Can it Be Justified? The European Debate Over the Burka

by Martín Saps

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has proposed a ban on Burkas, claiming that the full headdress rejects what is “necessary for our society’s coexistence”. Maiziere, a member of the Center-Right Political Party Cristian Democratic Union (the same party as Chancellor Angela Merkel), and his backers argue that German secular society values showing one’s face; someone who completely conceals their face cannot possibly be integrated into mainstream society.

While opponents complain that the law violates many Muslim Women’s freedom of religion, advocates argue that certain social codes take precedence over religious beliefs if those religious practices are directly in contrast with societal values. For instance, in Reynolds v. United States, the U.S Supreme Court marked the limits of freedom of religion by ruling that a Mormon man could not legally be married to more than one woman even if it was in adherence with his religious beliefs: namely, that religion did not take precedence over national law. While obviously ruled in a different country, the decision reveals the extent to which Western Liberal Democracies should allow religious freedom.

Given that, under western liberal principles, Germany has a philosophical right to ban the Burka if it deems it obstructive to society, the question becomes whether the prohibition achieves its desired goals. After all, this potential infringement on the freedom of worship can only be justified insofar as it serves a constructive purpose. As previously stated, the proposed “Burka Ban”, along with recent sister legislation in France banning the “burkini” have legally been justified as enforcing certain societal standards that are necessary for a secular mainstream society. Proponents would likely compare the ban to a prohibition on teaching religion in public schools: okay to be done in the privacy of one’s home but incompatible with the teachings of a secular society. Similarly, they claim that the ban is not specifically aimed at Islam itself but rather at a religious tradition that deliberately obstructs integration into German society.

In France, the Burka has been illegal in public since 2010; but if the goal was to greater integrate Muslims into society, it has not done a very good job.

The Burka had no impact on why the Muslim community in France did and continues to be painted as pariahs, and prohibiting the garment was not constructive.

Supporters of the ban claimed that many women were forced to wear the Burka by their husbands or fathers and thus banning it would free them from the constraints of not being able to show their faces – a supposition rooted in a secular western way of seeing the world, which of course, Burka wearers do not adhere to. Even if the “women’s freedom” claim is true, the law is unlikely to solve the problem and may even make it worse; if a man is religious enough to force his wife and daughter to wear Burkas (especially when less complete garments such as the Hijab are worn by French Muslim women all of the time), he will choose to prevent his wife from going out rather than opt to have her not wear a Burka. This ban has obvious adverse effects on Muslim Women’s’ freedom; but proponents of the Ban justify it using secular language in a clear bias against Muslims.

graphic final 2
Art by Andrea Acevedo

The debate takes on a new dimension when one considers Nice’s mayor’s remarks about the Burkini ban, referring to it as “necessary in light of the recent attacks”. These arguments have been echoed by several German politicians including Thomas de Maiziere, who referred to the proposed ban as a “preventative measure [against terrorism]”. When one even begins to think about these arguments, it becomes obvious that they are illogical. Banning the Burka or Burkini does absolutely nothing to curb the spread of radical Islam. Moreover, the ban in no way hinders jihadists from carrying out attacks, especially considering that the attackers are almost always male. These arguments reveal the hidden motives of ban proposers: to play into populist anti-Muslim sentiment by banning outward symbols of Islam; in light of recent attacks, politicians have attempted to prohibit distinct Muslim garb to make Islam seem less present and thus to make people feel more safe. While it may succeed in this aspect, sheltering people from the oversimplified perceived threat of an entire religion does not provide sufficient utility to justify policies specifically aimed at practicers of a certain faith. 

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While the Burka and Burkini bans can philosophically be justified as essential to a socially open society, it is clear that they are deliberately aimed at Muslims in a reaction against the Islamic community’s alleged failure to properly integrate into mainstream French and German society. Whatever the reasons for that may be, it is evident that insofar as the Bans do not achieve their desired goal (and may actually be counterproductive) and are rooted in anti-Islamic sentiment, they are illegitimate and unjust.

Martín Saps is a Uruguayan-American studying Politics (with minors in History and Philosophy) at Bates College. He is a member of the Rugby and Debate Teams and hopes to pursue a career in in print media. He has published in both English and Spanish on topics ranging from the Islamic State’s presence in Bangladesh to Affirmative Action. He loves writing because it gives him the opportunity to share his perspective on politics, history, and current events with readers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

One thought on “Can it Be Justified? The European Debate Over the Burka

  1. guestpeaker says:

    The burkini/burqini has nothing to do with the burqa/burka. Many people are mistaken that a burkini would also cover the face and would be a dressing where weapons could be hidden.

    The burqa/burka for obvious safety reasons should be forbidden in many countries and then the law should be controlled and taken action when people still wear the burka, and not like in Belgium, where it is already forbidden for several years, but nobody does something when a person walks in a burka.

    To ban the burkini is going in against all common sense of democratic freedom and freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Worse is it, like in France, where Catholic nuns are allowed on the beaches and on the streets with more body covering than those who wear a burkini, the same as some actresses protecting their body for the sun (like Madonna) were allowed to have more covering than the Muslim women, which proofs that it is more a racist action and discrimination against a group of people who want to dress according to their faith.

    The burkini can in no way be called a dangerous dress of for the public dangerous swimwear. If such covered bodies are considered not according morals and ethic values, than we should seriously question those secularised morals of those saying such a thing, certainly when they allow provocative and sex-accenting clothing, but are against less un-ethic clothing.

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