Banning the burqa compromises the very principles that we value
No 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)Tagged in: band, burqa, eu, human rights, law, muslim
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