Symbolism or solution: Bavaria plans to introduce a burqa ban in the public sector

The government of Bavaria, one of Germany’s sixteen federal states, has announced plans for legislation banning Muslim women from wearing a burqa or niqab in selective contexts. The proposed measures apply to public sector personnel, security forces, as well as teaching staff at pre-school, school, and university levels. Moreover, casting a vote at the ballot box will also no longer be possible while wearing a face covering.

Saving the occident

Bavaria’s Interior Minister, Joachim Herrmann, justified the planned measure by arguing that “a liberal democratic conception of values of a Christian-occidental imprint requires a culture of open communication”.(( http://www.bayern.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170221-Ministerrat.pdf ))

The language used by Herrmann highlights that the initiative is not driven by the attempt to solve real problems of civic participation and engagement but rather by ‘civilisational’ categories and anxieties. It also demonstrates the continued willingness of the CSU, Bavaria’s conservative ruling party, to hanker after the populist vote, even if this means using the terminology of the far-right Pegida movement that claims to defend the “occident” against its Islamisation.

Return of the burqa question

Over the course of the last year, Muslim women’s dress has periodically returned to the top of the German political agenda. After two incidents of violence linked to the ‘Islamic State’ in July, a group of conservative interior ministers demanded a “burqa ban”.

Subsequently, in December, the CDU party congress shifted to the right on a number of issues, including the burqa: at the conference, Chancellor Merkel herself demanded that the burqa be banned “wherever this is legally possible” and defined the face veil as alien to German culture and values.

Constitutional strictures

Merkel’s statement shows her attempt to pacify her vociferous inner-party opponents who demand a tougher line on immigration and Islam. Yet it also demonstrates her awareness that a generalised ban of the burqa in the public sphere – comparable to the provisions enacted in France – would most likely be struck down by the German Constitutional Court.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

The proposed Bavarian legislation appears to take these constitutional limitations seriously by eschewing an across-the-board interdiction of face coverings. While the Bavarian interior minister noted that his administration may attempt a generalised ban in the future, the current legislative proposal only prohibits burqa and niqab in a set of relatively precise circumstances.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/burka-verbot-bayern-beschliesst-verbot-von-gesichtsverhuellung/19421880.html ))

It is worth noting, however, that the Federal Ministry of Justice in Berlin even expressed reservations about the constitutionality of such a limited ban, currently also envisaged by the national government.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/leitkultur-im-abendland-justizministerium-sieht-geplantes-schleierverbot-als-risiko/19401666.html ))

A proposal of limited utility

In any case, the very restrictedness of the Bavarian bill is also one of the features that will most likely undermine its novelty and utility in practice: in fact, employers, including public sector institutions, already appear to possess the ability to reject applicants wearing a burqa or a niqab.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-02/bayern-verschleierung-verbot-burka-nikab-gericht ))

In the past, courts denied a high school pupil and a university student the right to wear a full face covering because it hampered theirability to communicate in class. Similarly, legal professionals affirmed the right of public sector employers to demand that their employees be able to communicate effectively with their clientele.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

It is, in other words, unclear whether the Bavarian selective burqa ban will fundamentally alter the existing legal framework. Beyond this, it seems questionable whether among the few burqa-wearing women in Bavaria—their numbers appear to range in the double digits at best—many would even consider applying for a public sector position. The Bavarian interior minister confirmed that there is not a single burqa-clad woman employed in the state’s public sector today.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/kindergaerten-schulen-und-co-bayern-will-gesichtsverhuellungen-verbieten_id_6683765.html ))

Political symbolism

The Munich government’s initiative on the full face veil is therefore a largely symbolic move—yet a potentially powerful one: in an August 2016 survey, more than 50 per cent of Germans demanded a general ban of burqa and niqab. A further third of respondents expressed their support for a partial ban.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-08/burka-verbot-debatte-mehrheit-der-deutschen ))

Yet given its largely symbolic nature, the measure is also unlikely to effectively address the dynamic of religious isolation and radicalisation that it ostentatiously seeks to tackle. Those women who wish to wear a face covering will not be deterred by the ban; and those who are forced to do so will not be supported in their quest for self-determination.

Question of the hijab

Nor, of course, does prohibiting burqa-wearing women from working for the public sector solve the much more relevant question of how the state should position itself vis-à-vis Muslim job applicants wearing the hijab. In this area, the legal situation in Bavaria (as well as in many other German states) is still in flux.

The Bavarian interior minister intimated that employees in the public sector should be held to the standards of religious and ideological “neutrality”.(( http://www.bayern.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170221-Ministerrat.pdf )) This might point to a willingness to move towards a laicité-style banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere, as is currently in force in the state of Berlin.(( http://gesetze.berlin.de/jportal/portal/t/iaf/page/bsbeprod.psml?pid=Dokumentanzeige&showdoccase=1&js_peid=Trefferliste&fromdoctodoc=yes&doc.id=jlr-VerfArt29GBE2005pP2&doc.part=X&doc.price=0.0&doc.hl=0 )) At the same time, however, Bavaria’s strong Catholic heritage continues to militate against too harsh a curtailment of religious expression in the public sphere.

Wealthy shoppers from the Gulf

Muslim figures have mostly remained silent on the renewed push for a ban on face coverings, perhaps reflecting their limited interest in the burqa question or their exasperation with the topic.

In any case, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper noted, the only significant crowd of fully veiled women in Bavaria are wealthy shoppers from the Gulf propping up Munich’s large luxury retail sector and the city’s health clinics.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/vollverschleierung-mit-dem-burka-verbot-loest-bayern-ein-problem-das-es-nicht-gibt-1.3388963 )) As of now, the Bavarian government continues to welcome them and their ample purchasing power with open arms.

‘Burkini Ban’ trojan horse for banning the veil?

Since the mayor of Cannes banned burkinis on July 28 more than thirty towns and communes in France followed suit. In certain municipalities such as Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Haute-Corse, Bouches-du-Rhône, Pas-de-Calais, and Aude, “correct dress, respectful of morality and secularism” and of “the rules of hygiene and the safety of swimming” is now mandatory.

On August 25, the Council of State will examine one of the “anti-burkini” orders, that of the Villeneuve-Loubet. The ruling will concern much more than beach attire, and affects further possible rulings against the veil in the public sphere at the initiatives of certain mayors.

Burkini or not, the orders have caused rupture and division. “What’s currently happening is a form of extending the need for neutrality or invisibility in areas and to people who were up until now not affected by the 1905 law,” said Marwan Mohammed, sociologist with the CNRS. “There has since been a lobby to extend this to universities as well as to businesses. With the recent orders, we are attacking the public sphere.”

These measures have been denounced by associations such as the CCIF and the League of Human Rights (LDH). “The danger, is that tomorrow we work to ban the veil in public or on public transportation,” said Patrice Spinosi, who defends the LDH.

Movements such as Osez le féminisme and Les Effrontées that usually denounce the veil as a tool of religious oppression, referred to the orders as “acts of humiliation,” of Muslim women. Even Femen and the writer Caroline Fourest, a secular feminist, denounced the orders, with the latter referring to them as “unacceptable.”

The government’s position seems unlikely to soften.  Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, echoed Manuel Valls by stating: “As the Prime Minister indicated, we can understand these orders.”

In a recent interview with Le Figaro Magazine Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a law that would “prohibit any religious symbols in schools and also universities, in the administration, and also in businesses.” The National Front urged a law that went as far as to prohibit “all general, visible, religious symbols in the public arena.”

Muslims in European public spheres and the limits of liberal theories of citizenship

Recent events in Europe, from the cartoon crisis in Denmark to the controversy over the construction of minarets in Switzerland, have brought the status of Islam in the secular public sphere to the forefront of European political debates.

Recent events in Europe, from the cartoon crisis in Denmark to the controversy over the construction of minarets in Switzerland, have brought the status of Islam in the secular public sphere to the forefront of European political debates. The consequences of these debates can be seen in a hardening of the boundary between what is public and what is private, as many assume that religion generally belongs to the private sphere. Collective views in Europe have come to dictate that any claim or expression in public space deriving from religious beliefs be seen as illegitimate. As Jürgen Habermas has noted, the liberal vision of a secular public sphere imposes a special burden on the shoulders of religious citizens. Many believers, however, would not be able to undertake such an artificial division in their own minds between their religious beliefs and their civic commitments without destabilizing their existence as pious persons.

According to many liberal theories, expressions of religious citizens are acceptable in the public sphere so long as they do not influence formal law-making and are expressed in an appropriate public venue. But the political reality is actually more complex and reveals a narrowing or even complete disappearance of public spaces in which religious expression is possible. Talal Asad explains this contradiction by engaging in a Foucauldian deconstruction of public space. Asad’s approach to secularism is particularly helpful for explaining the current debate on Islam in Europe, though it nonetheless requires some additional nuance and further contextualization.

Unlike the liberal theoreticians John Rawls and Charles Taylor, Asad does not see the secular public sphere as a neutral, shared space composed of different voices that accept and abide by the same principles or ethics of citizenship. Instead, he defines the private/public divide as embedded in a heterogeneous landscape of power. From the beginning, in Asad’s view, the “liberal public sphere” has excluded certain kinds of people: women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the poor classes, immigrants, religious groups, and others.

In the same vein, Dominique Colas analyzes the fight between Iconoclasts and the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and observes elements relevant to the concerns raised by Asad: the power of the state is employed to violently crush movements that refused to accept the limitations placed upon their religious claims in the broader public realm. Colas clearly illustrates that the concept of tolerance in the “civil society” of the sixteenth century was not a neutral force. Those who refused to accept the limitations for social behavior and expression were labeled “fanatics” and harshly punished. “Fanaticism,” as defined by Colas, is precisely this refusal to accept the duality of the public and private realms of the social order.

The tension between civil authority and the particular cultural and religious norms of minority communities is the crucial issue in the debate over the definition of “secularism.” In twenty-first century Europe, it is important to understand the public sphere as, not only a disembodied voice, but also a product of the media as well as state-mediated discourses. During the cartoon crisis, for example, alongside Muslims protesting expressly against blasphemy, several made use of secular arguments that could, in principle, have been received in the public sphere, but were rejected because of the asymmetrical balance of power between European establishments and the growing—and increasingly assertive—Muslim minority. Some, for example, utilized arguments similar to those concerning the prevention of hate speech (as it is guaranteed by most European states), holocaust denial, and incitement to violence. Regardless, unconsidered perceptions of Muslims based on a stigma of extremism often prevent rational consideration of expressions that are legitimate within European legal systems.

In the same vein, the rallying of European Muslims who wanted to ban The Satanic Verses and murder its author, Salman Rushdie, has been seen by some prominent advocates of minority rights as an important example of a religious and cultural minority attempting to introduce restrictions that are unacceptable, given that they undermine individual autonomy. Charles Taylor, for instance, considered the demand that The Satanic Verses be banned to be illegitimate. Michael Walzer, well known for his relativist approach to values, took a hard-line liberal position to defend Rushdie against his detractors, arguing that immigrants, by their very choice of immigrating to Europe, have chosen to adopt the tenets of Western liberalism and should therefore conform to them.

On the other hand, many of those in Europe who champion multiculturalism, such as Tariq Modood and Bhikku Parekh, have criticized such positions, explaining that it is a mistake to see the fight against apostasy as British Muslims’ key motivation. Instead, they explain the protests of Muslim leaders as evidence simply of their desire to include Islam under the British Blasphemy Law that, before its repeal in 2008, was strictly limited to Anglicanism. These examples of the divergent ways in which Muslims make claims on and in the secular public sphere highlight the limits of the “overlapping consensus” view and suggest an imbalanced relationship of power between a specific religious group and the representatives of civil authority.

An important question raised by the Muslim presence in Europe is how the protection of specific subcultures can promote, rather than stifle, individual emancipation. Will Kymlicka offers one possible way to reconcile the two conflicting demands: “If we simplify to an extreme, we can state that minority rights are compatible with cultural liberalism when a) individual freedom is protected within the group, and b) they promote equality, and not domination, between groups within the different European societies.” Sometimes, however, Islamic groups collectively appeal for rights that would, in effect, limit individual freedom. The Rushdie Affair and the call to ban The Satanic Verses are illustrative of such dilemmas.

A different—and contradictory—example of the tension between civic order and the Islamic community, on which the rest of this article will focus, concerns the recognition of Islamic Law within existing legal systems. In order to bring nuance to Asad’s interpretation of secular space as simply a hegemonic regime, the examples that follow will show that representatives of civil authority do, in fact, try to foster equality and tolerance among European citizens of different cultures.

Contrary to the widespread belief that Muslims in the West seek the inclusion of shari’a statutes in the constitutions of European countries, most surveys show that Muslims are quite satisfied with the secular nature of European societies. When Muslims agitate for change, they engage in the democratic process, utilizing mainstream parties and institutions. At the same time, their acceptance of secular practices does not mean that they renounce the use of Islamic principles and legal rules to guide or structure their daily lives. In a study funded by the Sixth European Union Framework Programme, which convened 50 focus groups of Muslims in London, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam, I clearly observed this tendency: for example, many Muslims expressed a strong attachment to religious, rather than civil, marriage and divorce.

We examined the literature and jurisprudence of several key European countries in order to ascertain the arguments used by the courts and by Muslims respectively when conflicts arise. The plethora of national laws in Europe and the diversity among Muslim groups makes comparison difficult, but we found a general trend of European countries recognizing foreign civil law. In countries like France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, the law distinguishes between national and foreign jurisprudence, allowing residents to act in accordance with their own national laws. In these cases, the country of residence may apply a discriminatory foreign law. For Muslims, Islamic laws on marriage, divorce, and custody may differ according to their school of thought (Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, Hanbali, etc.) or country of origin (Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, etc.). Furthermore, in some countries—like Tunisia, Turkey, and Morocco—the family law has been secularized and respects, in theory, the principle of equality between men and women. However, these reforms do not always prevent the continuance of customs that can be discriminatory toward women and that can often be presented as “Islamic.” One example is the recent divorce case of a Moroccan couple, brought before the French courts, in which the husband appealed for divorce on the grounds that his wife was not a virgin at the time of their marriage.

Similarly, participants in the focus groups highlighted the difficulty they faced in trying to express their indignation during the Danish cartoon affair. They were bothered less by the representation of the Prophet Muhammad itself than by the fact that he was depicted as the quintessential figure of violence. The participants felt that their disapproval of the cartoon was interpreted by their fellow citizens as unpatriotic, while they themselves did not consider such opinions to be incompatible with their European citizenship. The same discrepancy emerged in some groups with regard to issues of dress code and, specifically, the hijab, the wearing of which is considered unpatriotic in some European places, while it obviously has a very different meaning for many Muslim women. We see a further manifestation of this issue in the recent case of a fully veiled Moroccan woman who was denied French citizenship in 2008 on the grounds that wearing the niqab was incompatible with French values. And the same suspicion of anti-civicism or anti-patriotism can be discerned in the debate on the construction of minarets in Switzerland.

When we turn to the shari’a debate, Kymlicka’s two conditions come under intense scrutiny. Our research corroborates the Gallup polls’ findings showing the acceptance of secular orders by the majority of Muslims in Europe. In fact, not one of the focus group participants expressly rejected European secular principles. Nevertheless, such acceptance does not preclude tension between, for instance, Islamic practices of marriage, divorce, and child custody and the principle of individual freedom under secular civil law. In legal practice, the question of whether to take Muslim family law into account in the regulation of daily life is bound to the condition that these laws meet the criteria prescribed by human rights and fundamental liberties. Therefore, due to inequality between men and women, acknowledgment of Family Law codes imported from some Muslim countries appears as a hindrance to the process of integrating Muslims, to the point that some compare the situation to a conflict of civilizations. There do exist fringes of the Muslim population across Europe that reject the paradigm of secular civil law and act violently in ways that strongly prejudice Europeans’ perceptions of Islam and Muslims. However, the silent majority of European Muslims already accept Islam’s compatibility with the basic precepts of human rights.

The second condition advanced by Kymlicka, promoting the equality of cultures, is also problematic, since Islam as a religion and culture is still perceived as alien to Europe. Promoting equality between cultures involves redefining public culture and the status of Islam within the public space at the level of both nation-states and the European Union. However, some claims on behalf of Islamic culture in fact champion the European conception of human rights, by arguing, for example, that laws banning religious symbols from French public schools are contradictory to the European notion of fundamental rights.

Because of these complex circumstances, we find different and sometimes contradictory attitudes among Muslims toward European secular laws. As mentioned previously, complete rejection of secular law is rare; more commonly, objections are targeted specifically at elements of French secularism. But complete acceptance of European civil law is also rare. Among focus group participants, a preference for Islamic prescriptions for family organization was clearly expressed, especially in the European context. However, the extent to which these prescriptions are taken to heart varies greatly according to gender, age, and education. For example, educated Muslim women tend to adopt a more individualized attitude toward family law, requesting greater equality between men and women. On the other hand, less educated men tend to remain closer to some cultural traditions inherited from their countries of origin.

In short, the majority of European Muslims acknowledge the compatibility of Islam with the basic tenets of human rights, although there are still parts of the Muslim population in Europe who reject this paradigm. For example, a group called Islam4UK, which emerged in autumn 2009 in Great Britain, demands the enforcement of shari’a. It is also significant that Islamic parties have recently emerged on the political scene in Germany and the Netherlands.

Surprisingly, this reconciliation between Islamic principles and secular regimes has often been conducted in an indirect way through decisions by European judges rather than Islamic legal experts or Muslim theologians. Consequently, a slow and “invisible” form of personal Islamic law is being constructed and adapted to Western secular laws. Of course, European judges do not claim Islamic authority, but the fact that Muslim theologians do not contest their decisions, and sometimes even endorse them, illustrates the law’s adaptation. The contours of this evolution remain to be defined, depending on the country and the Islamic group concerned.

These results, derived from survey research of European Muslims, clearly demonstrate the core deficiency of Asad’s view of secularism: it fails to adequately recognize the complexities of political interactions that occur between disparate stakeholder communities. Craig Brittain correctly states, “It is one thing to argue for the legitimacy of religious adherents to publicly voice their particular worldviews; it is quite another matter to suggest that such voices be granted equal argumentative weight, without mediation, in public debate.”

SECULARISM AS A TRAGIC CATEGORY

Interestingly, Talal Asad has perceived the tragic character of secularism, especially in his interpretation of Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels. Incidentally, it may contradict his tendency to reject the category of secularism as an instrument of power and domination: “This world is ‘secular’ not because scientific knowledge has replaced religious belief (that is, because the ‘real’ has at last become apparent) but because, on the contrary, it must be lived in uncertainty, without fixed moorings even for the believer, a world in which the real and the imaginary mirror each other. In this world, the politics of certainty is clearly impossible.”

Such a perception of secularism can help religious theorists address Asad’s principal concern that the concept functions with an overly Westernized bias against non-Western religions. It echoes at the level of what Charles Taylor calls “the third meaning” of secularism, namely, the fact that believers exist in a world in which their beliefs are continuously challenged by other values. The challenge of being able to believe without feeling threatened by others’ beliefs came across very strongly in the focus groups when participants were asked about relationships with non-Muslims and tolerance vis-à-vis apostasy. No real consensus emerged on these issues, but the discussion highlighted a clear divide between the perception of the virtuous Muslim as one who values the moral commitment of the Ummah above all others versus one who lives according to Muslim principles but maintains a certain sense of relativism. This question forms the core of a book by Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks that led to an intense and controversial debate in the UK six years ago, and represents the most salient challenge to the status of Muslims in Europe or the United States: how can one maintain one’s sense of the Islamic truth and simultaneously acknowledge the truth of others?

Tags: citizenship, Craig Brittain, Europe, immigration, Islam, Jürgen Habermas, law, liberalism, secularism, Shari’a, surveys, Talal Asad

Banning Full-Face Coverings in France

By Jennifer Selby

Earlier this week, a 32-member French parliamentary panel recommended that several limitations be placed on niqab and burqa-wearing Muslim women. Led by André Gerin, former mayor of the city of Venissieux, the 130-page report suggests barring fully-covered Muslim women from citizenship, social benefits and from access to the country’s public sphere. The six-month 32-multi-party-membered commission considered, among others, the Qur’anic legitimacy of full-face coverings, women’s rights, and secularism in France.

For many outside of France, a possible law banning niqabs and burqas stemming from this commission and its recommendations is surprising. And also that, firstly, a recent opinion poll suggests that 57% of the population fully support an outright ban, and secondly, according to a report last August in Le Monde, fewer than a thousand women in France wear full-face coverings. It is clearly the symbolic value of these garments that is at stake. In this short commentary, I suggest that the proposals from the Gerin Commission are not at all surprising. A likely full-face covering ban later this year in France is the result of a centuries-long concern with the visibility of religion in the public sphere and more recent concern for the protection of women’s rights from religiosity, and namely Islam.

French secularism or laïcité has been at the heart of legal and social debates in France since before the Revolution in 1789. Until the beginning of the 20th century most protests and legislation dealt with the power and prevalence of Catholicism. By 1905 the separation of church and state was fully legalized. By 1946, likely in an effort to reassert French identity following the German Occupation of WWII, the principle of laïcité was enshrined in the French constitution, becoming one of the major characteristics of the Republican state alongside liberté, egalité, and fraternité. In short, unlike in other Western contexts, French laïcité entails a radical separation and removal of what is deemed the religious or the private spaces of morality from domains considered public or political. The removal of all things religious from the public sphere is understood to guarantee equality and to foster shared nationalist citizenship. For the French, celebrating religious heterogeneity or multiculturalism reinforces difference and social stratification. For these reasons, the public visibility of the “private” religion of Islam is perceived as threatening to secularism and national identity. In a speech on national identity in November last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that “France is a country where there is no place for the burqa” was not negatively characterized by French media.

Differing from the previous Catholic-secular debates at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Islam in France is more than a religious identifier. It also characterizes ethnic and cultural identities. Alongside legal shifts securing secularism since the Revolution, the French have kindled deep ties with North African Muslims. Since France’s colonialism of Algeria in the 1830s, headscarf-wearing Muslim women have been at the center of debates about religion in the public sphere, gender politics and, as hundreds of thousands of North African Muslims migrated to the outskirts of industrial cities to work in factories, immigration. The Muslim population in France today is largely of North African origin and is between 8-20% of the population; the actual percentage is unknown as the secular French state does not, in the spirit of laïcité, gather statistical information regarding religious participation or affiliation. Tellingly, data is approximated through figures published on the ethnicity of residents.

In the post-WWI period, Maghrebian migrants were primarily men. With a shift in immigration policy in 1974 from single male workers to family reunification immigration policy, many more Maghrebian women began joining their husbands, and their children entered the public school system. With increased visibility in the public sphere, the question of Muslim immigration began to percolate, culminating in October 1989 with the “Headscarf Affair.” Since this debate about the appropriateness of headscarves in public schools, French secularism is increasingly articulated and defended vis-à-vis women’s rights. After a number of other incidents in French public schools, in 2004, following a similar six-month long commission to the Gerin Report, the government voted almost unanimously to bar “conspicuous” religious signs from public schools. While then-president of France Jacques Chirac claimed that that the law aimed to protect secularism, even a peripheral read of the 2003 68-page report and recommendations makes the hijab-focus and concern for young citoyennes’ rights evident. In the Stasi Report, women wearing headscarves are depicted as “submissive”, “dominated” and “subjugated” political pawns.

The perceived rise in women donning niqabs and burqas thus raised some alarm among French members of parliament. Last August when the Gerin Commission began, Secretary of State Fadela Amara, who elsewhere has called herself a secular Muslim, noted that “The burka represents not a piece of fabric, but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principle of equality between men and women – one of the founding principles of our republic.” Full-face covering is therefore not only about women’s rights and secularism, but also reflects a fear of political manipulation. If wearing a headscarf in shared spaces like government offices, on buses and in hospitals is depicted not as a religious choice which in the French laïque model could be relegated to the private sphere, but as political one, there are public implications.

To a great extent, these histories of French secularism, colonialism and Muslim immigration to France help to contextualize last week’s recommendations in the Gerin Report. Yet, beyond concerns of increased fear-mongering in Europe like that with the recent minaret ban in Switzerland, and of racism and Islamophobia, most worrisome to me with this recent news in France is how few religious women are themselves able to voice their choices and complexify the reasons why women choose certain forms of dress and adopt certain social comportments in keeping with their beliefs. While French politicians fight to keep religion and its symbols out of the public sphere, particularly “subjugated” full-face covered Muslim women, they ignore those they fight to protect. Commission reports like that released last week claim concern for women’s rights and their full participation in French public life, but few discuss how and why Muslim women remain the symbolic bearers of national identity in the Republic.

Anthropologist John Bowen Interviewed About Burqas in France

Author of Why the French Don’t like Headscarves (Princeton UP, 2007), Professor John Bowen of the University of Washington in St. Louis is interviewed about the new commission on the burqa and niqab, set to give its recommendations in December 2009. Bowen describes other European positions against the burqa and how it has trespassed French positions of religion in the public sphere. He suggests that new forms of dialogue which privilege Muslim interlocutors are important to normalize the presence of Islam in France.

Manual on the wearing of religious symbols in public areas

To address the issues surrounding the wearing of religious symbols in public areas, this manual explores how the European Convention on Human Rights relates to the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; identifies key concepts found in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights; and examines the role and responsibilities of both states and citizens.

The author then explores underlying motivations for wearing religious symbols, and the visibility of religions and beliefs in the public sphere. Essential questions policy makers should address with regards to this issue are then posed.

The manual seeks then to apply these principles and approaches to a number of key areas such as state employment, schools and universities, the private sector and the criminal justice system.

Anger at Europe’s far right ‘anti-Islam’ conference

A German far right group has stirred Muslim anger worldwide by holding a three-day “Anti-Islamisation Conference” to protest against the construction of mosques and Muslim immigration.

Prominent members of Europe’s far right, including French “Front National” leader Jean-Marie le Pen and Belgian far-right politician Filip Dewinter, have said they will attend the meeting in Cologne which is aimed at forging a European alliance against “Islamisation.” The conference will include a rally in the centre of Cologne tomorrow which police say could lead to clashes with left-wing groups that plan a counter-demonstration. Trade unions, churches and other groups have also announced plans to protest against the conference. The conference organiser is a local protest group called “Pro-Cologne” which campaigned against the city’s recent decision to allow the construction of a large new mosque with two 55-metre tall minarets. Around 330,000 immigrants live in Cologne, about a third of the city’s population. “Mosques are shooting out of the ground like mushrooms, the muezzin call and headscarves are flooding our streets,” Pro-Cologne said on its website. It said 150 “politicians and publicists” from all over Europe and 1,500 other participants will attend the conference at which it plans to launch a petition “against the Islamisation of our cities”. The meeting has drawn fierce criticism from German politicians and city leaders in Cologne. The premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Juergen Ruettgers, said: “Those who abuse the cosmopolitan and democratic city of Cologne as a meeting place for right-wing radicals are against tolerance, against reconciliation, against humanity.” David Crossland reports.

Full-text article available here. (Some news sites may require registration)

Muslim Group Reports Jump in Workplace Bias Complaints

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a report this week outlining 2,652 incidents and experiences of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination, and harassment that occurred in 2007. These numbers reflect the highest number of civil rights cases ever recorded in the group’s report. The higher number is due in part to the inclusion of a new category related to mailed, faxed, and e-mailed messages of hatred or harassment. The study also found that discrimination in the workplace against the already employed increased by eighteen percent – with 452 cases reported in the United States in 2007, compared to 383 in 2006. Cases involving those seeking employment jumped a significant thirty-four percent.

See full-text articles:

CAIR

International Business Times

MarketWire

Ireland: Schools to allow hijab but not burqa under new rules

Under new policy rules for uniforms in Irish schools, the hijab has been deemed allowed in schools, but the burka or other face coverings will be banned. Integration minister Conor Lenihan and education minister Batt O’Keeffe issued the joint recommendation after consulting and reviewing the legal positions in Ireland. A 1988 Education Act obliges schools and personnel to have “respect for diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life I society.” “In this context, no school uniform policy should act in such a way that it, in effect, excludes students of a particular religious background from seeking enrolment or continuing their enrolment in a school. However, this statement does not recommend the wearing of clothing in the classroom which obscures a facial view and creates an artificial barrier between pupil and teacher. Such clothing hinders proper communication,” said the statement.

See full-text articles:

Independent.ie

The National

Muslim MP calls for religious equality law

A minister has called for the Government to introduce a new religious discrimination law which would require public bodies to have a legal duty to promote equality between faiths, to reassure Britain’s Muslims that they are not second-class citizens. Sadiq Khan, a government whip, wants a forthcoming Single Equality Bill aimed at stamping out discrimination on grounds of sex, race, gender and disability to include religion. He also calls for “Islamophobia in the workplace” to be tackled. Under his proposal, public bodies would have to be proactive in tackling religious discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, chaired by Trevor Phillips, would issue guidance and codes of practice. “This would not apply exclusively to British Muslims, but it would make a significant difference to the experience of members of this community who, because of socio-economic status, are particularly reliant on public services,” Mr Khan says. The Tooting MP, one of four Muslim Labour MPs, makes his controversial call in a Fabian Society pamphlet, Fairness not Favours, published today. He says a proactive approach to prevent religious discrimination would balance “harder edged” measures such as “clampdowns” on immigration and security and undercut attempts by Muslim extremists to exploit social disadvantage.

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