A war over religious rights
France was the first country to ban the religious dress. Since the French Revolution in 1789, France has adhered to the strict principle of Laicite, or the separation of religion and the state. It is unconstitutional to display religious symbols in public places in France. The Christian cross is not to be displayed at schools and in public places.
But when France banned the wearing of religious clothing such as hijabs and burqas, Muslims fiercely protested that it is tantamount to religious persecution. In 2009, then-president of France Sarkozy said on burqas, “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” A ban on burqas was legislated and enforced on April 1, 2011. A woman who violates the law and wears the full-body covering is subject to a fine of 150 euros ($204), and the law also penalizes anyone who forces women to wear the covering with a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($40,800).
Some Muslims brought the case to the European Court, arguing that the ban was discriminatory, but the EU Court upheld the French law earlier in July on grounds that the covering violates the human rights of women. After the decision, EU members like Germany and Austria, as well as non-EU member Switzerland, are preparing similar bans.
These countries receive many wealthy Muslim visitors who spend a fortune on tourism and shopping. Therefore, opponents argue that the law, which affects some 100 Muslims wearing burqas in the country, could hurt tourism income. But supporters claim that the human rights and dignity of women must be protected. They say people should be able to talk face to face, not through a veil.
But the anti-foreigner and anti-Islamic trend is spreading. Liberals in Europe criticize that the purpose of the burqa ban is not to regulate the religious dress but to stoke fear of Islam. While ongoing conflict in the Middle East, a series of terror attacks by Islamic extremist groups, civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and overall instability in the Islamic world certainly create a negative impression, Europe has been making a conservative swing in general lately. Europe is built on Christianity and values human rights, while the Islamic world claims religious persecution. The two worlds are still far apart.
*The author is a chair professor at Duksung Women’s University.
BY RHIE WON-BOK
JoongAng Ilbo, July 10, Page 28