In last Friday’s feedback discussion, some of our regular commenters expressed a wish for us to post more articles that ask questions instead of just giving opinions. (It seems we may have a tendency to be a bit didactic.) This is opportune because I have an issue I’d really like your opinions on. It’s the “ban the burqa” law recently passed in France.
This law went into effect last week, and makes it an offense for anyone to cover their face in public. French lawmakers claim it applies to all full-face coverings, like the ski masks and balaclavas used by criminals, but everybody knows the target population is the approximately 2,000 French women who wear the full face veil traditional in Muslim societies. Several wore their veils in public last week in defiance of the law, and have been issued fines amounting to about $300 US. Belgium and Holland are reportedly considering similar bans.
Now, this is an interesting debate. I don’t think it falls in the same category as the nonsensical “anti-Sharia” laws that have recently been passed in more than a dozen state legislatures in the US. Muslims make up about 1% of the American population. Obviously, having the Constitution and the rule of law overrun by Sharia is hardly a clear and present danger. I consider these laws popping up in state legislatures to be more an attack on the president than an effort to deal with the sinister Muslim threat to our North American courts. I also think it’s no coincidence that these laws are being passed in states where a large number of residents believe the president is a non-American Muslim.
But, like the Swiss law a couple of years ago that banned minarets on mosques within Switzerland, the French “ban the burqa” law is a symptom of a different mindset. These are the actions of societies that feel themselves to be under siege, and are a form of cultural protectiveness that people most can understand, even if they disapprove.
Are European countries really under siege by surging Muslim populations? It would seem not. There are no European nations with a percentage of Muslims rising above single digits. Part of the alarm was probably engendered by rapid growth of Muslim populations in the 1990s, doubling and even tripling in France and other countries, but those growth numbers have tailed off quite dramatically in recent years, along with the Muslim birth rate in western nations. It’s interesting to note the worldwide population of adherents to the Muslim faith is now growing more rapidly through conversion than through procreation.
So…what about this burqa law? On the one hand, Muslim women consider their hair and their faces to be an important part of their sexual selves, something to be kept private for their husbands and not displayed to other men. Most American women tend to feel the same way about their breasts. Imagine a large group of Americans settling on a tropical island where breasts are normally uncovered, and being told the American women must expose their breasts in public or face rather steep fines. Isn’t it pretty much the same thing?
And yet I can also sympathize strongly with people who feel invaded and overrun. Territorialism, protection of one’s turf, and suspicion of the Other are an integral part of human nature…a protective instinct that has evolved over countless centuries. We are also creatures with a strong sense of place and love of “home.” It is a difficult thing to see your home being changed by the Other, who comes from Elsewhere, and all the dear and familiar landmarks and traditions being gradually transformed into something that seems foreign. This can engender a deep sense of loss and grief.
My small home town was once a marketing and social hub for a group of large prairie ranches. My great-grandfather installed the first barbed-wire-fence telephone from the ranch to town over a hundred years ago, and for most of my life his original phone was displayed in the local museum. My other great-grandfather ran the town’s first stable and stagecoach service. And my great-uncle, furious over being cheated at cards, once rode his horse into the hotel lobby to confront the cowboy he was angry with. The hoof marks have been there on the pegged oak floor for all to see, a colorful part of my town’s history…until recently.
Now, because our town has a warm dry climate and lots of sunshine, it has become a market-gardening center and is heavily populated with Mexican Mennonite immigrants who have moved there to work the fields. They all wear black overalls and long print dresses, even the smallest children. They are polite, hard-working, happy people, and the little kids are adorable. But they keep to themselves and are very different from anything I knew when I was growing up. The museum where that early phone was on display is now a Spanish-German medical clinic for the immigrants. The hotel with those famous hoofprints has been transformed into a Mennonite school, and the foundations of my great-grandfather’s stable have vanished beneath an onion field.
I confess to missing all that history and familiarity. I truly don’t know which is the right approach. Should we require immigrants to become like us so we don’t lose what is precious to us? Or should we recognize all people as citizens of the same planet and welcome the diversity, recognizing change as part of life? It’s easy to make sweeping and lofty generalizations, but its different when it’s your home town…and everywhere is somebody’s home town.
So…what do you think about banning the burqa?
- Covering the face eliminates the personality behind the veil | The big issue (guardian.co.uk)
- South Asia: Reactions On The Burqa Ban In France (globalvoicesonline.org)
- The One About A Follow Up To France’s Law Banning The Burqa Is Anti-Woman. (therealtheoneabout.wordpress.com)
- France’s Burqa Ban Adds To Anti-Muslim Climate (npr.org)