –  which celebrates 60 years of existence this year – is the basis of a rational and humanistic culture. We have chosen to distinguish between religion and politics and to put freedom of thought above the strictures of religion and scripture. Society exists for the sake of the individual.

But what if the individual wishes to express his or her religion? Should that be banned? If that expression is not harming others, then the answer is No. Certainly situations exist when you need to be able to see a face: in school or at a border control. Some public spaces actively require facial recognition. I personally feel that covering one’s face blocks human interaction, in a Western sense. But that is not the point. The point is: would wearing a burqa on a public street harm others? No.

Should the Swiss have called a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, thereby creating a tyranny of the majority over the fundamental rights of the minority? No. We must be careful not to create major problems out of minor issues. Our response must always be proportionate, and above all, we must take care not to compromise the very values we seek to protect.

Proposals to ban the burqa feed on irrational, populist fear of difference, fear of the unfamiliar. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly last week unanimously adopted a resolution, which said that the veiling of women is often perceived as “a symbol of the subjugation of women to men.” But it also said that a general ban would deny women “who genuinely and freely desire to do so” their right to cover their face.

How many Muslim women in Europe wear burqas? Not many. A ban on them constitutes a disproportionate response to legitimate concerns about servitude. It sends the signal that we are ready to compromise our European ideals in the face of irrational fears of Muslim culture. We might think that by banning the burqa we are protecting the rights and freedoms that are keys to our European identity, but we are actually compromising the very principles that we value. Moreover, we are in danger of creating confrontation and polarisation instead of mutual acceptance and integration.

Thorbjørn Jagland is Secretary General of the Council of Europe

(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

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  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/3RFS5GDKDW2N5X6CO7NKLWRNIE Drew

    Alex Kro, Why would a woman wearing a burqa in a shopping centre make you feel unsafe? If you think that way, then you should also think that a skinhead in that same shopping centre is necessarily about to attack that woman with the burqa because she is a Muslim. By your logic, both skinheads and burqa clad women should be banned from all public spaces. Burqas can be a sign of repression. But a blanket ban (pardon the pun) is not the answer, at least if we want to stay true to Western beliefs. As much as I decry the many cases of women being subjugated to men in many Islamic countries, we cannot and should not force our beliefs on them. Basically, the Secretary General makes the right, if difficult, point.

  • Alex Kro.

    Drew if you read my earlier comment I do not agree with overreaction but accepting everything is not the answer either. It simply is not that, well… simple.
    By the way, I never said I feel unsafe by people in burqas butwas making a point that if it’s for religious reasons it’s fine but if teenagers do something similar just because they want to it can be regarded as something different. And the implications of individuals wearing burqas is that it can easily be used for malicious purposes as it has been done in Israel and Afghanistan. Does a few examples of misuse grant the right for a complete ban? Definitely not but I don’t see why we should give criminals more tools just because a certain religion requires us to accept such things. A secular society is one step closer to social evolution and allowing religion the right to infringe on people’s rights is taking a step back, as the Catholic church has tried to do again and again.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/3RFS5GDKDW2N5X6CO7NKLWRNIE Drew

    But then you seem to agree when you say the following: “Does a few examples of misuse grant the right for a complete ban? Definitely not…” Once again my point is that women wearing burqas are not all “criminals” with the potential to have “more tools just because a certain religion requires us to accept such things”… But the bottom line is that you do not agree with a complete ban, at least that is what your wrote, and that is the point I think in the original commentary from the Council of Europe.

  • LeonardSkinnard

    No it doesn’t.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/IL7ANC3KEQ6WX3VDYBOFTWPEWI Tony

    Dear Alex,
    You wrote: “Do skinheads, goths and people with multiple piercings do it for religious reasons? Nope they do it because they like the look and/or support a way of life by natural evolutions in society.”

    So the groups mentioned above choose to look the way they do, because they like it or support a way of life. Well i would argue most women who wear a scarf do so because they choose that as a way of life – who are we to decide what their reasons are or tell them they can’t do it, most choose to do it. I’m not saying in some parts of the world there isn’t compulsion, but that still detracts from the argument that people in this country choose to wear a scarf because they want to, and they have the choice to do what they want, not be told by us they can’t.

    And just because someone chooses to do things for religious reasons, why is that so wrong. They have their way of life, just as everyone else does.

    And you wrote: “Can you please comment on why people wearing hoodies cannot enter certain shopping centers.” I can’t possibly comment, they are not my shopping centres and not my rules. I hardly think that is enshrined in law.

    When i was at school a few years ago, i was lucky enough to be in a Grammar high school, and there was a state school nearby and the story centres on a local newsagents. If two children with the state school blazer walked into the shop, they would be told only one kid from that school is allowed in at a time, whereas a group of kids with the grammar school blazer, would be allowed to roam freely. Is this right? Again no, we were all kids aged 11-16, and our grammar kids were just as much toe-rags as the others, but the colour of our blazer meant we were treated differently.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/IL7ANC3KEQ6WX3VDYBOFTWPEWI Tony

    Dear Alex,
    You wrote: “Do skinheads, goths and people with multiple piercings do it for religious reasons? Nope they do it because they like the look and/or support a way of life by natural evolutions in society.”

    So the groups mentioned above choose to look the way they do, because they like it or support a way of life. Well i would argue most women who wear a scarf do so because they choose that as a way of life – who are we to decide what their reasons are or tell them they can't do it, most choose to do it. I'm not saying in some parts of the world there isn't compulsion, but that still detracts from the argument that people in this country choose to wear a scarf because they want to, and they have the choice to do what they want, not be told by us they can't.

    And just because someone chooses to do things for religious reasons, why is that so wrong. They have their way of life, just as everyone else does.

    And you wrote: “Can you please comment on why people wearing hoodies cannot enter certain shopping centers.” I can't possibly comment, they are not my shopping centres and not my rules. I hardly think that is enshrined in law.

    When i was at school a few years ago, i was lucky enough to be in a Grammar high school, and there was a state school nearby and the story centres on a local newsagents. If two children with the state school blazer walked into the shop, they would be told only one kid from that school is allowed in at a time, whereas a group of kids with the grammar school blazer, would be allowed to roam freely. Is this right? Again no, we were all kids aged 11-16, and our grammar kids were just as much toe-rags as the others, but the colour of our blazer meant we were treated differently.


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