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Europe’s Secular Paradox

Opinion | February 3, 2015

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, a controversial French satirical newspaper, on January 7 by a group of Muslim extremists, must serve as a wake up call for European communities. In the wake of the attack, people of all types have come together against terrorism and the extremist views of the perpetrators. The common consensus among political leaders, talking heads, and millions of citizens around the globe has been that they all certainly support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish their opinions under the right of free speech.

Indeed, in the wake of 12 senseless and violent deaths, leaders across the world have made strong statements defending the use of free speech while condemning the terrorists who threatened it. As politicians in Brussels, Paris, and around Europe pat themselves on the back for their unwavering stances on “non-controversial” issues such as supporting free speech in the face of extremism, there has been little discussion of one of the most important issues underlying European-Muslim relations: freedom of religion.

As the intensity of Muslim immigration to Europe has swelled, European nations have been working not-so-subtly to not only marginalize them socially and economically, and religiously. In particular, these problems have occurred most frequently in France—the place of the most recent terrorist attacks,.

With the largest Muslim population in Europe, France has been perhaps the most visible offender of religious freedom. One of the most important concepts to understand is the religious division between native-born French people and Muslim immigrants. In a 2012 poll by The Pew Research Center, only 15 percent of French citizens believe it is “necessary to believe in God,” compared to 91 percent of Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa. As possibly the most secular country in Europe, the increase in Muslim immigrants who are highly likely to be religious has caused a cultural conflict within France, which has manifested itself both politically and violently throughout the country.

In 2004, all religious items including hijabs and other head and face coverings worn by Muslim women and girls were banned from French schools. This caused worldwide outrage among Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders alike. While the law equally bans all religious objects, it was sparked by continuous conflicts between schools and Muslim students who chose to wear Islamic head coverings. Indeed, the law was consistently referred to as the “Veil Law.” Later in 2011, a law was passed banning the burqa and the veil from being worn in public on the foundation that wearing items that cover the face presents a security risk. Like in 2004, the law was written under the guise that it did not pertain to only Muslims; however, political rhetoric surrounding the law suggested otherwise.

While the French have dominated the headlines, other European countries have gone out of their way to limit Islam as well. Belgium, numerous towns in northern Italy, and many Spanish cities including Barcelona have also banned the wearing of face coverings in public. In Denmark, judges are banned from wearing any religious attire, while over half of Germany’s states have prohibited teachers from wearing headscarves. In the state of Hesse the ban is extended to all public employees.

On the surface, these laws are actually quite tame. Very few native-born Muslim women in Europe actually wear Islamic garb in public. However, these laws are representative of a larger, insidiously negative attitude towards Islam that extends to all Muslims. The laws against the face and head coverings in Europe are highly discriminatory and barely justifiable. They have robbed many Muslim women and other religious people who wear head coverings as a part of their religion, such as Sikhs and Jews, of their right to practice their religion as they see fit. Many European leaders have justified these laws by claiming the face covering and hijab are symbols of religious fundamentalism that conflicts with the values of their secular society. In particular, proponents of banning Islamic garb claim that it is associated with the oppression of women. While this claim is founded in some reality, European lawmakers are yet again guilty of imposing the mainstream culture and point of view onto a minority group. Although some may believe the headscarf is sexist, limiting what women can do with their bodies implies they cannot make their own decisions and strips them of personal autonomy.

Making a claim that France or any other European nation is secular and thus has the right to take away religious expression is highly hypocritical. As stated earlier, actions such as banning minarets in Switzerland and rejecting mosques in many towns in Catalonia citing the preservation of European society is compromising of European values. Western nations have long prided themselves on supporting free society. Europecan claim to be largely secular, but it cannot go so far as to insist that everyone must be secular and still claim to be a free society. While Europe points to Muslim nations and cites a lack of freedom, it is forcing its own secular ways on others and actively restricting the practice of Islam within its borders.

In some Middle Eastern countries, women cannot appear in public without wearing a veil because the country adheres to Islamic values. In some European countries, Muslim women are not allowed to wear a veil in public because they must adhere to secular values. How is that any different? Claiming that Muslims must adhere to secular values does not encourage Muslims to integrate. Instead, it sends the message that Muslims are somehow different and lesser. Anti-Islamic laws do not unite; they divide.

Underscoring these new laws is a growing xenophobic force that is sweeping over the European continent and manifesting itself in the form of far-right political parties that have gained in popularity for being wildly outspoken against Muslims. As these parties gain power, more and more laws are being proposed in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden that will restrict the expression of Islam in public places, schools, and government. The recent attacks have only increased favor for far-right parties such as France’s National Front. Further, violence and discrimination against Muslims, Jews, and other minority groups has been ubiquitous around the continent.

During the five days since the attacks, 54 Islamophobic attacks were reported: 21 grenades were thrown at local mosques, a boar’s head was left outside a Muslim prayer room, a note threatened “Next time it will be one of your heads.” Amnesty International has cited job discrimination against visibly religious Muslims in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. While in some instances there are laws protecting against this exact type of discrimination, Amnesty states that they are poorly implemented. While in most cases governments have apologized for instances of discrimination, rarely are the perpetrators brought to trial.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Europe stands at a crossroads. Whilst 40,000 people turned out to support the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West in Germany, Muslims continue to be economically, culturally, and religiously marginalized in European society. This is not a problem that will just go away. By 2030, eight percent of the European population is expected to be Muslim. Perhaps Europe should examine its recent history with Islam and decide on a new direction. Passing laws that look to limit Islam has not worked and has forced European countries to compromise their own democratic values to do so. European countries instead need to retract all laws that infringe on religious freedom, take a harder stance on discrimination, and work towards a society that is integrative rather than one that builds divides and breeds violence.

Art by Rachel Cunningham.