There's one thing that the current debate in Germany over banning the burqa has nothing to do with: security. A weapon or explosives, after all, can be hidden under any jacket or in any backpack -- and whether a person's face is veiled has nothing to do with it. Nor does the debate really have anything to do with integration, because banning the burqa will not lead to anyone's integration. The debate isn't even addressing a real issue: Only a tiny fraction of Muslim women in Germany are entirely veiled.
The debate has more to do with party politics and electioneering. In a complicated integration debate, the burqa is like manna from heaven for those who seek to over-simplify: Everyone can have their say and a ban simulates decisiveness, making it look like one of the problems Germany faces when integrating Muslims has been solved.
In the final analysis, the debate is really about fear -- the fear German conservatives have of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany. And our fear of Islam. The burqa -- or more precisely, full body veils worn by Muslim women -- has become the symbol of everything that we reject in Islam. And when an enlightened society becomes engulfed in a debate over a symbolic problem, then this fear must be pretty big indeed.
Clothing, especially for females, has always been a part of the battlefield in the cultural clash between tradition and modernity. We long fought over how much skin it was acceptable to show, but today the debate is over the amount of veiling we are willing to accept. In Europe, veiling has become symbolic of Islam's suppression of women -- a point of view shared by some, but not all, Muslim women. But for us Westerners, veiling also represents foreignness and undesirability. Nothing symbolizes the ominous and opaque side of Islam better than a scarf that obscures a person's identity. Whether we tolerate the burqa or not is a question that serves to highlight the limits of our tolerance.
Domineering and Arrogant
Among those demanding a burqa ban, two motives are intertwined -- one egotistical and the other altruistic. The ban is to protect our free society from fundamentalist Islam -- that's the egotistical drive. But it is also meant to liberate Muslim women -- that's the altruistic part. Behind the second motive is the assumption that no woman voluntarily wears the veil, but that is wrong. It may be true that women in the Islamic world do not have equal rights. In Iran, there are millions of women who hate the headscarf and would happily shed it immediately. At the same time, in Egypt, Turkey or the Maghreb states of North Africa, where there are no laws requiring it, more women are wearing the headscarf today than did so 20 years ago. It's a symbol for them too -- a way of differentiating themselves from a West they view as domineering and arrogant.
A significant number of the women in full-body veils in Germany are Arab tourists on shopping trips. Many more are converts, women who, in their search for meaning, stability and community have found their way to radical Islam in much the same way people become Scientologists or Jehovah's Witnesses. To them, wearing the full-body covering is a form of targeted provocation, a kind of protest. We should react to them just as we do to mohawks and large tattoos, other forms of visible provocation.
You can't force societal progress by banning religious symbols and traditions. Every forced liberation evokes a counter-reaction: That was the case when Atatürk banned Turkish women from wearing the veil and when Reza Shah did the same in Iran. It also happened when Peter the Great ordered the Boyars to shave off their beards. Liberation must come from within -- Muslim women must win the battle on their own, and they've been fighting for some time.
Pick your battles, they say -- a sentiment that also applies to strong countries like Germany that are based on the rule of law. A few fully covered women do not threaten our freedoms. Nor will they set back women's emancipation in Europe. Of course we expect Muslims in Germany to adhere to our constitution. But that same constitution also sets high hurdles when it comes to curbing religious freedoms or other civil liberties. And clothing rules are a massive incursion on personal rights.
Banning the burqa is irrelevant to the fight Islamist fundamentalism and to the battle for the liberation of Muslim women. It would merely save us from having to look at them. What we should instead be doing is extending a helping hand to those who are suppressed in the form of language courses, neighborhood meetings or invitations for a coffee. We should be confident that our way of life is attractive enough that it encourages imitative forms of emancipation.