A Muslim man prays at the World Islamic Mission Mosque in Oslo July 26, 2011. Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
How’s this for the fashion police? In late May, in a suburb of Brussels, a Muslim woman was arrested for wearing a niqab—the garment worn by a tiny proportion of Muslim women that covers all of the face but the eyes. In the subsequent melee, the woman broke an officer’s nose while being frisked. Her arrest sparked clashes between Muslim youth and police in the area. A week later, the hard-right Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang offered a 250 euro bounty to anyone reporting veiled women to the police.
The Belgian law banning the niqab, like measures across Europe ranging from outlawing the wearing of certain face veils in France to the building of more minarets in Switzerland, was ostensibly aimed at integrating Muslim minorities into Western culture.
To the extent these laws have integrated Muslims into their place in the new hierarchy of European racism—a toxic blend of traditional fascism and Western bigotry posing as secular liberalism—they’ve been successful. But as a tool for promoting inclusion and equality, these laws have singularly failed. Indeed, this bid to prevent the importation of “radical Islam” has been both laughable and lamentable. The Belgian woman in question was a locally born convert, as were the girls at the heart of the French head scarf law, whose father is Jewish.
The response of Europe’s political class to the presence of Muslim minorities can be described most generously as a moral panic, and most accurately as a repressive legislative and rhetorical onslaught. A number of states from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have gone to extraordinary lengths to ban what women can wear, what people can say, and where and how they can worship. Disproportionate in scale and disingenuous in conception, these laws—whatever their stated intent—were not about tackling any serious threat of Islamic extremism. Switzerland passed a referendum in 2009 outlawing the building of minarets; the country has four. In Denmark the same year, a call for a burqa ban prompted a study revealing that just three women wore it, while only 150 to 200 wore the niqab, a third of whom were Danish converts. “The burqa and the niqab do not have their place in the Danish society,” insisted Danish Premier Lars Rasmussen a year later. That’s true, but then they never really did.
Nor could these laws be about helping isolated communities that are culturally incapable of integration. A Gallup poll in 2009 showed that British Muslims were more likely to identify as British than British people as a whole. A Pew Research Center survey in 2006 showed that the principal concerns of Muslims in France, Germany and Spain were unemployment and Islamic extremism.
Finally, these laws couldn’t be about some broader demographic “threat” that Muslims pose to the continent. A Pew study, published in January 2011, forecast the number of Muslims in Europe’s population increasing from 6 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2030. There’s a higher proportion of Asians in New Jersey than Muslims in France, the country with the highest concentration in Western Europe.