Movements are underway all over the world to ban the wearing in public of the burqa, the niqab, and other garments worn by some Muslim women. Most recently, the lower house of Belgium’s parliament has just passed a burqa ban, although it will not become law unless / until it is also passed by the upper house.
Well-intentioned or not, these efforts are misguided and extremely dangerous, and Jews should be especially concerned about them.
Numerous justifications for these bans have been proffered. Leaving aside the ones that are obviously and overtly racist, intolerant, and Islamophobic (all of which essentially boil down to “Go back where you came from if you don’t want to dress like everybody else, you dirty Muslim terrorist scum!”), all that remains are these:
- The burka, niqab and the like are nothing more than devices for oppressing women, and civilized societies should not allow such oppression to take place.
- Whole-body garments represent a security threat. People with illicit intent can hide themselves as well as dangerous objects (weapons, bombs, etc.) underneath them, and thus they should not be permitted.
- Whole-body garments are not really required by Islam. They derive from a warped interpretation of Islam practiced by only a few radicals, and therefore banning them is not a question of religious freedom.
Let’s demolish these one at a time, shall we?
The burqa is a device for oppressing women
Yes, it is. So what?
Freedom of religion includes the freedom to choose to be oppressed by one’s religion. The women wearing burqas are just that, women, adults, people, and they have the right to choose a religion which requires them to walk around covered head to toe in black.
“But they didn’t choose,” you say. “They’re forced to wear the burqa by their families!” Really? Do you mean to say that a Muslim woman living in Belgium, or the U.K., or Italy, or the Netherlands, all countries where burqa bans have been considered, can’t wake up one morning and say to herself, “You know what? This is not my religion. I don’t believe in it. I don’t want to practice it. I’m out of here!” and walk out the door? Of course she can.
“But the social pressure is too strong! She won’t be able to support herself! Her husband won’t grant her a divorce! She’ll be shunned by her community!” Those are real problems, but they’re not problems that are unique to Muslim women. They’re shared by anyone in a strong religious community who chooses to leave it. For that matter, to a large extent they’re problems that are shared by any woman who chooses to walk out of a marriage for any reason.
If you want to talk about instituting better protections and assistance for women trying to separate themselves from strict religious communities or abusive marriages, I think that’s a great idea, but it has nothing to do with banning burqas.
On the question of whether women “choose” to wear the burqa, consider that many, many young Saudi Arabian women are sent to the United States to be educated in American colleges and universities. The vast majority of them (a) are appalled by American society and culture and (b) happily and willingly return to Saudi Arabia, a country where all women wear the burqa and are not allowed to drive cars, and spend their lives there when they are done studying.
Cultures which are morally offended by the burqa are themselves viewed as morally offensive and corrupt by many of the women who wear them. “Liberating” those women by prohibiting them from wearing the burqa in public doesn’t free them from oppression. Rather, it replaces the oppression of the culture they’ve chosen with the oppression of one they haven’t.
Speaking of oppression from mainstream culture, what do you think women who believe they are religiously obligated to wear the burqa will do when they suddenly find themselves living in a country where they are no longer allowed to wear them in public? No, they won’t suddenly go dancing through the streets wearing jeans and halter tops. In fact, they won’t go dancing through the streets at all — they’ll be stuck at home, since they’ll no longer be able to go out in public. Either that, or they’ll continue to wear their burqas and be subject to fines and/or imprisonment. Does that sound liberating?
Burqas are a security threat
Do I really need to comment on this? Really?
Requiring police to get a search warrant before they ransack someone’s property is a security threat.
Throwing out evidence seized in an illegal search is a security threat.
Allowing people to encrypt their email and private files is a security threat.
Allowing people to have private telephone conversations that aren’t monitored by the government is a security threat.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a security threat.
Suicide bombers in Israel have disguised themselves as women and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Should we therefore ban people from dressing like women or wearing traditional ultra-Orthodox garb in public?
Palestinians have smuggled explosives inside ambulances. Should we therefore prohibit ambulances from operating in the West Bank?
Robbers in America like to wear pantyhose or bandannas over their faces. Should we therefore ban the sale of pantyhose and bandannas?
The rights granted to law-abiding individuals in a civilized society make it harder to catch the bad guys. This is axiomatic, a given, a truism, a tautology that is so obvious that it’s absurd that I have to spell it out, but apparently I do.
Leaving that aside, does anyone seriously believe that prohibiting people from wearing burqas will prevent bad guys from disguising themselves or transporting contraband? Is a burqa is more effective at transporting explosives or a gun than a backpack would be? Please, don’t be ridiculous.
In his security argument for banning the burqa, Daniel Pipes offers a few cases of men using burqas to disguise themselves and then absurdly argues that these few isolated incidents justify banning burqas for everyone. In addition to this argument being absurd from the point of view of statistics and civil liberties, there’s another reason why it should be dismissed out of hand. Pipes glosses over the fact that the criminals in the two most prominent cases he cites, Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz Ghazi and Yassin Omar, were both caught despite their attempt to disguise themselves in burqas. It would seem that law-enforcement authorities are capable of overcoming the challenge of apprehending burqa-clad terrorists. Some Like It Hot, anyone?
Banning burqas only discriminates against “radicals” practicing “warped” Islam
Question: When, exactly, did freedom of religion come to mean that people who don’t practice a particular religion have the right to tell the people who do that their religion is “warped” or “radical” and therefore they do not have the right to practice it?
Answer: Never. That’s not freedom of religion.
The majority of Jews in many countries would not care if circumcision, which is described by many people as radical, warped, cruel, inhumane, oppressive, etc., were banned. Some Jews even agree with those characterizations of circumcision. Where burqas are banned, circumcision is next.
The large majority of Jews in most countries would not care if shchita (kosher meat slaughtering), which is described by many as radical, warped, cruel, inhumane, oppressive, etc., were banned. Some Jews even agree with those characterizations of shchita. Where burqas are banned, shchita is next.
Consider the lesson of Purim:
And Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be. If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them, and I will weigh out ten thousand silver talents into the hands of those who perform the work, to bring [it] into the king’s treasuries.”
The Islamophobic tactics being used to oppress Muslims all over the world resemble those that have been used to oppress Jews throughout the ages. For us to stand idly by and watch, or even worse to support them, is not only morally wrong, it’s also against our self-interests. Any tactic used successfully anywhere to oppress any minority group is eventually used against Jews. We forget this at our peril.