Cornerstone Forum: Debating Europe’s “Burqa Bans”

Six countries in Europe have now passed nationwide or partial bans on face-veils, and others have legislation pending for additional bans. Speaking critically of either the bans or the Muslim practice of veiling engenders a firestorm of debate, as former Mayor of London and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson did with an article in the Telegraph denouncing the ban in Denmark, while also bluntly criticizing in demeaning fashion the practice of covering the face.

Women riding in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Flickr/Cycle Chic Copenhagen_55.

Women riding in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Flickr/Cycle Chic Copenhagen_55.

The response to the controversy has largely focused on questions of free speech, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) labeling the remarks as “inflammatory and divisive” but not within its jurisdiction to prosecute.

Yet, what of the more fundamental question about the public expression of religious belief? Is it appropriate, as the European Court of Human Rights said in its 2014 ruling in S.A.S vs. France, that veiling must be restricted in favor of the principle of “living together” and promoting “tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.” 

In this series on Cornerstone Forum, we asked scholars to examine what the implications are of religious freedom for protecting the right to public expressions of faith, even those expressions which may seem to resist cultural assimilation.