From banning burqas to B&B bigots: can Europe tolerate religious tolerance?

Sunday 31 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery

This year, Belgium and France both took steps towards banning women from wearing the Muslim burqa in public, and similar bans have been seriously discussed elsewhere in Europe. Meanwhile Switzerland has banned minarets. So is Europe now putting its own ‘secular’ culture before religious toleration?

The legacy of the Reformation and religious wars, followed by the Enlightenment, spawned a particular tradition of secularism in Europe based on the separation of religion and politics, and the principle of tolerance. Of course, religious conflict was never completely stamped out, but until recently it was assumed that religion was becoming less important, as the process of secularisation unfolded, and enlightened, liberal values took the place of superstition and deference to religious authorities. This assumption has been upset most starkly by the growth of Muslim communities all over Europe, made very visible by the appearance of women in headscarves and burqas, as well as more dramatic manifestations like the protests against the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons in 2004 and 2005. Following 9/11 and 7/7, the presence of large communities within Europe who seem not to share its values has caused panic among many would-be guardians of European secular liberalism. Are they right to see the burqa as a symbol of dangerous reaction that must be suppressed? Or are such concerns overblown, and even racist?

In Britain too there have been heated debates about hijabs and niqabs, but tellingly, concerns about religious threats to secular values are not confined to Islam. When then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said before the general election that he thought Christian bed and breakfast owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples, there was an outcry, and all mainstream commentators agreed that the law should prevent any such discrimination. But some conservative Christians have protested that it is they who suffer discrimination, or even persecution, because of their religion. For them, it is not Islam that threatens to undermine traditional culture, but a militant secularism. The debate about faith schools and whether they should be allowed to privilege members of their given religion reveals a similar tension. So who is tolerating whom, or not?

At the heart of the issue is a conflict over what secularism means: is it about leaving religion behind and embracing modern, liberal values, or instead about allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference? Should religion have special treatment, in the form of exemptions from equality legislation, for example? Or is such legislation itself too prescriptive for a truly secular and multicultural society? Should we all be free to discriminate according to our own consciences? Should Europe stick up for its liberal values against religious threats, or turn the other cheek?


Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
Dr Evan Harris
campaigner for secularism in the public sphere; former science spokesman, Liberal Democrats; writer, Guardian Political Science blog

Abid Raja
chair, Minotek, Norway; author, Dialogue on Violence, Suppression and Extremism

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Chair:
Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Recommended readings
The intolerant legacy of multiculturalism

Germany’s angry debate about immigration has its roots in the multiculturalist emphasis on difference.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl, spiked, 25 October 2010

Don’t ban the burqa - but don’t celebrate it, either

Both Europe’s burqa-banners and burqa-defenders are denigrating tolerance by inviting the state to police our beliefs and thoughts.

Brendan O’Neil, spiked, 25 October 2010

The politics of secularism

Ian Buruma’s short book is a kind of sequel to Death in Amsterdam, his book about the murder of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance. It goes beneath the superficial counterpositions of today’s religion debates – religion versus secularism, multiculturalism versus intolerance – to identify some more interesting dynamics at work.

Dolan Cummings, Culture Wars, 19 September 2010

Banning the burqa is an assault on secular values

The fools who want to obliterate the face veil in the name of Enlightened values clearly don't know what Enlightenment is all about.

Tim Black, spiked, 19 July 2010

Syria and the niqab: Take it off

A secular-minded government rejects excessively religious dress in school

Economist, 15 July 2010

Why France is banning the veil

Sarkozy's legislation is only the latest move in a centuries-old grapple between the French state and organised religion

Ruth Harris, Prospect, 14 July 2010

Veiled Threats?

In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places — reversing a vote the week before in the country’s upper house of parliament supporting a ban. Similar proposals may soon become national law in France and Belgium.

Martha Nussbaum, New York Times, 12 July 2010

Are Women's Rights Really the Issue?

On Wednesday, Spain became the latest European country to advance legislation to ban burqas and other such face veils. Many of those in favor of such laws cite women's rights, but does criminalizing their clothing help?

Der Spiegel, 25 June 2010

Fear masquerading as tolerance

Postwar Europe was built on an intolerance of intolerance and a downplaying of national tradition—a mindset praised as anti-racism and ridiculed as political correctness. It has often made integrating newcomers hard

Christopher Caldwell, Prospect, 4 May 2009

Is God returning to Europe?

A leading US Christian says that faith in Europe will be re-energised by a creative Christian minority and by the example of Islam. But he is too sanguine about the integration of Muslims and about

Eric Kaufmann, Prospect, 25 November 2007

Why should we defend the veil?

Even if hijab-wearing is a genuine choice, does that make it obligatory for us to respect it? Any more than hijab-wearers respect women who wear shamefully little? What we would not ban, we do not have to condone.

Cathrine Bennet, Guardian, 23 January 2004

Festival Buzz

You Can't Say That with Dennis Hayes

"This is an event where I feel that I can say exactly what I think - which is an extremely rare situation these days."
Geoff Dench, Senior fellow, Young Foundation

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