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In the last few years, we have witnessed a public backlash against the growing influence of Islam in Europe. Most recently was the Swiss ban on Muslim minarets. Another often talked about symbol of Islam, the burqa, is also coming under fire.

Often, the sight of a woman in these long robes, which cover her from head to toe, causes Westerners to react emotionally to the oppression of women, Sharia law and fear of Muslim extremism. Islamic tradition has argued that the garments are a reflection of Islam’s call for sexual purity, yet many Westerners look on in distrust – a distrust that comes from ignorance and fear.

For the last six months, French lawmakers have been studying the legality of ordering a full ban on the burqa in public places. Current opposition to the garments dates back to 2004 when French lawmakers prohibited students from wearing scarves, head coverings, yamika and even large crucifixes in school.

Critics of the ruling argued it was directed at Islamic tradition. Later, in 2008, French courts denied naturalization to a Moroccan woman who had an impeccable application, but had worn a burqa. The issue of the burqa came to a boil last summer when President Nicolas Sarkozy stated publicly, “The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.” He vowed to ban them as not good for France. Despite possible legal and constitutional issues, Sarkozy and parliament are expected to push the ban forward in coming months.

France, with the largest Muslim population in western Europe (more than 5 million at 6 percent of the population), has been struggling with the integration of Muslims into French society. Like Germany, Denmark, Holland, Italy and Switzerland, the French have seen a public backlash against the rapid growth of Islam. A recent FT Harris poll noted that the majority of Western countries support a ban on the public wearing of the burqa, with France leading the way at 70 percent. The United States stood out with only 33 percent in support of such a ban.

An informed ethical response to the burqa ban is difficult because multiple ideologies and biases are at play. Support for the ban comes from diverse groups that are arguing for everything from the expansion of Islam to the loss of French identity. Support for the ban appears in philosophical arguments about women’s rights and pragmatic arguments about security in public buildings. (You cannot see who someone is under a veil.) In short, the burqa is opposed by both liberals and traditionalists alike. Even the Islamic community is split over the ban.

Banning the burqa creates three problems for the delicate democratic ideal.

  • Banning the burqa on religious grounds might help slow the erosion of historic French values, but ultimately it will break the fragile trust of religious freedom. The day we fail to protect a minority’s right to practice its faith is the day we put our future in jeopardy. For one day, we ourselves will be the minority religion.
  • Banning the burqa on grounds that it is not French, that it destroys the French ideal, that it is not compatible with French culture, is just as damaging. This position fails to acknowledge the evolution of society. Cultures always evolve. The hyper-protection of the current state of a society only reveals our own assumptions of superiority. It reveals that we think ourselves better than the rest of the world. The danger here is that one day we will be surpassed and ultimately subjugated by those whom we rejected. Our current culture will cease to evolve and be left behind.
  • Banning the burqa on grounds of women’s liberation is dangerous and self-defeating. This would only replace one form of bondage with another. We would do the same thing we claim oppressors have done – telling women what they can wear, what they can do and who they are. True liberation is the freedom to choose one’s own life, be it as a homemaker or the secretary of state, whether it involves wearing a burqa or a pants suit.

The burqa is having problems finding its place in an age of security checks and photo IDs. It is looking for its place in a world where the verification of one’s identity is becoming increasingly important. The issue illustrates our future: We live in a pluralistic age, an age that requires mutual understanding and a willingness to suspend our fears while embracing those that are not like us.

I can only urge caution because our choices now will set the stage for the future. As the world becomes more interconnected, the events in Europe will be repeated all over the world. It is important that we reflect on the consequences of these decisions now – before we find ourselves on the same road.

Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center – Little Rock and an adjunct instructor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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