Denmark's Burka Ban Should Scare All Religions

How Denmark’s New Law Could Lead To Universal Religious Discrimination

Christians and conservative groups are praising Denmark’s recent law that would ban the Burka and the Niqab. But they are making a critical error. By only superficially looking at it as a blow against Islam they ignore the implications it could have for all religions and how it creates a model of religious discrimination that could affect them in the future.

The burka is a Muslim covering for women that only leaves the eyes exposed. The niqab puts a screen on that veil so you cannot see any part of a woman. It is different than the hijab, which only covers the head and neck. Conservative Muslim women wear it. The decision was reached because politicians claimed the outfits were both “disrespectful” and against the values of Danish society.

While some may think this strengthens Islamic fundamentalism, they are completely wrong. There are an estimated 270,000 Muslims living in Denmark, and very few wear either the burka or niqab. When France banned the burka in 2011, the government could then only accurately identify 367 women who were caught wearing it. That is 0.01% of the French Muslim population. Other European nations that have banned the burka, like Austria or Belgium have reported similar numbers. The numbers are so few that an anti-Islamic group in Norway posted a picture of empty bus seats, claiming it was a large number of burka-wearing women on a bus:

That should worry Christians and other faith groups. Denmark has constitutional protection for religious worship. The robes are considered a particular way to worship Islam by some. Therefore, Denmark denies the freedom of religion because it does not agree with how the worship is conducted. Denmark wants you to have faith, but on their terms. Given the rise in anti-semitism is it unrealistic to think this could be a model for a country banning the yarmulke?

Some human rights activists point out that Denmark is promoting human rights over religious rights. That the hijab and burka are a form of discrimination against women and are linked to religious justification for violence toward women. Putting that aside, Denmark is not a secular government. It has a state religion, the Church of Denmark. They have an official religious department. The second largest faith is Islam. Therefore this is similar to other theocratic governments, like Saudi Arabia, creating structural discrimination against other religions. Denmark is not a bastion of religious freedom. Four separate reports have criticized Denmark for lack of religious freedom and attacks on Christians and Muslims. Included in the report is a sharp decrease in rights for other religions in the last seven years. We have seen extreme versions of this in countries like Russia, where the influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church led to Jehovah’s Witnesses being labeled a terrorist organization and wholly banned.

Some might call this hyperbolic. That by my argument it will affect a small population, so there can’t be any more significant implications than a few people receiving the fines that occur for wearing the Muslim garb. But that is incorrect. Laws create societal norms. When Denmark establishes a law to ban the burka and niqab, it creates a potent symbol: Muslims are not Danish, and their views clash with those who are Danish.

Research into Islamophobia and religious discrimination has proven that the language and laws of a country influence how citizens act. As the language against Muslims has increased in Denmark, so have violent attacks on Muslims. When Russia banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, attacks on them by private citizens increased. When countries like Hungary increased anti-semitic remarks, it created more violence against Jews. There is a clear link. So even if not a single person is prosecuted under the law, it carries dangerous implications for the future safety of Denmark’s Muslim population.

The law is also vague. Because the law bans other items that mask the face like fake beards, the discretion is left to the police. Danish politicians have commented that police will use “common sense.” That is a recipe for discrimination and harassment. Law enforcement needs to have clear guidelines on how to approach the law. Without instructions, it becomes harder to argue that a police officer was violating procedure.

While Danish politicians have explained that the law will not lead to burkas being ripped off women, it leads to another terrible consequence, imprisonment. If you are caught wearing a burka, you will be fined and told to go home. If your home is not nearby, you will be detained at a police station until a family member can get you. This could lead to women being imprisoned with their children for hours. Think of the traumatization it creates.

This could all be used as a model against all religion or denomination. A vague law that bans a religious practice, giving additional police power of harassment that would normalize violence and discrimination by the general population. So instead of praising the ban, anyone who respects religion or religious freedom should be calling out this law and demanding it is overturned.

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