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Islam in Europe

A Defense of the Burqa Ban


By Michael Talent

Religious freedom is deeply ingrained in the American consciousness. For that reason, the laws passed recently in Europe that prohibit certain forms of dress associated with Islam, such as the French ban on Islamic face covers, colloquially called the burqa, are alien to American sensibilities. They may well violate the United States Constitution. But for Americans to condemn these laws outright, without understanding Europe's unique situation, is unfair. Today, Europe finds itself in a situation where the encroachment of radical Islam is not merely a security liability, but—as a political system trying to impose Sharia law—poses a significant threat to the liberty of the European people. The burqa ban and similar laws are a response to the threat posed by this extreme form of Islam to the idea of equality under the law, especially for women. To criticize such laws without acknowledging Europe's dire circumstances, and without proposing alternative security arrangements, is to avoid confronting the reality of a growing danger within European society that must be dealt with.


By definition, the goal of radical Islamic movements is the involuntary imposition of Sharia law on populations—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—through coercive means. Those radical movements are growing in size and influence around the world, but particularly in Europe. According to Bernard Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton and a noted scholar of Islam, there is a growing presence of Wahhabi teaching in Europe. Wahhabism is a "peculiarly violent and fanatical version [of Islam]," which advocates a return to the "true and authentic traditions of Islam." Such traditions include Sharia law, as evidenced by its implementation in Saudi Arabia, a theocracy of Wahhabist Islam. Lewis notes that Wahhabist Islam is an interpretation with an increasing number of adherents. It is also a version that is "particularly strong among Muslim communities in Europe," a consequence of the Wahhabists controlling Islamic education in these countries. This, in combination with the increase in Europe's Muslim population—which Omer Taspinar, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, projects will double by 2015—would naturally lead to a rise in the number of Muslims adhering to Sharia political law, further increasing the tension between Wahhabist Islam and European civilization.


It is wrong to assume that such radicalism is the norm. Many Muslim countries, like Turkey or Qatar, do not operate according to strict Sharia law, and most Muslims want to live peacefully with their neighbors, including those who do not agree with their religious views. The key to this moderation is tolerance. According to Bernard Lewis, tolerance is the key to Islamic moderation. These "moderate" or more secular Muslims also fall under the protection of the laws like the burqa ban, because if extremist Muslims begin imposing Sharia law by violence or intimidation, the moderate Muslims will lose their ability to exercise true religious choice.


Many cities in Europe with large Muslim populations have neighborhoods where extremist Muslim movements have become the governing authority. These neighborhoods, though ostensibly part of greater liberal Europe, are essentially governed by the same practices the religious police of Saudi Arabia enforce upon their nation. This happens either through violence and intimidation or through legal means; in Britain, for example, there are now five Sharia law courts. These courts are arbitration tribunals, which means that their rulings are legally binding as long as both parties agree to abide by the court's decisions, thereby allowing for the legal implementation of Sharia law. This observation is corroborated by journalists and commentators like Claire Berlinski, who, in an article in National Review Online, cites the French suburb of La Courneuve, where women veil themselves out of fear of Islamic "morality patrols", groups of Islamic men who wander the streets enforcing Sharia. Those found in violation of Islamic law are beaten and sometimes killed. In addition, these same men, naturally, are uniquely prone towards domestic violence, using it as a tool to control woman, who, because of the prevalence of radicalism in their neighborhoods, are effectively denied the protection of the law. In one example, Afshan Azad, a British actress and member of a Muslim family, had to flee from her home after she was attacked by her father and brother because she was in a relationship with a non-Muslim man.


The incident with Afshan Azad is particularly instructive because it shows the pernicious treatment that women receive in radical Islamist societies that impose Sharia law. Honor killings—where relatives murder a family member for abandoning the ways of faith—are all too common in these communities. Women, of course, are usually the victims of honor killings. Phyllis Chesler, a professor of psychology and woman's studies at Richmond College in New York, has studied honor killings in Europe and North America. According to her study, radicalized Muslims commit around ninety percent of such killings. But the violence does not just stop in Muslim homes or neighborhoods. There are numerous examples of radical Muslims committing violent acts against non-Muslims—the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh after van Gogh made a film critical of Islam; the British subway bombings in July of 2005; and the perpetual threats against Kurt Westergaard, for drawing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, the worst of which have forced him to live in hiding.


As the influence of radical Islam increases in Europe, it is instructive to see its most likely end in a state that does follow Sharia law. Saudi Arabia provides the best example. In that country, vicious and often sadistic punishments, such as amputation of limbs, are the penalties for crimes like robbery. Practicing any religion besides Islam is prohibited, and conversion from Islam is punishable by death. Another example of the barbarity of Sharia law is the Saudi treatment of homosexuals. Being homosexual or engaging in homosexual acts are capital crimes. Basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, are non-existent.


Saudi Arabia also has very inequitable gender laws. Male relative must always accompany women outside of their home, and women must always wear full covers. Women have no choice about whom they marry, and female children can be married to older men. Spousal rape is not a crime. In many instances, rape victims are punished as well as the rapists if the victim in question was not in the company of a male relative at the time of the attack. For example, in the Qatif girl rape case, a rape victim was sentenced to six months in prison and ninety lashes for being alone with a man (not one of her attackers) who was not a relative; the sentence was increased due to the international attention to the woman's plight.


With the increase of radical Islam's influence on Europe, it is not hard to envision a continent disturbingly similar to Saudi Arabia. However, it is not easy to determine what Europe should do in response to the growing tide of Islamic radicalism. Many in Europe have lost the will to fight even for the most fundamental and important aspects of the Enlightenment creed such as equality and respect for human rights. That is to some extent because the continent has embraced multiculturalism so completely. The doctrine of multiculturalism holds that all cultures are equal. This means that there is nothing special about a given society, and, in particular, that there are no meaningful aspects of a culture that make it inherently better than any other. Multiculturalism was useful in causing Europe to rethink the cultural "arrogance" that characterized its colonial empires; but when applied indiscriminately—when people became unconvinced about the moral rightness of the Western tradition of human rights—multiculturalism can disarm a society confronted by a violent threat. After all, if there is nothing special about our way of life, then why should anyone sacrifice to preserve it?


Europe began losing confidence in its history and traditions because of the unparalleled destruction brought on by the two World Wars, which disillusioned a large segment of the European population about the ability of enlightened societies to prevent massive social upheaval, conflict, or injustice. Since 1945, Europe has declined culturally, steadily losing its faith in its core Western system of thought, and sustaining its independence because of the umbrella of American protection. Now, there is an internal threat from which America cannot protect Europe and which the continent is ill equipped to fight: a vast wave of Muslim immigrants who have brought with them a belief system that encompasses the secular as well as the spiritual, and, just as importantly, unquestionably accepts the absolute truth of what they are saying and doing.


Thus, attempts by countries like France to counter the advance of Sharia law is a welcome sign of resistance, even if the methods used seem intolerant. Such action represents hope that Europe has not completely lost its faith in the values that made it the birthplace of modernity. Europeans are increasingly willing to use the government to assert the primacy of human rights over Sharia law. That is the reason for the burqa ban and other similarly constructed laws. Naturally, it would be better to use less coercive ways of reviving the best traditions of European culture. Ideally, such a revival should be social, cultural, and/or religious in nature, not driven by the government. If Europe could reassert its faith in the values of freedom, human dignity, and political equality, it could better assimilate its Muslim minority without restricting their freedom through government action. But, Europe's demographic situation makes such a revival next to impossible.


As previously mentioned, the Muslim population in Europe is growing rapidly because of their higher birthrates. While Muslim women in the EU have 3.5 children, European women only have 1.4 children. Does this mean that Europe will eventually become a Muslim state? Perhaps the rapid growth of native-born European Muslims and the constant influx of North African and Turkish Muslims, when combined with the very low birth rates of non-Muslim Europeans, suggests that Muslims, over time, will be the majority in Europe. However, this is just data extrapolation, and there are things that can change. For example, Europe can decide to limit or cut off immigration from Muslim countries. But such an action, while slowing the growth of the Muslim population, would do nothing to assimilate the Muslims currently in Europe. New Muslims tend to self-segregate, and Europeans do little to encourage them to enter the broader society, further undercutting the assimilative power of Enlightenment ideals. As Muslim populations increase, this tendency to self-segregate will increase; Muslim communities will become larger and, thus, more attractive to new immigrants. This means that Europe, already weakened by decades of multiculturalism, is now facing a constant influx of Muslims lacking both the tools and the will to assimilate them by bringing them into the broader society. As the ethnic European population declines, their influence in assimilating new Muslims will also decline, preventing them from countering the teachings of Sharia with traditional, Enlightenment values. Considering the influence of Wahhabist teaching on the continent, it is likely that Europe will become more and more like Saudi Arabia rather than Ataturk's Turkey within a few generations—unless the wave of radicalism among new Muslim arrivals and the current Islamic population is somehow turned back.


This raises the fair question of whether Muslims can assimilate into the broader European society with its history of religious tension and Christian rule. Certainly, Europe has a history of religious persecutions, and many in America feel that France's burqa ban is another manifestation of that tendency. However, Europe has secularized considerably during the last century, and it is unfair to view the continent in the light of its 19th century values. Yet, even with residual religious tension, it is possible for Muslims to accept Enlightenment values. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote about his Pakistani roommate's Muslim parents in a Wall Street Journal Symposium on moderate Islam. He said that, while the parents were devout, they always welcomed him, an infidel, into their home; they even accepted their children's decision not to follow Islam. This is an example of Muslims accepting Enlightenment values of tolerance and choice while remaining above any lingering religious tensions. Thus, while Muslims do not have to accept all of Europe's traditions, they do need to subscribe to its Enlightenment values.


It is in this context—the decline in cultural assimilation coupled with the tremendous growth in the Muslim compared to non-Muslim populations—that various governments resort to legal restrictions as a form of cultural resistance. The burqa bans and similar laws in Europe are at least a welcome sign that these governments intend to resist the coercive imposition of Sharia law on Muslims of all stripes, particularly women. The burqa and other face coverings are the physical representation of violence and oppression towards women. By outlawing the burqa, governments make it more difficult for "morality patrols" to target women who do not wish to comply with Sharia law. The point of the ban, then, is not to violate, but rather affirm real religious choice for Muslim women, to remove the elements of Sharia law that most visibly symbolize the antipathy of radical Islam towards human dignity, and, hopefully, to promote tolerance and moderation in the Muslim community.


To be sure, there are reasons to be critical of the new bans and other restrictions. For one thing, they may not work; fundamentalist morality patrols will find other ways to identify their victims, and even the best of laws cannot guarantee a perfect success rate. In addition, the ban does not help women who are members of a radical Islamic household; they will continue to be oppressed. Another criticism is the illiberal nature of the ban, because the bans restrict the freedom of those women who do genuinely want to dress in the manner called for by Sharia law. However, the fact is that Muslim men in many semi-autonomous European neighborhoods are using the burqa as a form of religious control; it is a direct threat to the progress of the last century in establishing women's rights and it is an unambiguous challenge to what radical Muslims view as a permissive and overly sexualized Western culture. Banning the burqa is not ideal, but is at least an attempt—by governments without a lot of other options—to protect women from the violence and oppression that now characterizes the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.


In that sense, the burqa bans and similar laws are a sign that Europe has not completely lost its faith in the values and culture that gave birth to freedom and democracy. There are other signs as well. More and more European politicians are finding the courage to talk about the threat posed by radical Islam. Women's groups and other non-governmental organizations are trying to help Muslim women endangered by the morality patrols. If Europe can relearn its faith in the value of freedom, human dignity, and political equality, it could better protect those most vulnerable to the dangers of Sharia law without having to restrict religious freedom.


It is very easy to criticize Europe for passing the burqa bans, and there is justification for doing so. But any criticism should acknowledge and respond to the dangerous reality on the continent. Americans of both political persuasions have seen the French burqa ban, and similar laws, as illiberal and wrong. The right has criticized the laws as attacks on religious freedom and the left views them as xenophobic reactions to an increasing Muslim population. Both sides are wrong. The fact is that Europe is facing an internal, existential threat to its culture and values. There is a growing population of radicalized and violent persons in Europe who fanatically believe that the religious and civil spheres cannot be separated, that women are not equal before the law, and that those who hold different views are, at best, second class citizens and, at worst enemies to be suppressed or killed. That population wants to impose its views on the rest of society, and is already beginning to do so. In a situation with so many bad options, banning the burqa may be the best of all unpalatable choices.