The specter of racism leers menacingly over Western Europe today. More and more Europeans are reacting to Europe's changing racial profile in ever more illiberal ways, typically under the guise of lawful legislative intervention. Recently voters in Switzerland declared an injunction against all new construction of minarets - architecturally distinct towers adjoining mosques - demonstrating widespread contempt for that country's small Muslim community. In Italy, a Muslim woman wearing the niqab (a garment that covers the face) was fined over six hundred dollars for exercising her right to dress in a manner she believes is appropriate. Belgium also recently embarked on the road to illegalize and stigmatize the burka and niqab with a vote in the Brussels federal parliament. That move mirrors similar ongoing efforts in France.
Anti-immigrant or anti-minority sentiment can usually be traced to dynamic social upheaval. Sometimes, that upheaval results from periods of pronounced economic constriction or stagnation. It can also arise in reaction to shifting mores; the view that old ways and traditions are being upended by newcomers and immigrants. I won't speculate about the cause, but the anti-Islam anti-immigrant tide is undoubtedly rising in Europe. In many ways, what's happening in Europe mirrors what's happening in Arizona. The big difference is that Europeans do not protect core freedoms in the way the American constitution does.
The right to speak freely is mostly protected in many European countries. A Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten published inflammatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed - something the editors undeniably have the right to do. But freedom of speech is not always protected in Europe. For instance, overt hate speech against Muslims, Jews, the queer community, and others is not typically tolerated. Geert Wilders, an extremist anti-Muslim crusader in the Dutch parliament was briefly banned from entering Britain because of his racism (he was eventually permitted to enter the country). Europe's history of fascist and totalitarian governments helps explain the continent's hypersensitivity to hate speech. But paradoxically, that hate and racism is transmuted, masquerading as liberalism and manifested as illiberal law-making. My implicit assumption is that there is nothing liberal about targeting a community over a mode of dress or architecture. It is true that Geert Wilders is regarded as odious by many, but his prescriptions are finding their way into legislative charters across Europe.
Many supporters of the Burka ban argue that it denigrates women's dignity because it's an expression of patriarchal control; a man is telling her to wear it, so the burka infantilizes and victimizes the woman. Assuming that all women who wear the burka are doing so under duress, it doesn't follow that other men, like the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, ought to tell her not to wear it. That too is an expression of patriarchy. And it is arguably more oppressive because it employs the coercive power of the state to dictate to women just how they should dress. If European governments are actually concerned about patriarchy, they'd be better off providing robust social services to enable women to escape from the yoke that they purportedly suffer.
Jean-Francois Cope, a mayor of a French city, recently took to the pages of the New York Times to make the case for the ban. He writes that the burka renders "identification or participation in economic and social life virtually impossible." And that the "permanent concealment of the face also raises the question of social interactions in our democracies." However, he fails to consider the impact of the state-sanctioned stigmatization of a group of women on their social interactions. Furthermore, he states that "banning the veil in the street is aimed at no particular religion and stigmatizes no particular community." This is a specious claim. A ban on a Muslim religious garment is necessarily aimed at Islam, and instigating vociferous debate around the life choices of the few cannot but stigmatize them in society. Furthermore, the voices of the people who matter, the Muslim women being affected by any ban, are notably excluded from the conversation. By persisting in their patriarchal and exclusive conversations, men like Cope objectify Muslim women. These women are now immature victims, incapable of making informed decisions or speaking about them publically.
I've spoken to several secular French women here in Paris about the issue. One described the burka as offensive, saying she was horrified to be confronted by it in the public sphere. It represented something oppressive to her. Another woman, equally secular and French, described it as something she didn't like but came out against the law. For her, the issue was about individual liberty and the tendency of the overweening state to insert itself into private life. This is how she put it to me: "I want to know tomorrow that if I want to wear a burka, I can do it."
Europe's long memories of racial murder and genocide have acted to restrict freedom of speech and religion in many countries. There is a good reason Nazi propaganda is illegal in Germany (but not in America). However, xenophobic currents are on the rise once again, and they continue to find favor in the court of public opinion. Perhaps Europe's memories are not that long, after all. The danger is that without protections against majoritarian tyranny like in America, that xenophobia may find expression in destructive ways.