The Canadian province of Quebec has passed a law requiring women who receive public services to remove face coverings that are often employed by strict adherents to Islam, including the full burqa and niqab.
This follows a string of European countries including Denmark, France, Austria, and Belgium, which have passed similar burqa bans as a response to widespread immigration from Muslim countries. As the trend reaches North America, one wonders how long it will be before analogous legislation is suggested in our own country.
Obviously, these countries lack the United States’ explicit constitutional protection of religious freedom. But whether legal or not, is banning the burqa a good idea? The Liberal Party in Canada that pushed through the ban argued that it was a matter of religious neutrality, as well as a way to combat Islamophobia.
It seems a little odd to combat the fear of a minority by making the minority less visible, though. It doesn’t make people more tolerant; it just makes those they are afraid of less visible. It’s the legislative equivalent of turning off the lights to hide something scary. Citizens will be less fearful, but only through ignorance, not enlightenment.
Another point of view holds that the ban on face coverings is necessary for public safety, to prevent criminals from hiding themselves and resisting identification by law enforcement. I don’t know about you, but a society that demands that police be able to see my face at all times seems more than a tad intrusive and is not one I would particularly want to live in.
When we’ve reached the point of paranoia that forbids anything that may function as a disguise (I’m thinking hats, glasses, facial hair, and, given that it’s October, Halloween masks), we will have descended pretty far from free society to police state.
There are also those who claim the ban is about women’s liberation, that the burqa is a symbol of oppression and is used by husbands to keep their wives down. Banning it, they argue, will be good for women and eliminate the conflict that would come from women who might defy their husbands’ wishes. By putting the decision in the hands of the state, the potential for domestic abuse as punishment for non-compliance is removed.
But what is the evidence for this? The brainwashing argument is a facile way to discount any publically expressed opinion and replace it with what we believe is the “right” opinion. At the very least, it’s disrespectful to the intelligence of Muslim women. It’s also perverse to argue that we can empower women by legally restricting their clothing options.
Another point against the above argument is the redundancy of a ban designed to reduce coercion and violence. If we are really worried about husbands abusing their wives, then there are already plenty of laws on the books that we can use to pursue justice. Instead of passing new laws, it is generally wiser to more thoroughly and consistently enforce existing ones. If we cannot use the law to combat spousal abuse now, it seems unlikely that a burqa ban will improve the situation.
In general, prohibition is a terrible way to effect positive change. It is true that many countries are experiencing difficulties with Muslim immigration, and I’m sympathetic to efforts to deal with the problem, but banning clothing associated with a particular religion is not going to solve anything. At best, it will be ineffective, and at worst it will drive resentment between different populations and only exacerbate conflict. It also sets a bad precedent for government to be allowed to dictate the ways in which religious citizens express their faith.
When dealing with highly personal issues such as faith, values, and tradition, force should always be a last resort, and even then, the odds that it will be effective at changing what’s in people’s hearts are slim indeed. Far better to lead by example and employ persuasion to defend our own culture.
For if our values are strong, we don’t need government to preserve them, and if our values are weak, then no quantity of laws can hope to keep them alive.
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