Consider these developments:
In Canada, the most tolerant of nations, a law before the Quebec legislature is now set to deny public services to fully veiled women.
In France, lawmakers press to make the niqab and the burka illegal in public places and to deny public services to women wearing these forms of dress.
In Belgium, a parliamentary committee unanimously votes to similarly ban the wearing of face-covering veils in public. If it becomes law, anyone wearing the niqab or burka on the streets could be arrested.
In Austria, a Cabinet minister threatens legal action, including fines, against women who wear the burka in public places.
In the Netherlands, a right-wing politician surges in popularity by stoking up fears that Muslim migrants in Europe are fifth columnists out to turn Europe into an Islamic state. Never mind that most European Muslims are non-religious.
And in Switzerland, a majority of citizens, edged on by right-wing politicians, vote to ban the building of minarets.
Perhaps in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war on terrorism, Muslim minorities are now seen as an increasing threat to national security and the social order. Perhaps the “visible minorities” are finally becoming too visible. Or perhaps ambitious politicians find it easier to tap into latent roots of racism and prejudice to win support.
To hear much of the voices that are being raised against the veil is to hear the voices of hysteria, fear and xenophobia, not to mention absurdity. Suddenly, a form of dress, albeit an incongruous and anomalous one, has become a symbol of all that is anti-western, anti-social, anti-democratic, anti-freedom and anti-gender equality.
Some have suggested that the burka is contrary to “pedagogical principles” while others insist that it represents a choking hazard. One commentator opined that burkas should be outlawed on humanitarian grounds – she apparently tried it on and found it “a hot and lousy way to see the world.” Burkas have also been called “ambulatory prisons that violate a woman’s right to equality.”
One can only feel sorry for Muslim women – in one part of the world they are ordered to cover up while in another part of the world they are ordered to open up. It is not really about what they want but about what others think is good for them.
Surely forcing Muslim women to doff the burka is as wrong as forcing them to don it. The issue should be about giving them the freedom to choose, not taking it away from them. That is what freedom means, isn’t it?
Some argue that banning the burka empowers women and encourages them to assert themselves; perhaps, but it might also marginalise then even further. And if these women are the victims of male domination, as is so often suggested, why are they being harassed, threatened and pushed into further isolation?
If the burka debate was about the justifiable need to balance this form of dress with security requirements or the need for proper identification, it would be understandable but it has gone beyond that now.
One is left to wonder if the burka has suddenly become a threatening symbol, a sign that “the barbarians are at the gates”, that Western civilisation and culture are about to be overwhelmed.
I suppose that having gone to war to free Afghan women from the burka, it must be particularly galling to find burkas on the streets of Montreal, Paris, Brussels or Geneva.
When all is said and done, I suspect that the burka wars will not be one of the prouder moments of Western civilisation; instead it will be seen as a period when western democracies lost confidence in the strength and resilience of their own values.
For many in the Muslim world, it will of course be tempting to view these developments as part of the rising tide of Islamophobia in the West. I suggest, however, that the real issue is simply rising intolerance and an unwillingness on the part of majorities to accommodate and protect the rights of minorities.
And in this, the West clearly does not have a monopoly.
In many parts of the Muslim world, for example, foreign women are similarly forced to abide by local dress codes in deference to local sensibilities while the building of non-Muslim places of worship is prohibited or severely restricted. How different is that from what is going on in France or in Switzerland?
Muslim countries are right to be concerned for the fair and equitable treatment of Muslim minorities in the West. However, they too need to ensure that the rights of their own minorities are adequately protected. It’s the other side of the same coin.
Intolerance is a slippery road. Once it becomes acceptable to legally discriminate against one group, there’s no telling where it will end. There are already calls to ban all religious symbols, including turbans, headscarves, kippas and crosses, in public places. It’s time to stop this nonsense.