Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Belgium bans the burqa (UPDATED)

Only in Europe can legislation restricting your freedom to make your own choices be construed as granting you more freedom.

A top committee of Belgian lawmakers voted Wednesday to impose a nationwide ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.

The federal parliament's home affairs committee voted unanimously to endorse a proposal from liberal members to ban any clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.

Officials say the draft law will probably be put to a vote of the full house on April 22.

"This is a very strong signal that is being sent to Islamists," French-speaking liberal deputy Denis Ducarme told the assembly in Brussels.

He said he was "proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter."

"We have to free women of this burden," said his colleague Corinne De Parmentier.

Next up: a law requiring Belgians to eat meat and drink alcohol. (So long as they're saving Muslims from their limiting, retrograde cultural practices, why not Hindus too?)

Good luck with all that, d-bags.

UPDATE: Lil usefully notes that this hasn't actually been passed into law (yet), but rather just validated by the parliament's home affairs committee.

33 comments:

  1. It actually hasn't happened yet--the law went through the relevant parliamentary committee... I'm not saying it won't pass and I'm not saying I agree, I'm just saying it hasn't been banned yet.

    On a related note, the French Conseil d'Etat has advised against passage of such comprehensive legislation (prohibiting wearing one on the street). This article, in Le Monde, explains: http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2010/03/30/voile-integral-le-conseil-d-etat-rejette-l-interdiction-generale_1326228_3224.html#ens_id=1245449

    No time for translation but basically the Conseil advised that provisions should be made for obtaining ID papers or other individual government services, ensuring the right person is picking the kid up at school, etc.

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  2. It actually hasn't happened yet--the law went through the relevant parliamentary committee... I'm not saying it won't pass and I'm not saying I agree, I'm just saying it hasn't been banned yet.

    Sorry, you're right. I was a little too quick reading that one.

    On a related note, the French Conseil d'Etat has advised against passage of such comprehensive legislation (prohibiting wearing one on the street).

    I've read about this, and I think it's surprisingly sensible. I don't think anyone has a problem with making exceptions for reasons of public safety and so on (let's be serious: you can't have your face covered in identity documents).

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  3. What sort of laws on free speech do they have in Belgium?

    I'm free-associating here, but rather than letting different ideas play out - vigorously - in the public square, is the state using its power to shape the argument (as it always does.)

    I'm not putting this very well. Do you all get what I am saying? Do I get what I am saying?

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  4. Madhu - The US takes a more absolute approach to free speech than most other liberal democracies. The rest have a more consequentialist philosophy based on a reading of history that sees some forms of hate speech (for example) as infringing on the rights of others (often lethally) and therefore restricts them. Different countries come down in different places on the spectrum, and often in ways that are culturally and historically specific (e.g. German laws regarding Holocaust denial).

    Actually Quebec is out front on with regard to the law, having banned niqabs and burqas when receiving government services (including schools, medical care, and voting) and working a government job. Somewhat less restrictive than then the Belgian law, but still in that direction. A recent poll found 80% of Canadians support the law. A couple of articles below:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/tories-liberals-back-quebecs-veil-ban/article1514265/

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebec-rights-body-rules-against-veil-in-health-card-case/article1502119/

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebec/quebecs-view-on-niqab-creates-fault-line/article1506700/

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  5. Earlier this month the FT reported (available below) that 70% of France favored a burka ban while 65% of Spain, 63% of Italy, 57% of Britain, and 50% of Germany did. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e0c0e732-254d-11df-9cdb-00144feab49a.html

    All I am saying is that these percentages, which are most likely varied since the poll date, provide momentum. I think the US needs to begin having this conversation in order to get it right once the issue arrives here. Above all, I do not think it is a religious-centered issue but mainly a matter of population and demographics. Religion is a talking point that serves as a justification or non-justification.

    People associate "identity" with what they see, and Belgium is the first to probably think its identity is at stake.

    Challenge me if I am off-base.

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  6. By all means, let's start impinging individual freedoms when it's popular to do so! After all, democracy is more important than liberty, right?

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  7. DP -- I should note that my last was more a response to MK than to you, though I suppose it doesn't look like that.

    If I understand you correctly, you're saying that polling can help legislators keep the law in line with public sentiment. My point is that on occasion, it's the responsibility of mature statesmen to try to keep public sentiment in line with the national ideal, or with what we might call a charitable democratic spirit. To recognize that populist race-baiting (and the ethno-religious equivalents) are destructive to civilized discourse and behavior, and to try to swim against the tide.

    Then again, democracy doesn't exactly provide incentives in this direction, so we're dependent on the decency of our representatives.

    So go ahead and forget I said all that, I guess.

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  8. Gulliver, in terms of Quebec-style law regarding public institutions and public services, there are some arguments in favor that have some merit. I agree democratic popularity shouldn't be the determinant of fundamental freedoms, but that ship sailed long, long ago. I think DP's point isn't to support a ban per se, but for the US to have a conversation before it gets overheated around a 'hard case' (renowned for making bad law).

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  9. Oh, well then - it's on! ; )

    I was just noting the poll numbers, not suggesting that it had bearing on the inherent merit of the law. Given Canadian political culture, I was surprised to see the number that high, or even that a majority is in favor. I think the reason is because the ban is limited to public services, and not private life.

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  10. I'm so torn on this issue. I am all for not denying individuals the freedom to wear whatever stupid article of clothing they want. But the burqa really is the embodiment of insensible oppression of women, and is representative of a culture that treats women like expensive furniture rather than as human beings. I honestly feel that anyone who disagrees with my position is either a strict Muslim or a moral relativist of the worst sort.

    The burqa, if someone wanted to wear it for x reason, should be available. What shouldn't be available is a culture that deems women as objects of lust that need to be covered. Fuck that. Take your shitty culture back to your 13th century caves. And Muslim women can be hot as hell, I don’t want to see them covered. That’s such a waste of talent.

    -Deus Ex

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  11. I am all for not denying individuals the freedom to wear whatever stupid article of clothing they want. But the burqa really is the embodiment of insensible oppression of women, and is representative of a culture that treats women like expensive furniture rather than as human beings. I honestly feel that anyone who disagrees with my position is either a strict Muslim or a moral relativist of the worst sort.

    So you're all for the freedom to wear whatever stupid thing you want... as long as it's not REALLY stupid?

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  12. Um, doesn't it depend on the free will of a woman? Granted, that is curtailed in some societies and societal obligation and pressure are difficult things (ask any woman that wears make-up, or gets implants or botox all about that!), but if a woman chooses of her own free will to wear something, then I guess it ought to be upt to her.

    Vigorous free speech is the answer: if you think it oppressive, preach it brother, preach it and teach it, but don't ban it.

    The older - and crankier - I get, the more libertarian I seem to become. The petty bureaucrats of the state just muddle and meddle until you can't even breathe.

    Sorry for the rant, wasn't directed at anyone in particular, but somehow I felt the need.

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  13. Um, doesn't it depend on the free will of a woman? Granted, that is curtailed in some societies and societal obligation and pressure are difficult things (ask any woman that wears make-up, or gets implants or botox all about that!), but if a woman chooses of her own free will to wear something, then I guess it ought to be upt to her.

    I'm absolutely with Madhu here. I can tell you, for a certain fact, that it's already illegal for anyone to use physical coercion to compel a woman to wear a burqa. Prosecute that crime if you want to be a culture warrior.

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  14. I don't want to single you out Deus Ex, but....

    "The burqa, if someone wanted to wear it for x reason, should be available. What shouldn't be available is a culture that deems women as objects of lust that need to be covered. Fuck that. Take your shitty culture back to your 13th century caves. And Muslim women can be hot as hell, I don’t want to see them covered. That’s such a waste of talent."

    Do you see any contradictions in what you wrote? About being objects and such?

    :) just needling you a little....

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  15. I don't think it's that simple. We (Westerners) tend to conceptualize ourselves as fully autonomous individuals in line with liberal Enlightenment traditions, free to make personal choices without costs. We neglect the social networks in which we're embedded that shape and constrain those choices even where the force of law isn't involved. The relative balance between individual identity and social identity varies hugely across circumstances and individuals, but I'd argue that social identity tends to be stronger than individual identity for most people. While encouraging stronger individual identities is the preferable option, completely neglecting social identities in public policy (e.g. allowing them to operate without any recognition and management of their positive and/or pernicious effects) seems like a self-defeating brand of liberalism to me.

    I'm not arguing for all out government regulation of social identity (e.g. totalitarianism), but given that a minimum level of social capital is required for a healthy society and functional democracy, some consensus about the bounds of accommodation for alternatives seems a reasonable subject for public policy.

    More simply, if you disagree with these laws, what do you suggest bus drivers checking transit ID, or teachers managing classes (or teaching languages!) do when confronted with someone in veil?

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  16. It's interesting to me that Turkey has similar laws (current or future) but completely different motivations underpinning those laws.

    Or are the motivations actually the same? Turkey wants to be seen as Western - Western could be defined as "democratic." (Democratic in quotations to show solidarity with Gulliver et al's thoughts on the importance of liberties to do crazy things such as cover you head in the democracy equation.)

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  17. "Um, doesn't it depend on the free will of a woman? Granted, that is curtailed in some societies and societal obligation and pressure are difficult things (ask any woman that wears make-up, or gets implants or botox all about that!), but if a woman chooses of her own free will to wear something, then I guess it ought to be upt to her."

    There lies the problem! I strongly suspect that if these women were able to search their souls and ask themselves objectively if wearing a smothering burqa is what they wish to don every time they go out in public, I highly doubt they would say yes!

    They carry their culture with them into these Western countries, and along with their culture they're most likely in small enclaves of their own people. A government cannot measure and cannot stop societal pressure upon these women. Shit, just look at some of the stories of some Muslim girls who do minor (by Western standards) things to shame their families with their "abhorrent" sexuality: they're murked in a terribly violent fashion. Just look at what a Catholic sexual education can do to girls. Some of the shame I’ve witnessed regarding sexuality is quite astounding.

    We cannot gauge if a woman will suffer horrendously at her husband’s hands if she refuses to wear her burqa. Read the book “Murder in Amsterdam” by Baruma. One of the things I noticed from the book is the intense levels of household violence/abuse those women suffer. They’re 100% dependent upon their husbands in these foreign countries, and have no choice but to endure.

    -Deus Ex

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  18. Deus Ex -- So I take this to mean that you agree with the Belgian politicians cited in the article, and believe that the government can and must liberate women from the oppression of their culture by banning those things the government believes (in its total and infallible judgment from outside that culture) to be stifling or unfair.

    I hope you don't like strip clubs! (Maybe that's not a good comparison; I don't suppose there's as much money in the burqa business.)

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  19. It's interesting to me that Turkey has similar laws (current or future) but completely different motivations underpinning those laws.

    Or are the motivations actually the same? Turkey wants to be seen as Western - Western could be defined as "democratic."


    Turkey's intent was (/is?) to separate public life from religion. European do-gooders' and American conservatives' intent is to a) "save" women from oppression by their alien and obviously retrograde culture, and b) preserve "Western" culture and values against erosion, infiltration, and/or infection by weird-looking foreign-ness. So yeah, I think there are a lot of people calling for the same thing with a wide range of justifications.

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  20. Gulliver,

    See my first post, which stated in no uncertain terms that I am "torn" on the issue. In fact, if I had to vote on the issue, I wouldn't vote to ban the burqa. Then again, I'm not living in an area where I see on a daily basis women in burqas. Headscarfs? I see them at least a few days a week.

    Last I checked no one forces strippers to shake their cheeks. The only people I blame for there being strippers are guys with terrible game who would pay money for pussy, the fathers of strippers, and of course the women doing the stripping. Not that stripping is oppressive or a thing that needs to be removed.

    -Deus Ex

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  21. I don't thin Turkey's intent is so simple as "separat[ing] public life from religion." I think it might be more like "not looking crazy like all those folks to the east of us."

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  22. I don't thin Turkey's intent is so simple as "separat[ing] public life from religion." I think it might be more like "not looking crazy like all those folks to the east of us."

    The latter of which is, of course, a subset of and rationale for the former.

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  23. Last I checked no one forces strippers to shake their cheeks.

    Ah, but see MK above on conceptualization and full autonomy and embedding in social networks and whatnot.

    If you think it's appropriate to "save" women from the burqa, then why not from the pole? Or the pantyhose? Or makeup? Or...?

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  24. We do try, to some extent, through the educational system and the general inculcation of social norms.

    But let's consider that there are at least two dimensions to this problem. At the individual level, I agree with you Gulliver: if women are being forced to wear burkas or niqabs, then the crime is in the forcing. But (and it's a big one), where it's enforced through social pressure rather than criminally prosecutable coercion, that becomes a lot harder.

    The second dimension is societal. First, to what degree should public (or private for that matter) systems that rely on facial recognition have to adapt to the cultural norm (and it's clearly a cultural norm, rather than religious) of any given minority? It's one thing to create an UCP turban, another to develop an entirely different system of identification.

    Moreover, in the case of Quebec, the argument extends to how being veiled affects interactions in public sphere jobs or milieus. I think it is hard if not impossible to argue that such veiling has no impact when facial expression plays such a key role in human communication. This goes to the issue of social capital I raised earlier, and in some cases (I suspect Belgium is one) to issues of integration/assimilation of immigrant communities.

    The Belgian law is a different matter, but when it comes to less universal restrictions a la Quebec or France, part of the argument does rest on an assertion by the state that, while individuals have the right to believe whatever they like, the state (and society in general) is not obliged to accommodate all of those beliefs, and may reasonably distinguish between those worthy of accommodation and those that aren't on the basis of fundamental constitutional principles (or their equivalent where formal constitutions don't exist). Ramps, close captioning and brail for the physically handicapped? Yes. The wholesale abandonment of facial identification? No.

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  25. Free speech/expression is a concept that we in America view much differently than others. I'd be curious to know how Muslim women in Belgium view the bill before I judge it through an American prism. Muslims (not people who hate Muslims) have called for burqa/headscarf bans in Canada, Egypt, and Turkey (I'm sure there are more, but those are off the top of my head). Secularists in France pushed for it to promote the French ideal of secularism. Should I be outraged that we don't allow people to yell fire in crowded theaters? Should I be outraged that we DO allow Fred Phelps's cult to spew hate at the funerals of deceased service members?

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  26. "A government cannot measure and cannot stop societal pressure upon these women." - Deus Ex

    Then what is the point of banning articles of religious expression given your arguments? Trust me, I have lot of sympathy for what you are saying and understand why you are "torn."

    I don't need to read a book to understand that cultures treat women differently. I also believe that some cultures treat women better than others - I am not a moral relativist. Where is the evidence, though, that banning achieves the objectives stated in the article? Women can be constrained, shamed, ridiculed, marginalized, and abused in many ways and the impetus leading to such behavior doesn't change because you ban - full stop - a certain article of clothing. Why not ban the more restrictive nuns' habits, too? Are women allowed to be priests in the Catholic Church? Is that discriminatory? Where does it end?

    I'm not defending the wearing of the burqa. I am saying that there is an assumption - there is that word again! - that the action will lead to a certain result. Does it? I don't know.

    "Free speech/expression is a concept that we in America view much differently than others." - Schmedlap

    In my comments above, I was expressing an opinion about what the United States should do. Other countries will have to decide what is best for themselves, obviously, but I would still ask: is the objective achieved?

    @ MK: Facial recognition and interfering with doing a job are reasons I could see for the article of clothing to be banned in specific instances - like banning the use of a cell phone or something if you are a subway car operator or something. Well, that's an imperfect analogy, I am sure there are better ones.


    - Madhu

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  27. Gulliver and gang:

    Great conversation! I do not think there is direct connection between populism and law; Socrates pretty much proved that (Plato's Apology).

    Further, and I think the real point of Plato's Apology, is that there is not always a direct connection between law and justice. The poll data merely shows what people are thinking, and as the American quantum physicist, David Bohm, believed; "[Our] thought thought actively participates in forming our perceptions, our sense of meaning and our daily actions."

    Bohm doesn't mention "identity" which is what I think this is all about. Perhaps its an age-old struggle of the survival of the fittest: the national identity of one vs. the individual/group identity of another. In the case of Belgium, nationalism might be winning but it doesn't mean this Darwinian fight needs to happen elsewhere.

    The only reason why I suggest (and urge) that America begin to have the conversation is because it is an issue our population is going to have to deal with (probably) sooner than we would like. I do not want populism to become law, because the law would not reflect justice as written in our Constitution.

    The central issue is religion in the public square, one that the US is often times uncomfortable with - and without a doubt, very passionate about. In terms of warfare, we need to get it right in order to project an accurate, timely, and effective counter narrative to prove that AQCL/affiliates suppress all types of freedoms.

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  28. Thanks for all the good input, folks. A lot here to respond to.

    MK -- to what degree should public (or private for that matter) systems that rely on facial recognition have to adapt to the cultural norm (and it's clearly a cultural norm, rather than religious) of any given minority? It's one thing to create an UCP turban, another to develop an entirely different system of identification.

    Completely agree. I might not have made myself sufficiently clear on this point, but I think it's perfectly fine to restrict wear of the burqa in pretty much any instance where you'd restrict the wear of a ski mask. You and I are roughly on the same page on this.

    Schmedlap -- Should I be outraged that we don't allow people to yell fire in crowded theaters?

    I recognize that our American conception of freedom (both of speech and expression) is different than in many other cultures and systems of law. I obviously think ours is better, or I wouldn't be so vociferous in my support for it. But I think you're on the wrong track with the "fire in a crowded theater" thing. If you're trying to point out that there are times when it's sensible to restrict freedom, then yes, I'd agree with you. I just think the bar needs to be set very, very high on this, and I don't think that modes of dress constitute the threat to social/public welfare that would be required to restrict that behavior.

    If I -- and let's be clear, I'm a 30-y.o. white male of Anglo-Celtic extraction -- want to walk down the street in a burqa, are you going to make the case that it shouldn't be permitted because it's a sign of man's oppression of woman? Because I obviously can't escape the clutches of my retrograde, oppressive culture and religion?

    DP -- In terms of warfare, we need to get it right in order to project an accurate, timely, and effective counter narrative to prove that AQCL/affiliates suppress all types of freedoms.

    I think we need to be very careful here. If we start to talk about the burqa as a sign of AQ's suppression of freedom, we may be taking a bigger bite than we can effectively chew. I can promise you that in Afghanistan, for example, the number of people who are enthusiastic about what we would consider to be oppressive socio-cultural practices is a much, much larger set than just the bracketed group "al-Qaeda and sympathizers."

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  29. Can't believe I accidentally skipped Madhu!

    Let me just say, simply: I agree.

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  30. I agree. i didn't mean to say that the burqa is a sign of suppression. In fact, it is a fulfillment of devotion to God. Rather, I am projecting that AQCL would use US dialogue and conflict that arises to showcase our cultural weakness. Allowing religious freedom - i.e. wearing a burqa would in itself counter AQ's suppression of freedoms (generally).

    For example, I suspect (and will be watching to see) that AQCL/affiliate might very well release statements highlighting Belgium's suppression. If the "momentum" (i.e. poll data) continues throughout Europe so too will AQ's, I think.

    Again, I agree: people do not like to talk a) religion and b) politics, but this issue demands it.

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  31. "If you're trying to point out that there are times when it's sensible to restrict freedom, then yes, I'd agree with you. I just think the bar needs to be set very, very high on this..."

    But that's the thing. It's not your decision, nor is it mine. If this were some flagrant and irreversible violation of a fundamental human right of a large number of people (say, genocide) then this might be an appropriate place for us to stick our noses in. But it's not. It's another country, with another culture, and another history, simply clarifying their social norms. It's fine for us to ponder whether we would accept such a law in our country. But to pass judgment on this law in their country seems a tad arrogant and oblivious to the context. It reminds me of the tendency of Europeans to tell us who to vote for and how to spend our money. I suppose it's refreshing to throw things back in their faces now and then, but I don't want to turn into them.

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  32. Dude, Belgium is free to do whatever the hell it wants, however retarded and/or illiberal. I don't think passing comment qualifies as "stick[ing] our noses in."

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  33. i didn't mean to say that the burqa is a sign of suppression. In fact, it is a fulfillment of devotion to God. Rather, I am projecting that AQCL would use US dialogue and conflict that arises to showcase our cultural weakness. Allowing religious freedom - i.e. wearing a burqa would in itself counter AQ's suppression of freedoms (generally).

    I don't have a huge problem with anything you've written, but I'm not prepared to concede that counter-strategy against AQ (or IO considerations, which I believe to be a subset of that) should be driving our national dialogue about tolerance and religious freedom. We should advocate in favor of those things (in America, Schmedlap, don't worry) because it's the right thing to do, and because it's consistent with American values... not just because it makes us less vulnerable to terrorism (presumably).

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