“Never again” cried the world in 1945. This emotional declaration came following the end of World War II and Hitler’s systematic genocide of up to 6 million Jews, Gypsies, Blacks and other ethnic minorities. Out of its collective shame, the Western powers of the time came together and drafted a series of international laws and conventions designed to prevent such abhorrent acts from ever taking place again.
Numerous treaties were signed and ratified guaranteeing basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. A new age of tolerance and respect and understanding was envisaged, in which people of all faiths and ethnicities would live together in perfect peace and harmony. If any trouble was to be expected, it would come from “rogue states” in the East such as China, Saudi Arabia and Libya, who were opposed to such noble values.
Almost sixty years later, the dream has not become a reality. Yes, gross human rights violations do exist in many countries in the East whom we look upon with disgust (never once considering that it was only due to our leaders’ support for such regimes that they came to power and have stayed in power). But that is “them”, not “us”. Surely, such violations and atrocities couldn’t happen in Europe? Surely, we had learned our lesson??
We in the West like to look upon ourselves as a more civilised and more tolerant people than those living in the Eastern and Islamic world. We possess an inflated sense of superiority and regard ourselves as the guardians and the protectors of human rights which the evil regimes of the East try their utmost to destroy.
So when President Chirac last month decided to follow the Staci Commission’s recommendation to place a ban on all “ostentatious religious symbols” in schools, we began shifting our feet uncomfortably. Sacre Bleu!! What was going on? Wasn’t this a blatant violation of the right to freedom of religion? Had we suddenly woken up and found ourselves in China?
As Muslims around the world began to express their outrage, we frantically began to rush through all the International Treaties and Conventions we hold in such high esteem, as a symbol of our cultural superiority. Yes, there it was, very simple; very clear. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” We rushed to grab our copy of the European Convention on Human Rights. But there it was again; an almost identical phrase under Article 9. Convention after convention, treaty after treaty, we searched and searched but could not deny it; France was openly violating one of the most basic human rights which it had guaranteed to its citizens.
But while we were scratching our heads in astonishment and wonder at what to do, the Muslims around the world had delved much deeper into the issue. This wasn’t a simple violation of freedom of religion. Muslim girls were being forced to choose between their religion and their education. For you see, unlike the Jewish kippa or the Christian cross, the Islamic headscarf is not a symbol of religious expression; it is religiously mandated. For Muslim girls committed to their religion, there is no choice in the matter. Under this new law, these girls will be denied their right to an education and later work. But as Muslims have predicted, this is only the first step. This single law is having a ripple effect throughout France, denying Muslim women civil right after civil right as the ingrained hatred of Islam becomes legitimised.
The levels of discrimination against Muslim girls and women in France are so high that there were already some 400 cases of girls having been suspended or expelled before this decision was taken. Many women have been denied ID cards, passports, driving licenses, work permits because of the way they dress. Women have been turned away from hospitals and banks for wearing headscarves, and in Paris you cannot get married if you wear a scarf to your wedding ceremony. Further as a woman you can no longer refuse medical examination by a male doctor.
Now Chirac wants to legitimise such ingrained hatred. Sound familiar? This is exactly what the Nazis did to the Jewish, Gypsy and Black communities. After an initial propaganda campaign in which the Jews were accused of a litany of crimes and atrocities which shocked the public conscience, Hitler sought to legally deny them the most basic of human rights. By this stage, the public opinion was so hostile towards the Jewish people that such laws seemed the only solution to contain such a dangerous threat to the stability of the Reich.
Similarly, Muslims in France have never truly been accepted by their fellow citizens. With memories of the Algerian war of independence against the French still fresh in the mind, France has always been suspicious of its Muslim citizens, as “Fifth Columnists” or “the Enemy within”. The arrest of Richard Reid, the infamous “shoe bomber”, in Paris, was viewed by many as confirmation of these suspicions. The fact that he was British seemed to elude them. The government, assisted by the media, has crudely sought to build on these fears through an intense campaign of anti-Muslim propaganda. The consequences were ominous. In the land of liberty and equality, an overwhelming majority of the French public expressed their support for President Chirac’s decision.
Most worrying of all has been the reaction of the leaders of Europe to the proposed law. Rather than condemn such a move, other European countries are following suit. Two states in Germany, Bavaria and Baden-Wuttemberg, have already banned the headscarf from schools with four more declaring their intention to do so later this year. It is noteworthy that in Germany, the cross and the kippa have been specifically excluded from such a ban. Last week, Belgium too declared its intention to prohibit the wearing of the headscarf in all public hospitals and schools. It is an alarming trend which is symbolic of the upsurge in institutional Islamophobia in Europe.
Contrast this with the European treatment of another regime which was suspected of denying women the right to education and to work –” the Taleban. Europe and the world launched a brutal campaign of terror against the innocent people of Afghanistan to remove this regime. The slaughter of over 10,000 people is glorified today because it “liberated” the Afghan women. Something tells me the French wont be rationing their food just yet.
As we consistently deny Turkey entry into the EU, we must consider one of the primary reasons for this refusal. Turkey has a horrendous human rights record in which it denies Muslim women the right to wear their headscarf in all public institutions. Consequently many Muslim women have been denied the right to an education and the right to work.
In 1998, a Turkish woman, Huda Kaya, and her three daughters were sentenced to death for attending an anti-hijab ban demonstration. Only after much campaigning was the sentence reduced to ten years imprisonment. In 2002, 72-year old Medine Ercan did receive the death penalty for wearing her hijab. She was denied life-saving medical treatment at a hospital because hospital administrators insisted she reproduce her medical card but without a headscarf.
All these measures are being taken by Turkey in the name of secularism. As European states begin to enact similar legislation in their own countries, one wonders whether we will retain the moral high ground to exclude Turkey from our “Christian Club” in the future.
Secular fundamentalism must be halted immediately. A recent EU poll found that Europeans feared Israel and the USA as the greatest threat to world peace. Tony Blair on the other hand cast his vote in favour of “Islamic terrorism”. In reality, it is secular fundamentalism which has become the scourge of our time. Brutal dictatorships throughout the Islamic world bend over backwards to prove their secularism to the West. If this involves the indefinite detention without trial of innocent people, that’s ok. If this involves the torture of dissidents, that’s ok. If this involves the violation of the rights to education and work, and the freedom of religion, that’s ok. In these countries, secularism means the oppression of Muslims. France’s decision is confirmation of this fact.
There is no doubt that Islamophobia is rampant throughout Europe. Muslims have been the victims of brutal attacks because of their religious identity. Mosques and Islamic Centres have been firebombed. Muslim cemeteries have been vandalised. Anti-Muslim sentiment and negative stereotypes are prevalent and have become aceptable in the media. France’s decision will serve to legitimise this Islamophobia, similar to how Hitler’s laws legitimised the prevalent anti-Semitism in Germany. That was the first step towards the inevitable genocide of the Jews in Europe. Today, Muslims in Europe fear that history may once again repeat itself. Although back then, the world cried “Never Again”, it now seems to be at a loss for words.
I would like to express my thanks to the Islamic Human Rights Commission for their assistance with this article.