Across Europe, moves are underway to ban the burqa and similar Islamic face coverings. French and Belgian lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly for bills that, if enacted, will ban the wearing of full-face veils in public. Politicians in the Netherlands and Spain are considering bans on burqas in public buildings (a more widespread ban was narrowly rejected in Spain), while bans have been introduced by local authorities in several other countries.
A notable and shameful exception is Britain. Last weekend two leading members of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government spoke out against any ban on the burqa. Immigration Minister Damian Green said a ban would be “rather un-British” and run contrary to the conventions of a “tolerant and mutually respectful society.” Green failed to explain how Muslims who want women to cover up can be part of a “mutually respectful society” when time and again those same Muslims have made it clear that they have little respect for British laws and values.
Even more troubling were remarks made by Environment Minister Caroline Spelman:
I don’t, living in this country as a woman, want to be told what I can and can’t wear. … We are a free country, we attach importance to people being free and for a woman it is empowering to be able to choose each morning when you wake up what you wear.
Green is exhibiting ignorance, disingenuousness, or some combination thereof, but Spelman seems to have constructed an entire alternative reality. She claims to have discovered how much Muslim women love their burqas on a trip to Afghanistan, but her views are more the product of Wonderland than Helmand. The entire basis of objections to the burqa is that women who wear it aren’t free to choose what they wear.
The vast majority of Muslim women wear the burqa because they are forced to. Some wear it reluctantly, on the orders of husbands, fathers, or brothers. Others may genuinely believe that they’re wearing it of their own free will, but they’re no more making a free choice than those who wear it under the threat of a beating or confinement. The compulsion is just more insidious: they’re the inheritors of a tradition of repression handed down from mother to daughter over hundreds of years.
It’s vital that the “civil liberties” argument for allowing women to wear the burqa is confronted and defeated (in the U.S. as well as the UK; a recent Pew poll shows that while majorities across Europe support a ban, only 28% of Americans — doubtless responding in a spirit of religious freedom — do). But the truth is that the sudden show of support for the burqa by Conservative politicians is prompted partly by a fear of being labeled Islamophobic by left-liberal opponents, and partly by the misguided belief, inherited from the previous government, that if you appease Islamic extremists then they’ll be less inclined to blow you up.
Accusations of Islamophobia are a cheap shot on the part of the left. While some well-intentioned liberals wrongly see a friction between women’s rights and religious freedom — just as some conservatives are mistakenly conflicted about banning the burqa — elsewhere on the left, hypocrisy reigns. Many so-called progressives have for years put aside their supposed concerns over women’s rights where Muslims are concerned: they imagine that radical Islam can somehow be harnessed to undermine the democratic and capitalist Western societies they so detest, and the defense of Islam trumps the defense of women in the hierarchy of identity politics. Typical of their attempts to square the circle is Naomi Wolf’s notorious paean to the burqa, dismantled here by PJ Media’s Phyllis Chesler. In its most extreme forms, this pathology manifests itself as active support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.