Burqa ban aims to whip up Islamophobia

Hundreds of Muslim women and children rallied in Punchbowl, Sydney, on September 19 to protest a burqa ban soon to be debated in the NSW parliament. The bill, introduced by Christian fundamentalist MLC Fred Nile, criminalises wearing a “face covering while in a public place” except as part of a job, entertainment, recreation or sport. It states that “a religious or cultural belief does not constitute a reasonable excuse for the wearing of a face covering”, thus exposing the aim of criminalising the wearing of the burqa or niqab by Muslim women.

Modiied Fred Nile election billboard - telling it as it is.

In May ALP and Coalition MPs joined minor parties to vote down the bill, but then supported its reintroduction in June, when only the four Greens and Family First MP Gordon Moyes voted against.

On August 23, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally announced that the state government had decided to oppose the bill, because “such a ban has no place in multicultural NSW”. The rout the ALP experienced in NSW and Queensland in the federal election only two days earlier undoubtedly motivated the ALP’s new multicultural rhetoric. On September 10, NSW opposition leader Barry O’Farrell announced the Coalition would also oppose the bill.

European bans

While the electoral concerns of the major parties prevent them supporting the bill, the global scapegoating of Islam ensures that the issue will return. Across western Europe, politicians are debating banning the burqa, citing security, women’s rights and secularism in justification. The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and some Italian states are debating or legislating against the burqa. In mid-June Spain’s ruling Socialist Party introduced a new “religious freedom” bill that bans the burqa in public places. The bill does not prohibit the wearing of religious veils such as the traditional Spanish mantilla, so its anti-Islamic motivation is clear.

With Europe’s largest Muslim population and second largest economy, France’s ban constitutes a powerful attack against Muslims. In mid-July France’s lower house voted 335 to 1 for the bill, and it passed through the Senate on September 15. The bill was instigated in June 2009, when 65 cross-party MPs, led by Communist Andre Guerin, called for a parliamentary commission into the spread of the burqa among French women. President Nicolas Sarkozy supported the call, saying, “We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

Both the French Muslim establishment and the left endorsed the ban. In 2009 human rights minister Rama Yade, who is a Muslim, said that she would support a ban if it protected women’s rights. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and former head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, welcomed the ban because French Muslims need to practise an “open and convivial Islam that allows people to live side by side”. The current head, Mohammed Moussaoui, while raising concerns about laws stigmatising vulnerable groups, also supports discouraging women from wearing the full veil. Some Socialist and Communist MPs abstained, but their refusal to vote against ensured the ban’s passage through parliament. Socialist lawmaker Francois de Rugy warned that if judges overturned the law, it would be a “priceless gift to the fundamentalists we all oppose”.

Forced assimilation

While the French parliament used the pretext of women’s rights to pass the bill, its true motivation was to force the assimilation of a religious minority. National Assembly and ruling Union for Popular Movement member Jacques Myard made this very clear on the SBS Insight program on September 21: “... behind the veil you have also many other problems, like do the lady want to shake hands with men? Do they want ... separate swimming pool? Do they want to go to mixed schools? Do they want to eat next to somebody who is eating pork? This is the principle which is at stake — what kind of society do we want?”

The burqa ban is the most high profile of a series of racist measures against France’s immigrant underclass. On July 30 Sarkozy proposed stripping foreign-born citizens of their citizenship if they are convicted of “threatening the life of a police officer or other serious crimes”. In 2009 the government deported 10,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria, and it has recently escalated the deportations. EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding on September 16 branded French policies towards the Roma people as reminiscent of Nazi-era deportations. In 2004, the parliament banned the wearing of religious symbols in government schools, which while ostensibly applying equally to Christians, Jews and Sikhs, actually targeted Muslim women who chose to wear head scarves. The following year civil unrest in impoverished predominantly Muslim African immigrant communities sparked a three-month state of emergency. Then minister of the interior Sarkozy was accused of inciting the riots by referring to poor youth in Parisian suburbs as “thugs” and “rabble”. In 2002, under a new Anglo-French agreement, Sarkozy, as minister of the interior, closed the Sangatte Red Cross refugee centre near Calais to prevent cross-Channel movement of asylum seekers.

Britain, which has the second largest European Muslim population, looks unlikely to follow the continental trend. Conservative MP Philip Hollobone has tabled a French-style bill but has received little support from either the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition or the Labour Party. In July immigration minister Damian Greene told the Sunday Telegraph, “Telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they are just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do”. Unlike France, whose Muslim population come from former African colonies, Britain’s Muslim population mostly comes from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula, where the burqa and niqab have a long cultural tradition.

‘Security’ furphy

In Australia banning the burqa is being argued on security grounds. Nile’s bill prohibits the wearing of a face covering that “conceals the identity of the person”. In May, Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi called for a ban after a burqa was used for disguise during a Sydney armed robbery.

Yet security is a furphy. Muslim women already remove face coverings for identification purposes at airports and at the request of police. In May then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that no law enforcement agency had advised him that the burqa was a security threat. According to Insight presenter Jenny Brockie, the Australian Bankers Association prohibits the wearing of motorcycle helmets in banks, not for identification, but because wearers are more difficult for police to overpower if they commit a crime.

The argument about security is a device to obscure underlying racist and sexist prejudices. In May Liberal leader Tony Abbott said he understood Bernardi’s position: “I think a lot of Australians find the wearing of the burqa pretty confronting but it’s not the subject of Coalition policy and I don’t intend that it’s going to be”. Julia Gillard agreed: “I can understand Australians that do find it a bit confronting, it’s a little different on our streets.” In August, Ameer Ali, Murdoch University economics lecturer and vice-president of the Regional Islamic Council of South-East Asia and the Pacific, called for a burqa ban because the burqa and niqab are “the lingering relics of a patriarchal, misogynistic and tribal culture”. In June 2009 prominent journalist and feminist Virginia Haussegger published an opinion piece in the Canberra Times calling for a ban, because the niqab and burqa are “tools of patriarchy used to subjugate women” and “an aggressive way of saying I will not integrate into your society, and I care nothing for the cultural mores and social traditions of this country”.

No defenders of the ban value the right of a small minority of Australian women to practise their religion as they see fit and wear what they choose. “Feminist” arguments to ban the burqa are a veneer for restricting the dress and lifestyle choices of Muslim women. Proponents are committing the same sexist offences of which they accuse male relatives of burqa-wearing women. Legislating against the spiritual choices of Muslim women makes them targets for physical attack, verbal abuse and state-sanctioned persecution. The ban is not about women’s liberation but about using a “confronting” image to confuse and divide leftists and feminists, manipulate public opinion about Islamic communities and whip up racist hysteria.