- Published on Thursday, 29 September 2011 06:28
- Category: Letters From the Netherlands
It is hard to find someone who is apathetic when it comes to the wearing of a burqa. Some countries, like Saudi-Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban, promote wearing one. Other countries, like France, Belgium and Syria ban it (it should be noted that the burqa is not the same as hijab - the latter is a headscarf; the former is is a full body, tent-like covering). Some Islamic scholars argue the burqa is compulsory, others, most notably the late head of Egypt’s al-Azhar University, Muhammad Tantawi, denounce it as un-Islamic.
Recently, the debate has flared up in the Netherlands, where the government is planning on banning the burqa, together with the niqab (full face covering), motorcycle helmets, and balaclavas in public places. Those caught breaking the law will be fined €380, or $522.
Piet Hein Donner, the government minister forced to explain the new law, presented the reasons for the law in a manner that was not only disappointing, but perhaps even treasonous. Donner explained that it was against “Dutch custom” to cover one’s face, and since so few women wore the burqa (an estimated 150 in the entire Netherlands), he reasoned that religious freedom was an insufficient reason not to ban it. In other words, any behaviour that is deemed to be against “Dutch custom” can now be marked as a criminal offense as far as this government is concerned.
Not only is such a position unethical, it is completely at odds with the founding principles of the Dutch state (indeed of every modern state). First of all, Donner’s point about “Dutch custom” (I use apostrophes because like the soon-to-be-Queen Maxima, I believe that it is impossible to define that concept) is nonsensical since there are many such customs and they differ from each other like day and night. In an case, it’s impossible to force people to maintain certain customs while at the same time promoting the virtue of freedom. Even Donner seemed to recognize this fact when he made an exception in the law for the festivals of Carnival and Sinterklaas.
But even if that were not the case and there were such a thing as a unanimously accepted concept of “Dutch custom” regarding headwear, then that would mean the government’s decision to ban the burqa because only a minority wears it is a direct violation of the Rechtsstaat (or “constitutional state”), which is meant to protect the rights of minorities. It is, in other words, against the law.
Then there’s the issue of the Dutch government deciding what is or what is not “Islamic.” Donner’s argument that “most Muslims don’t wear the burqa” (not that he bothered citing any scholarly opinion on the matter) puts him in the position of trying to tell someone how to be religious. The Netherlands is a secular state where people wearing hijabs can be refused a government job because government employees are not allowed to show any bias towards any religion. Donner’s suggestion that he can decide when people may attempt to defend themselves with freedom of religion is an argument that should sway no one. In fact it can be deemed a criminal offense.
When explaining the ban to the press, Donner likened it to walking naked down the street (“which is also not allowed”) as if it has even remotely the same consequences. He also compared the need for the law with not acting promptly against the use of soft drugs (“now there are coffee shops everywhere”) as though wearing the burqa is somehow highly addictive. I feel offended at such a childish level of reasoning at what is supposed to be the highest level of Dutch politics.
I am not a proponent of the burqa myself. Aside from whether it is mandatory in Islam or not, it can obviously cause problems at times when identification is necessary. It also sends a message to a lot of people, consciously or not, that the wearer would rather set herself apart from the mainstream culture of the country in which they live. And while the burqa’s association with motorcycle helmets and balaclavas, which have been used to disguise criminals during crimes, is rather far-fetched in the Netherlands, there have been instances in the Middle East where the burqa has been used as disguise for criminals or even suicide bombers. But none of these concerns have been cited by the government as a reason for the ban. Nor do these concerns have to be addressed with a complete ban. After all, who is the government to tell people how to dress?
There has been a response to the ban, most notably from Rachid Nekkaz who has already paid fines for women caught wearing burqas in France. A Dutch carnival store has ingeniously put up burqas for sale so that people wearing them can show, with the receipt if necessary, that it passes as carnival clothing. It is nice to see there are those who are willing to stand for individual rights, even if that individual is in a very small minority. Still, as a Dutch citizen, I would have preferred it if people like these were actually in the government. Some people just veil to see freedom.
By Lennart Proot, Aslan Media Contributor