Fewer than 500 women in The Netherlands, out of a population of 16.5 million, wear a burqa, a garment worn by some Muslim women as a sign of modesty. Yet, according to an Associated Press report , “There is broad support in the Dutch parliament to ban face-obscuring clothing except if required by law for safety or health reasons.”
Meanwhile, in Belgium, AP reports that the parliament’s Interior Affairs committee unanimously backed a similar proposed ban March 31, and the initiative is expected become law in July. It would apply to all public places, including streets, even though the vast majority of Muslim women there don’t wear one.
Why all the fuss? According to a Belgian legislator, ““The point is public security, the need to show one’s face in public. Not religious freedom.” But no one has proposed banning ski masks. Foreign-looking clothing is threatening to many Europeans because it’s a reminder of the encroachment of something “foreign.” It’s a powerful symbol, representing a fear so widespread that that the populist Freedom Party in The Netherlands may end up with 25 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives.
Americans are afraid that “foreigners” will take away their jobs, but Europeans see a threat to “European values” from Islam. Unlike the United States, Europe’s history is replete with wars over religion: the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots vs. Queen Elizabeth, the Catholic church against the Huguenots in France, and the Thirty Years’ War, to say nothing of the Crusades. It also has a lethal history of ethnic strife down to the present, including the Serbian slaughter of Bosnians and the Russian campaign against the Chechens. It is probably no coincidence that the victims in those last two cases are Muslims.
The European response to the Nazi experience has been to treat ethnic strife as a relic of the past that is incompatible with a liberal democratic future. Xenophobia has nevertheless resurfaced, this time in a different guise: as the tension between democracy and theocracy. French president Sarkozy claims he wants to ban burqas because “the veils compromise women’s dignity.” But when France banned not only Muslim head scarves but also Jewish kippot and Christian crosses from the schools, it was because of an across-the-board intolerance of public expressions of religiosity. That is an irrational prejudice cloaked in the pretense of being impartial.
For the past two hundred years the torchbearers of the Enlightenment have had faith that history is on their side, that it would be only a matter of time until rationality replaced what they saw as superstition. The decline of religion among Western Europeans, however, is an exception in the world. Elsewhere religion continues to thrive and to play a meaningful and even a defining role in people’s lives, a phenomenon Europeans find threatening because it is heretical. No wonder their response is to resort to coercion, as they have done so many times in the past.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He is also a book critic for Jewish Book World and a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
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