Denmark's burqa ban: A lurch towards secular extremism

Denmark's burqa ban: A lurch towards secular extremism
Comment: Denmark is the latest European country to have exploited fears over refugees and terrorism for right-wing political gain, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
06 Jun, 2018
Women wearing the burqa in Denmark can be fined $1,570 for a fourth offence [AFP]
Denmark's parliament passed a law last week banning face coverings in public places, including the Islamic niqab and burqa.

The Danish parliament voted overwhelmingly to put the bill into law, which bans all face coverings, and is yet another attempt by a right leaning western government to appease voters by demonstrating a willingness to appear 'tough' towards Muslim minorities.

Denmark, like its western contemporaries, has couched the law in security discourse, claiming hidden faces pose a security threat to the public, but unless there is an epidemic of bank robberies carried out by burqa clad Muslim women on the European continent I haven't heard about, then it's clear this measure should be viewed as another right-wing attempt to make life harder for Muslims.

Under this law, any Muslim woman caught wearing the niqab in public will face fines of 1,000 Danish krone ($157) for a first offence and up to 10,000 Danish krone ($1,570) for a fourth offence. Women will also be told by police to return home and change their attire before going out in public again.

Human rights group Amnesty International characterised the new law as "a discriminatory violation of women's rights," adding, "All women should be free to dress as they please and to wear clothing that expresses their identity or beliefs."

From Brussels to Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin, far-right politicians have exploited fears over Syrian refugees and terrorism

But it's more than yet another example of state backed discrimination against Muslim women, it's a form of secular extremism, no more, or no less insidious or threatening than religious forms of extremism, and secular extremism is the latest ideology sweeping what was once considered the vanguard for enlightened liberal values - the western European continent.

Denmark now joins France, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy, and Spain in outlawing Islamic dress. France, however, with its 5 million Muslims, representing roughly 5 percent of the total population, has been at the forefront of Europe's lurch towards secular extremism.

Read more: Austria burqa ban comes into force

In 2010, France became the first European Union member to pass as a bill banning the right for Muslim women to wear a burqa or veil, a ban that was supported by more than 8 out of 10 French voters, according to one poll.

"Secularism is the closest thing the French have to a state religion," notes the BBC's Henri Astier. "It underpinned the French Revolution and has been a basic tenet of the country's progressive thought since the 18th century. To this day, anything that smacks of official recognition of a religion - such as allowing Islamic headscarves in schools - is anathema to many French people. Even those who oppose a headscarf ban do so in the name of a more modern, flexible form of secularism."

European countries, such as Denmark and others, are now following the path to secular extremism that has been laid forth by France, no doubt a product of their respective domestic politics. From Brussels to Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin, far-right politicians have exploited fears over Syrian refugees and terrorism, proselytising the erroneous notion that Islam is incompatible with European values, and thus, by extension, Muslims are a threat to social cohesion.

Playing to these irrational fears and anxieties has resulted in populist far-right political thought moving from the fringes to the mainstream.

"The French National Front, Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, the Freedom Party in both Austria and the Netherlands, Italy's Lega Nord, the Danish People's Party, the Sweden Democrats, Belgium's Vlaams Belang, Golden Dawn in Greece, Hungarian Fidesz, and Law and Justice in Poland have all managed to appeal to voters who believe that liberalisation, globalisation and cosmopolitanism have gone too far, and who fear the extinction of their culture," writes Julia Ebner, author of 'The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism'.

Voters who identify with the kind of grievances articulated by these populist far-right political parties tend to believe Muslims represent the sum total of all fears concerning immigration and globalisation, and thus, in turn, political entrepreneurs are placating these voters with red meat policies.

If liberalism, pluralism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance are responsible for what is perceived as a flux of Muslim immigrants in the minds of these voters, then the solution - they believe - can only be the reverse of these ideals: conservatism, ethnocentrism and nationalism.

Douglas Murray, a British commentator, considered somewhat of a thought leader among right-wing populists in Europe, typifies the sentiment that drives these secular extremist policies. In a 2006 speech given in the Dutch parliament, Murray declared, "Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition."

It's a form of secular extremism, no more, or no less insidious or threatening than religious forms of extremism

Laws that ban Islamic clothing are part of the effort to make Europe a "less attractive proposition," and voters are rewarding political parties that sponsor these bills at the ballot box.

"The outcome of this mindset is an authoritarian strategy: political power is to remain in the hands of the secularist elite. Thus the 'secular republic' equals the 'republic of seculars' - not the republic of all citizens," writes Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol. "Thus the role of the secular state is, in the minds of secular fundamentalists, to suppress religious communities, restrict religious education and ban visible signs of observance such as the head scarf."

Lost also in the politics of diversion and division is the fact that while these laws might sate the desire of those who wish to exact vengeance on all Muslims, for the violence carried out by extremist groups such as Islamic State group (IS), they also play directly into the hands of extremist Islamic groups.

IS propaganda, for instance, is designed to appeal to Muslims who feel alienated and disenfranchised by the nation state they call home, positing that the West is at war with Islam, calling on Muslims to reject western or European culture.

Seemingly trapped on a merry-go-round none of us can stop, secular extremist laws, such as bans on the burqa, are indeed creating a vicious cycle between religious and secular extremists, with the far-right, and groups such as IS, on two sides of the same coin.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.