'Veil Wars' Reveal Europe's Intolerance

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Muslim women gather for Friday prayer on the streets outside the mosque of the Muslim centre in east London.

Europe's traditions of secular tolerance appear to be haunted by the Islamic veil. Every week seems to bring new headlines announcing moves to crack down on the wearing of what critics appear to deem this most alienating symbol of Muslim faith, whether in French public schools, British government buildings or out in public in the Netherlands.

But is European tolerance more threatened by hijab head-scarf, or even the face-covering niqab — and the Islamic fundamentalism and subjugation of women critics ascribe to these symbols — or by the hypocrisy and low-grade xenophobia of those telling Muslim women that this attack on their religious practice is really for their own good? Beneath all the reminders of secularist tradition and progressive discourse cited in Europe's headscarf debate lies the mean, provincial "not in our country, you don't" attitude — even when many of the women at whom it's addressed to were born and raised in "our country". When all is said and done, the headscarf furor reflects a broader sentiment wafting across: it's fine to be Muslim, just don't remind us about it by the way you dress.

Following France's school laws and the calls by Britain's Prime Minister to refrain from wearing the niqab in public, the Dutch center-right government has pledged that if it is returned to power in Wednesday's election, it will pass a law prohibiting the wearing of niqab and full-body burqa in public. Holland's 1 million Muslims have lived under an air of suspicion from the wider society since the 2004 murder of controversial film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Islamist radical. That killing and the subsequent arrests of extremists plotting terror attacks have understandably raised Dutch concerns over violence committed in the name of Islam, but they don't justify the over-kill and subtle bigotry behind the promised ban. Opponents of the move note that only a few score women wear a burqa or niqab in the Netherlands, and that such high-profile measures directed at a statistically irrelevant minority are really a message to all Muslims to start acting more Dutch (whatever that means) and less Muslim.

The promised Dutch ban is only the most recent and bizarre in a spate of assaults by European democracies that appear to be targeting the veil as a proxy for what they see as a dangerous spread of Islamic culture in Western Europe. In Britain, former Foreign Minister Jack Straw last month groused that the niqab created unnecessary barriers between people, and prevented communication because meaningful exchange "requires that both sides see each other's face". Prime Minister Tony Blair later added that it created a divisive "mark of separation." Wearing the hijab in schools is against the law in certain German states, and similar bans are on the books in some parts of Belgium. France's 2003 legislation banning headscarves in public schools has been hailed by supporters as a success of secularity over furtive proselytizing by fundamentalists. But it has further strained relations between the wider society and the nation's estimated 6 million Muslims — the vast majority of whom are moderate or non-observant Muslims who nonetheless resent the heavy-handed treatment of the approximately 1,200 female students who previously wore a headscarf to class.

It is this fact, that both in France and much of the rest of Europe the veils in question are worn by such a small minority of Muslim women, that makes the crackdown seem downright obsessive. Supporters of such action counter that veils symbolize a subordination of women, and that they challenge or threaten more progressive Muslim women who decline the veil. Such arguments might sound convincing until one bothers listen to women wearing those same veils, and their earnest explanations that the coverings symbolize modesty, humility, devotion to their faith, and subservience to no one but their god. Unless all these women are self-denying liars manipulated by radical males, shouldn't their interpretation of headscarf symbolism be regarded as at least as legitimate as hijab and niqab opponents? The problem with symbols is they are exactly as potent or weak as the passion invested in them — and both sides of this debate see some powerful symbolism in headscarves.

French Islam expert Olivier Roy writes that since 9/11, Muslims find themselves, their actions, and their motives being interpreted, characterized, and frequently skewed from non-Muslim perspectives. He's got a great point. One shouldn't doubt the concern and good intentions of progressives and secularists calling for Muslim women to resist socio-cultural coercion and shed the hijab and niqab as an impediment to full integration into European society. Still, those same opponents of the veil shouldn't presume they can dismiss as misguided or deluded the conviction of women who say they wear hijab by choice, and who argue that the only coercion they feel is coming from opponents of these symbols of their faith.

How can any non-Muslim — or even male practitioner of Islam — claim to have a stake in this debate without having ever walked a mile in someone else's hijab? In a modern and open-minded world comfortable with self-indulgent fashion preferences, permanent "body art", or cosmetic surgery, isn't there something particularly inappropriate to heated public rowing over someone else's notion of modesty? Fundamentalism is deserving of criticism, we can all agree — but that should extend to the "progressive" fundamentalism driving the campaign against the veil, too.