Spain voted against banning the burqa just five days ago in poignant illustration of the appalled fascination, dilemma and doubt traditionally suffered by Europeans faced with the Muslim. Back in the early 1900s, Lawrence of Arabia would depict Muslim Arabs as stereotypical “Semites…they had a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation…(they had) no half-tones in their register of vision…a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns”. That was Lawrence’s famously wise and autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Nearly 100 years later, it sounds incredibly inflexible, breathtakingly self-satisfied and damningly judgemental. But by that reckoning, a Lawrence alive today should be heartened that Belgium and France first and second respectively in Europe to ban the burqa embraced the “crown of thorns”.
In doing so, they are the only ones of the 27-member European Union decisively to repel a people Lawrence insisted “could not look for God within…they were too sure that they were within God”. Spain still dithers about the need to ban the burqa, relegating the debate to its post-summer break parliamentary session. Italy is resolute a ban is the way forward but needs time to prepare legislation. Britain and Germany have publicly stated their unwillingness to outlaw the veil.
What value, if any, of a ban on the burqa in a European country? Huge numbers are not disenfranchised. The French interior ministry estimates that at least 400 women, and at most 2,000, of a total population of five or six million Muslims wear the burqa or the niqab. This means the ban will affect a maximum of just 0.003 per cent of the French population. In Belgium, just about 30 women wear burqas, of a Muslim population of around half-a-million, which means the country’s three-month-old ban has negligible effect except for a “gotcha” feeling of European one-upmanship on the “Semite”. Of Spain’s 47 million inhabitants, about one million are Muslims from north-west Africa where the burqa is almost as much a curiosity as in Europe. Mansur Escudero, president of the Islamic Commission of Spain, recalls last seeing a burqa-wearing woman in Spain 10 years ago in the southern city of Marbella, where the Saudi royal family has estates.
Nevertheless, Europe’s two-country burqa ban and Spain’s and Italy’s plans to follow through are important. In any home, in any cultural setting, it is the host’s sense of well-being that underwrites that of the guest. Nation-states are not dissimilar. They can generally be relied on to behave alarmingly like individuals, displaying the same mix of impetuous hospitality and indignant alarm on taking in a guest and finding them wanting in the dharma of mannerliness.
This partly explains the results of last month’s survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project. More than 80 per cent of French citizens supported the burqa ban, as did 71 per cent of Germans, 62 per cent Britons and 59 per cent Spaniards. Policy-making by opinion poll is a dangerous business and it was famously said that such surveys merely measure the public’s satisfaction with its own ignorance. Even so, the burqa has become so potent a symbol of a dreaded emerging anti-western “Eurabia” that banning it is a relatively anodyne yet powerful step. It is an essential measure for a Europe that must reject the notion that it is senescent and ripe for cultural takeover.
Outlawing the burqa then is all about sending a message, not safeguarding women’s rights or strengthening administrative efficiency. A ban in countries where the burqa is barely the norm is easy feel-good politics but essential legislative symbolism. It is in Syria, which banned the burqa last Monday despite its 87 per cent Muslim population, that the new policy denotes substantive change. This is of a piece with Tunisia forbidding civil servants to wear the niqab, Turkey’s headscarf ban in universities and public offices and Egypt’s highest ranking Muslim cleric prohibiting face veils at Al-Azhar University last year.
But the burqa in absentia is likely to come in handy for Europe. It will strengthen the idea of “Euroislam”, a belief system that started in the sands of Arabia but is watered by Europe’s democratic and liberal values and is already being fed by French initiatives such as the European Institute for Human Sciences. For 20 years, this oddly named theological college in Burgundy has trained indigenous imams in the heart of what the French call La France profonde or deepest France. In a flatteringly imitative move across the English Channel last year, prominent white British converts to Islam established the Cambridge Muslim College to develop “cultural mediators” of the Euroislam kind.
In a strange sort of way, Europe’s hard line on the innocuous burqa points the way forward for countries like India that struggle to modernise and move to a Uniform Civil Code while taking along disparate minority groups.
What of the backlash? In 1920, Lawrence, the British Army officer who became famous in his lifetime and arguably more so when fictionalised onscreen for his role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, observed that “rebellions can be made by 2 per cent actively in the striking force and 98 per cent passively sympathetic”. Three years later, the Empire formally ended leaving the Ottoman better known now as a piece of furniture. QED.