The wave of face veil bans continues to ride high. On April 29, the lower house of Parliament in Beligum passed a law banning the wearing of anything “with the face fully or partly covered so as to render them no longer recognizable” in public. Although not explicitly saying so, it is widely understood to mean banning the niqab, or full body veil which includes everything but a slit for the eyes. Muslims around the world condemned the law as an infringement upon religious freedom. Said Isabelle Praile, Vice President of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, to the Kuwait news agency KUNA: “This measure which comes in the middle of a government crisis is a violation of liberties and fundamental rights of Muslims by some persons.”
Politicians in Belgium deny it is discrimination against Muslims. “It’s not about introducing any form of discrimination,” said Daniel Bacquelaine, author of the bill. He said: “We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen.” He also added:”Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society.” A similar ban has already been proposed in France, and other European countries are considering similar measures. It has even been proposed to introduce a Europe-wide ban on the niqab. The Belgian bill would fine anyone with the niqab 15-20 Euros or face a week in jail.
The niqab is worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in Belgium: some estimate the number who wear the niqab at about 100. Overall, Muslims in Belgium number approximately 400-500,000 out of a population of 10 million. Yet, this issue is so important that the lower house of Parliament voted 141-0 for the ban, with two abstentions.
I must disclose: I personally feel the niqab is a cultural practice that has taken on religious significance for some women. Although there are scholars who do advocate the wearing of the niqab for women, they are not even a plurality, let alone a majority. I am personally opposed to the niqab in the West. That being said, whatever my personal feelings about the niqab, what right do the authorities have to prevent a woman from freely choosing to wear the niqab? If the Belgian law required women wearing the niqab to reveal their faces in such places as banks, schools, hospitals, and the like, it would be understandable.
But the Belgian law forbids women from wearing the niqab in public places like parks. How is this consistent with, in the words of Daniel Bacquelaine, “compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society”? When the newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed the infamous cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Danish media stood almost completely united in rejecting calls to apologize for the cartoons, in the name of “freedom of speech.” When a Danish newspaper apologized for printing the “bomb in the turban” cartoon, it was uniformly condemned:
A Danish newspaper on Friday apologized for offending Muslims by reprinting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban, rekindling heated debate about the limits of freedom of speech… Politiken editor in chief Toeger Seidenfaden told The Associated Press that the paper was apologizing for the offense caused by the cartoon – not the decision to reprint it.
“We have the right to print Kurt Westergaard’s drawings, we have the right to print the original 12 drawings, we have the right to print all the caricatures in the world,” he said. “We apologize for the offense which the reprint has caused. That is what we apologize for.”
Seidenfaden said Politiken considered the statement a “unique chance” to foster a dialogue on the issue and reduce tensions between Denmark and the Muslim world.
Critics blasted the decision.
“Politiken’s pathetic prostrating before a Saudi lawyer takes the first prize in stupidity,” said Joern Mikkelsen, editor in chief of Jyllands-Posten, which first printed the 12 cartoons.
At Copenhagen newspaper Berlingske Tidende, chief editor Lisbeth Knudsen called the apology “embarrassing and shameful.” And Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard, head of the Danish Union of Journalists, said Politiken was “kneeling before opponents of the freedom of press.”
Westergaard, who earlier this year had to lock himself inside a safe room when an ax-wielding attacker broke into his home, said he believed the apology was prompted by fear.
“I fear this is a setback for the freedom of speech,” Westergaard told AP.
In an interview, Chicago Tribune Scott Stantis was asked whether he would draw the Prophet Muhammad. He answered: “Yes. Because I have a right to.” Don’t Muslim women also have a right to wear the niqab if they freely choose to? According to lawmakers in Belgium – and increasingly in Europe – they say unequivocally “No.”
Is not this glaringly hypocritical? Is freedom only for a select few? Does not freedom also apply to Muslims in Europe, who allegedly live in “an open, liberal, tolerant society”? Or is this a case of: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”?
Politicians in Europe want to have it both ways; they want to have their cake and eat it, too. Freedom does not work that way. If cartoonists are free to insult the Prophet Muhammad (like they did in droves with a recent Facebook campaign), then Muslim women should be free to wear niqab if they choose to do so. Otherwise, we will have to ask them to cover up: their hatred is showing.