Avi Mediratta is a Sophomore from Orlando, FL majoring in Economics and Human and Organizational Development. His political interests include fiscal policy, campaign finance, and partisanship. Outside of VPR, he is involved in the Vanderbilt International Relations Association (VIRA), and Relay for Life. He also enjoys chocolate milk.
The recent terror attacks against Paris have sent shockwaves across the globe. The targeting and bombing of French civilians by ISIL was seen as an attack on the French way of life. The safety and security of the western world is perhaps as questionable now as it was after the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. For Europeans, however, the attacks have reinforced old fears of religious fundamentalism.
The Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino recently voted by referendum to criminalize the act of wearing a burqa, the traditional face covering and long dress worn by some Muslim women. Two in three voters in the canton voted in favor of the new ban which applies to restaurants, shops, and other public places. Violators could face a hefty fine of £6,500 for wearing the traditional dress in public. Giorgio Ghiringhelli, the man who drafted the proposal, hoped that the ban would send a message to Islamic extremists in the country.
Ticino is not the only place in which the burqa is banned. France has had a similar ban since 2010. It is part of a national effort to achieve a perfectly secular nation, void of religious affiliation of any sort. Islam is not the only religion being silenced in France. Government workers are not allowed to bear religious items of any kind in the workplace. This means they can’t wear religious necklaces bearing a cross or a star of David. Religious symbols like that are generally seen as a threat to secularism.
The French quest for secularism, or laïcité, is nothing new, but the ban on the burqa is a particularly emotional topic for the French, and for many other Europeans as well. The burqa is seen as contrary to Western values of freedom and democracy, a means of putting down women and inhibiting social interaction, as it covers the face. Fear of Islamic fundamentalism has also been particularly strong in Europe after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and the attacks on Saint-Denis earlier this month. This only heightened the European opposition to the burqa.
Despite the quest for secularism, Christmas and Easter remain holidays recognized by the French government. Meanwhile, there’s no Muslim holiday to celebrate in France; apparently that would be a threat to secularism. Despite the government’s best efforts, with a majority of French people adhering to the Roman Catholic faith, it is difficult for laïcité to remain non-discriminatory against the Muslim minority.
Coming back to Ticino, it is difficult to overlook the clear and blatant infringement upon personal freedoms that this kind of ban brings. The European idea of secularism is fundamentally different from that of the US. It appears as though Europe is willing to sacrifice its citizens’ freedom of expression in the name of secularism and societal integration. On the other hand, can you imagine what would happen if Americans couldn’t bear the cross on their necklaces? There would be outrage at this violation of the First Amendment. Perhaps the US isn’t as secular as it could be; there are still arguments about the role of religion in the workplace (demonstrated in the Supreme Court case, Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby), but there is no excuse for curtailing freedom of expression.
The only similar debate in the United States that could be at all compared to the burqa ban would be South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from its state capital . Governor Nicki Haley’s decision to do so was met with opposition. Many claimed that the flag was a symbol of Southern heritage and history and that removing the flag was a form of ignoring the past or silencing the people who viewed it as a symbol of pride. It is important to note, though, that nobody’s freedom of speech was threatened. Governor Haley simply decided that the government should not fly a flag that, for many people, stood for oppression. I am confident that if you wanted to fly a Confederate flag outside your house, you could do this without facing a £6,500 fine. At most, you may get some dirty looks from people passing by, but the government won’t come after you.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Muslim women in certain parts of Europe. The ban in Ticino was passed right after the Paris attacks, and the author of the ban specifically mentioned targeting Islamic extremism in the wake of the attacks, suggesting that the ban was passed out of fear and anger, without much regard to logic or reason. Perhaps the burqa ban is a sort of Islamophobia following the terrorist attacks, or perhaps it is part of a genuine effort to be secular. Either way, the law is unjust and shameful. Silencing religion does not benefit anyone. A government should not play a role in determining how people should act, dress, or express themselves. This inconsiderate curtailing of personal freedom would be unheard of in the US, as it should be.