x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Britain joins debate over the burqa

The UK Independence Party aims to make election pledge out of veil issue, while France moves on abolition.

LONDON // A British political party has joined the growing clamour across Europe for the burqa to be banned in public places. With France poised to become the first EU country to impose such a ban, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is taking legal advice with the aim of including a commitment to outlaw the burqa and niqab in its manifesto for the general election, which must take place by spring. Even the far-right British National Party has not proposed such a ban, except for schoolchildren. UKIP does not have any MPs in the House of Commons but achieved the second highest number of votes, behind the Conservatives, in last year's European elections.

In November, Lord (Malcolm) Pearson took over leadership of the party. He has highlighted what he described as the "growing threat of Islamism" and caused controversy by inviting Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch political leader, to show his anti-Islam film Fitna at the House of Lords. "It makes sense to ban the burqa, or anything that conceals a woman's face, in public buildings," he told The Times.

Further, he said: "We want to make it possible to ban them in private buildings. It isn't right that you can't see someone's face in an airport." Lord Pearson added that UKIP intended to highlight the increasing influence of Sharia in Britain. "We are not Muslim-bashing, but this is incompatible with Britain's values of freedom and democracy," he said, citing the Archbishop of Canterbury's controversial call two years ago for the British legal system to adopt parts of Islamic law in the name of social cohesion.

The move in Britain is just the latest in an ever-increasing chorus of calls by political parties across Europe to have burqas and other veils banned, much as the Swiss voted late last year to block the building of minarets. Many of these calls have come from right-wingers alarmed at what they see as the undermining of their nations' Christian values and heritage by an influx of Muslim immigrants in recent decades. But other, seemingly more liberal elements are backing the calls because they see the burqa as a manifestation of a subjugation of women that is unacceptable in western society.

Only a very small proportion of the women among the 38 million Muslims in Europe wear the burqa, but it has not stopped proposals for legislation to ban it being put forward in such countries as Denmark, Holland, Italy and, outside Europe, in Canada. It is France, though, that has travelled furthest along the parliamentary road to outlaw facial coverings. André Gerin, a member of parliament who chaired six months of hearings into the issue, last week described full-face veils as the visible tip of an Islamist underground threatening the French way of life.

"The scope of the problem is a lot broader than I thought," he told a press conference in Lyon. "It is insidious." The president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his prime minister, François Fillon, are urging the French parliament to approve a resolution that full-face veils are unacceptable. Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in parliament, put forward legislation that would ban burqas in any public place, even though concerns have been raised that such a law would be unconstitutional. France's Muslim Religion Council, which speaks for many of the country's five million Muslims, has ruled that nothing in Islam requires women to wear veils.

However, Mohammed Moussaoui, the council leader, has warned that a ban would stigmatise Muslim women much as their children were by the 2004 law banning headscarves in French schools. In Denmark, the parliament is to discuss on Wednesday a report that could lead to the banning of the burqa and niqab in certain circumstances. A survey this month showed that only three women among Denmark's 200,000 Muslim population actually wore the burqa and only about 150 to 200 wore the niqab, with up to 80 of them being Danish converts to Islam.

In the Netherlands, attempts to legislate for a general ban on burqas has been going on for more than four years. The government also backs efforts to outlaw religious clothing in schools. In Germany, several states have had their bans on veils and scarves upheld by the courts. dsapsted@thenational.ae