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Response from Lincoln E. Steed

Discussion Question: Are burqa bans oppressive to religious freedom or a defense of the rights and dignity of women?

This week an Italian parliamentary commission approved a draft law banning women from wearing veils that cover their faces in public. This sets Italy on course to join several other European nations with headscarf or burqa bans either already on the books or maneuvering through the legislative process. Are such garb prohibitions oppressive to religious freedom or do they in fact release Muslim women from an oppressive, medieval practice?

Yes, this proposed law certainly draws on increasing reservoirs of religious prejudice! It would be naive to think otherwise. And naive to expect otherwise from Europeans fearful that their culture is under attack.

In the U.S. there was an especially virulent period of religious persecution when Irish Catholic immigration and a tight labor market stoked fears that an American Protestant way of life was threatened. Europe, by inviting in large numbers of "guest workers" from Turkey and North Africa, and under the conceit that they would one day leave and would be socially invisible if allowed to settle in large urban ghettos, has created a very real threat to its way of life. In any number of European cities these cultural and religious enclaves are challenging long held norms and are probably at a critical numerical threshold to force change or violent reaction. It is clear from any number of past people movements and social shifts that it does not take a majority to upset the prevailing order; but something closer to 10-20 percent is sufficient to provoke revolution or compliance. We are presently witnessing a similar numerical dynamic at work in the ongoing Arab Spring.

The question of whether headscarf and burqa bans are contrary to religious freedom or assist women to escape medieval oppression is a reasonable one, but one that cannot exist apart from the context of this "clash of civilizations." The fact is that these laws arise from a real conflict of faiths, real social dissonance, and behind them lies an aggressive attempt by a challenging culture to establish a religious beachhead. In the United States we may think that amendments to a document not much more than 200 years old will easily work in an Old World to erase recurring memories of ancient religious conflict, which in this case is again actively percolating in the Balkans.

And yes, these laws surely will function to release those women in Islam who feel oppressed by variously implemented requirements to wear burqa or headscarf -- but that will only sharpen the inevitable social and religious conflict. There is an exquisite irony here that in attempting a moral societal good such laws will tear down delicate walls of protection for religious freedom.

This is so primarily because with Islam we are dealing with a religion that embraces civil and religious life, knowing no separation of church and state. Such a foe is implacable and not satisfied with concession. Europe, which is now awakening from a secular dream, has ancestral memories of the last struggle with such a dual claimant: it took a reformation, religious wars and an enlightenment --not to mention a Vatican II-- to move toward true religious freedom. Now an awakened dreamer faces two religious entities: Islam moving again West and the Old Power again interested in protecting the empire of nations and spirit.

I know of no defense against any of this other than a militant application of the separation of church and state. That way religious freedom will survive, even as societies battle and change.

Photo of Lincoln E. Steed

Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Editor, Liberty Magazine

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."

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