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 Pajamas Media’s Phyllis Chesler. In its most extreme forms, this pathology manifests itself as active support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The “appeasement” argument is also fundamentally flawed. Islamists will not stop waging war against the West if we allow them to cover their women in public. On the contrary, the misogyny that prevails across much of the Islamic world, and the resulting contempt for Western values of gender equality and sexual freedom, is a major factor in radicalization; indulging it merely emboldens the extremists. (Syria — which like other secular Arab dictatorships is acutely aware of the threat posed by radical Islam even as it encourages extremists abroad — has just banned the burqa from its universities.)
Jamie Glazov devotes a chapter of his book United In Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror to detailing how Islam’s various neuroses about women and female sexuality lead them to hate the West (elsewhere he deals with the left’s support for Islamic extremists, and the attendant double standard with regard to women’s rights).
The basic point is that Islamist misogyny derives from various ingredients within Islam itself. The notion that women are, by their very nature, inferior to men is the underpinning of the entire structure and derives its legitimacy from numerous traditional teachings.
And so, he argues:
Women become mandatory victims in a culture whose lust for death necessitates scorn and loathing for the gender that bestows life. Western values, therefore, pose a severe danger to the death cult, since they threaten to liberate all the women in the world. In the age of globalization, mass communication, and the Internet, the West’s values are spreading with lightning quickness. The death cult’s response takes two forms: a war fought within the culture to eradicate the essence of what is female from its own women, and a jihad against free nations to crush the expansion of liberty and pluralism.
There are, of course, a couple of perfectly understandable objections to a burqa ban: that women who comply with the law will be banned by husbands and other relatives from leaving their homes, and those who feel liberated by a ban to reject the burqa could be subjected to violence. However, as long as Islamic misogyny is tolerated, Muslim women will continue to be repressed, burqa ban or not.
The choice for Western societies is to let that misogyny — and the extremism it fuels — fester, or make it clear that the repression of women is unacceptable. Accept that some women may suffer the consequences of a burqa ban, but trust that taking a stand will begin to turn the tide against the extremists and improve the lives of millions of women and girls around the world — to say nothing of the thousands of people of all sexes and religions who are victims of Islamist violence every year.
Britain — and the U.S. when faced with a similar dilemma, as it inevitably will be one day — should ignore the smokescreen of civil liberties and ridicule notions of “empowerment.” The only thing empowered by the burqa is the Islamists’ contempt for the West’s self-confidence. Conservatives must do the right thing by Muslim women and society as a whole. Let the leftists and so-called progressives be the last Westerners standing in defense of extremist Islam’s repression of women.