Belgium, still reeling from an acrimonious electoral cycle, an unresolved institutional conflict about the balance of power between regional and federal authorities, not to mention rising crime and unemployment, engages in much-needed soul-searching. Slowly a national consensus seems to have merged about the need to "ban the burqa." Jostling in online polling rounds, revving up for new elections in 2011, mainstream political parties have identified an issue on which, amid political gridlock on more pressing matters, everyone can easily agree.
The argument goes that by banning the burqa, or full-face cover as seen on the streets of Kandahar, and on a rare occasion, Brussels, the women who are forced by their husbands to wear them, will be liberated, bringing to a halt the perceived menace posed by Islam to a largely secularized society. The burqa is not to be confused with the traditional head cover as donned by a large proportion of Muslim women from a sense of religious piety, modesty, even the idea of shielding men against their own salacious impulse, or simply conforming to cultural custom. Although the debate is a distinct one, the motivation of wearers and detractors run along parallel lines. Confusingly, the terms are often used interchangeably, by accident as often as in an attempt to widen the discussion to other problems related to the integration, or proclaimed lack thereof of Muslim minorities, mainly of North-African origin in European society.
Regardless of the low number of people whose behavior the law aims to correct no official statistics exist but anecdotal evidence points to a low three-figure ballpark in a population of ten million- the proverbial jack is out the box now and the question, despite its manifold motivators, from the feminist, the populist to the downright xenophobic, needs to be deliberated at face value. In view of the proposed legislation, which targets the burqa only at this stage, a couple of questions are in order.
The first question touches on political philosophy where the current polemic seems to conform to a European tradition of states' involvement, not just in the socio-economic relation between individuals and groups of people, but advancing far into the personal sphere of citizens.
The combined belief that societies are "makeable', and that lawmakers have a role in combating the perceived negative effects of the burqa, seem to guide the ongoing efforts. Despite unconvincing attempts to turn the question into one of public safety, the specter of Iraq or Afghan-style suicide bombers lurking anonymously underneath a billowy version of ninja uniforms, the Belgian state aims mainly to legislate a dress code in the hope of changing a backward mentality associated with that code.
Which brings us to the second question. Will banning the burqa achieve the aforementioned aims?
An assumption is made that all women who wear the reviled garments do so because of their husbands' chauvinistic, if not downright misogynistic bent, and that those who do not are free and emancipated. It is unclear at this stage whether police will be instructed to merely fine offenders or forcefully remove the illegal attire on the spot. Either way, the action is expected to have an emancipating effect, or at least make the delinquent think about what she did wrong.
Assuming for a second that yes, states should legislate what individuals wear, and that by doing so, some kind of mental benefit will accrue, what side-effects are likely to occur, and how do they stack up against the benefits?
Belgians, like most people, are a heterogeneous bunch. A fragile balance between French-speaking Walloons, and Dutch-speaking Flemish is maintained by means of an intricate system of checks and balances. The inherent stability or, some say, rigidity of this setup has so far precluded an effective response to the problems associated with integrating an increasingly vocal group of Muslims or people of Muslim descent into the country. Tensions run high, and mutual accusations of discrimination and distrust, mix in with urban decay and a fumbling police response to the nuisance caused by bands of disaffected young males hailing from neglected, predominantly Arab neighborhoods. By attacking a numerically insignificant phenomenon, Belgian policy makers are effectively increasing its symbolical value, to be espoused or abjured along with a penumbra of issues associated therewith by dint of a sloppily waged debate. Burqa vs. no burqa. Muslim vs. Christian. Assimilate vs. keeping it real.
In this an atmosphere of polarization any honest discussion becomes nigh impossible. Rather than clearing the air, a burqa ban kicks up the dust even further, creating opportunities for extremists on both sides. The underlying problems fester. Everybody loses.