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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

Europe and the veil: The ugly face of bigotry is visible
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 23, 2006, 01:06

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It began in France where Muslim schoolgirls were banned from wearing the hijab. In Britain, politicians are mulling over whether to ban the niqab, which covers the face. In the Netherlands, there is serious talk of bringing in a new law forbidding Muslim women to cover their faces supposedly for reasons of security. And now the Vatican has jumped into the fray.

A senior cardinal, Renato Martino, told members of the press that immigrants should adhere to the laws of their host country, including any ban on face covering, while Archbishop Agostino Marchetto indicated Muslims must be made to realize that some of their religious traditions might be perceived as negative in Western societies.

It�s surely an odd line for the Vatican to take when for centuries the nun�s habit was pretty much all-encompassing. Members of some orders went a step further spending their entire lives in seclusion without speaking. Is there anything more separating than that?

Western brides traditionally wore veils (many still do) and so did Spanish and Portuguese duennas, while all over the world masked balls were common among the aristocracy.

The veil has long been perceived as a garment to protect a woman�s modesty and this is the main reason Muslim women choose to wear it today.

It is true there is no compulsion in Islam for women to cover their faces and, indeed, there is an ongoing debate among Muslims whether this trend is advisable but surely this is a matter for the individual concerned rather than the state.

People who live in democracies traditionally have the right to dress as they please so this is much more than a debate over the veil. It�s rather an attack on human rights and civil liberties.

If covering one�s face is banned where does this leave people who don costumes for fancy dress parties? Will Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny outfits become a no-no? What about men who dress up as Father Christmas, their faces obscured by hoods and thick white beards? Will Halloween masks be removed from stores? Will kids be denied a Zorro mask and cape?

And if that isn�t the case, why isn�t it? How could it possibly be acceptable for people to wear a Dracula or Frankenstein mask to a party but unacceptable for Muslim women to don the veil out of cultural or religious conviction?

One may also speculate on how these new laws will affect accident victims, whose facial disfigurements preclude them from going out in public without some kind of covering. There may come a day when the police will be empowered to forcibly remove them under the guise of anti-terrorism laws.

In truth, there are very few Muslim women in Europe who wear the full face-veil and none to my knowledge have been responsible for any violent incident. Estimates suggest the new law would only affect around 50 women in the Netherlands, for instance. So, in this case, why are these women being targeted in such a high-profile fashion?

In reality, the veil is a mere pretext for something that goes far deeper -- growing European bigotry against Islam emanating from governments, which is dangerously permeating down to the level of the street.

The problem is government actions are having the opposite effect of that intended. In many European countries, including Britain, Muslims feel under siege.

Following the announcement by the former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that he would prefer Muslim visitors to his constituency office not to wear the niqab, young British Muslim women began adopting the garment as a mark of protest. At the same time, attacks on Muslims and mosques were stepped up.

In other words, a �them and us� situation is being created where formerly none existed. Holland, in particular was always famously tolerant of ethnic and religious minorities. It�s a great pity that attitudes toward Muslims have changed so dramatically.

It�s the same in Britain that once prided itself on its multicultural richness and tolerance of all faiths. What happened to that innate sense of fair play?

Tony Blair must take a large part of the blame with his frequent references to an evil ideology to cover up his terrible foreign policy blunders in concert with George W. Bush that have led to so much devastation and bloodshed throughout the Muslim world.

Britons, in particular, should remember that there was no serious division between Muslims and the rest of society before Iraq and Blair�s refusal to call for a cease-fire during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict.

Traditionally dressed ladies from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia have been holidaying in Britain for decades and nobody objected when they wore a burqa while shopping in London�s Oxford or Bond Street.

Nowadays, mere pieces of cloth -- the burqa, the niqab or even the hijab -- are being demonized as symbols of Islam. If European Muslims succumb to pressure and remove them, one wonders where this will all end. Perhaps Muslim men will be forbidden beards. Maybe the thob will one day be outlawed in this Christian club, which has erected barriers to Turkey�s entry, supported by the Vatican.

It seems to me that the world I grew up in is becoming unrecognizable. There used to be a sense of live and let live in the Britain of my youth. If you wanted to walk down the street with spiky purple and orange hair, a painted face and a pierced nose, wearing a leather jacket covered with giant safety pins, you could.

Few felt uncomfortable coming across such apparitions in a dark lane, yet a modest young woman whose face is obscured by a wedge of fabric is seen as a major threat to society. How utterly ridiculous is that? Can anyone say mass paranoia?

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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