The response to the full-face veil in Belgium and France displays many of these features by extending a ban in specific spheres, such as schools, to all appearances in the public sphere, and by constructing certain Muslim religious practices as so “radical” as to be incompatible with full democratic citizenship and what it means to be a “European.”
In medieval Europe, this legal shift towards persecution was supported by a false public rhetoric created by political elites rather than the populus.
Again, there are parallels today. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and July 7, 2005, discussions of Muslims in Europe have generated an anti-Islam ideology adopted by the far right throughout Europe.
Political elites have exaggerated, rather than alleviated, understandable popular anxieties about Muslim religious difference in ways that often make reasonable debates impossible. French and Belgian politicians debating the full-face veil, for example, played a crucial role in legitimizing far-right ideologies and converting popular anxieties into criminal law. British political elites need to learn lessons here and take greater care in their discussion of Muslims.
In the case of Muslim women, gender equality has played a crucial role in the creation of a false identity that silences their voices, excludes them from democratic processes and leads to their persecution.
On the one hand, Muslim men’s treatment of “their” women is seen as a sign of barbarity. On the other, Muslim women are represented as a threat because of their refusal to take off their veils and adapt themselves to modernity. This paradoxical process represents Muslim women as victims of patriarchy who need to be rescued, but also symbols of radical Islam who deserve to be criminalized “for their own good.”
The full-face veil is a perfectly proper subject for discussion and legislation in a liberal democracy. The voices of Muslim women, as well as non-Muslims, deserve to be heard. It is also right that the full-face veil should be regulated by local decisionmakers like teachers or judges, and Muslims must accept these reasonable limits on their freedom.
However, it is crucial to distinguish such legitimate debate, and reasonable regulation, from political and legal responses such as those in France and Belgium that construct Muslim religious difference as barbaric — thereby targeting veiled Muslim women as the latest victims in Europe’s long history of persecution.
Maleiha Malik is a professor of law at King’s College London.