Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Banning face-coverings in France: a complex issue

On April 11, 2011, the Government of France officially banned the public wearing of full-face-coverings. The stated reasons behind this move were that wearing a mask over the face does not allow the person to be identified and thus is a security hazard. Also, it was seen as protecting women's rights, as some Muslim women were thought to be forced to wear this type of outfit, known as a niqab, or burqa.

The fine for wearing such a veil is up to 150 euros. However, the fine for forcing a woman to wear such an outfit can reach up to 30,000 euros.

The law passed with almost no opposition in the National Assembly - 335 to 1, and then the Senate passed the law with a margin of 246-1. A Pew Research Poll revealed that about 80% of French were in support of this law. However, it does present challenges.

Many see the law as a reaction against Islamic extremism. In fact, even the Grand Mufti of Paris said that this type of face-covering veil is not prescribed in Islam anywhere and that it is a cultural phenomenon, which he believes comes from radicalized sectors of Muslim society. On this basis, he supports the ban. However, he believes it should be addressed in a case-by-case basis.

Many other countries have either enacted similar legislation, are considering it, or have considered it in the past. These countries include Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, the UK, and Switzerland.

Although this is a difficult issue for several reasons, ultimately I am against the ban, and I will explain why shortly. First, I was surprised to see certain sources which claim Pope Benedict XVI is against this ban. These sources are a little spurious, but they claim he said this in his book Light of the World.

I do not have any reason to doubt that he made these comments. During the controversy over minarets on mosques in Switzerland, the pope said he was against banning them.

The general idea behind all of this is that the Church advocates freedom of religion everywhere in the world. Religion cannot be forced on someone and it is a true human freedom to worship freely. The pope and the Church in general view the banning of religious expression as a bad thing. In the French case, they estimate in all of France only about 2,000 women wear a full face-covering and that these people are concentrated in specific regions of the country.

I believe that the backlash from this could be greater than the benefits achieved. You see, in many Muslim countries, Christians are persecuted and held as second-class citizens. With freedom of religion in "developed" countries, there is pressure placed on Islamic countries to allow more freedom also. However, once we curtail religious expression in Western countries, the Islamic ones have an excuse to do the same.

Propaganda is a very powerful tool. Much of the rhetoric which creates Muslim extremists is that their kinsmen are being oppressed by the "Great Satan", which is the United States and its allies. We only end up fueling the flames when we make laws like this.

A radical Muslim cleric could incite hatred and violence by proclaiming that in the West, we are banning minarets, and niqabs. We are limiting the rights of Muslims. This not only gives them the right to limit Christians' freedom in those countries, but also to lash out violently.

Having said all of that, I do not believe that our morals must change to suit the squeaky wheel. In other words, we should not change our way of life or bend over backwards because a gang of terrorists threatens to hurt us. Caving into these demands only makes things worse and worse. We must stand for what's right.

Ultimately, I think we must guarantee freedom of religion if we are to expect it ourselves. Freedom of religion does not mean we must give into every whim of any religion. Rather it allows people to make their own choices concerning dress, eating habits, etc. I believe if we extend generous freedoms to Muslims, they will be more inclined to do so in their countries for large Christian minorities.

Also, I think in a case like this, there is common ground. As I mentioned earlier, the Grand Mufti of Paris said he is opposed to the wearing of such veils also because they contradict his religion. Instead of the Government unilaterally enacting this law and appearing to curtail religious freedom, it could work with people like this mufti to present this idea in a coherent and convincing way which will gain support from the Muslim community. Also, legitimate concern could be expressed over forced wearing of such clothing by members of the minority community. These issues would be seen from the vantage point of human rights rather than religious freedom and thus cause less friction.

This is admittedly a difficult situation. There are legitimate concerns about people covering their faces in public. There is also the issue of national sovereignty. Countries cannot accommodate the desires of each person and form a different law for each one. This would result in absurdity of course. People should expect to live by the laws of the land. Freedom of religion is a basic human right and must be given to each person. Developed nations must lead this charge. We cannot create tit-for-tat laws. I heard someone say well in Saudi Arabia women are forced to wear face-coverings even if they are Christian, therefore we have the right to force them to take off their face-covering. This is illogical because morals are not based on doing the opposite of what someone else is doing. Morals are based on absolute right vs. absolute wrong. We must be the example that Muslim countries strive for, rather than seeking one-ups-manship.

In conclusion, I will just say that I believe religious freedom is a universal right. Also, although I do believe in a state's right to create laws, I believe this particular law may have more negative consequences than positive. It will simply be fodder to make lives worse for Christians in other countries. We, as Christians, must give example to the world.

Jesus said, "I have given you example". We now follow his example. We too must again give example to the world, and ultimately they may respond in kind.


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