- - Wednesday, August 8, 2018

There’s something rotten in Denmark. But don’t take it from us (or from the Bard), but from the Danes themselves. Evidently not pleased with the pace at which the country’s large Muslim population — more than 5 percent of the Danish nation — is being absorbed by the body politic, Denmark has banned the wearing of face veils in public, effective this month. The bill does not specifically target face veils, but declares that “anyone who wears a garment that hides the face in public will be punished with a fine.”

The first citation has been issued. A 28-year-old woman was fined 1,000 kroner (about $150) for wearing a niqab in the city of Horsholm. Repeated violators face fines of up to 10,000 kroner. In the Horsholm case, the penalty was imposed after a fight at a shopping center in which one woman tried to rip the face veil off another. Not exactly a sign of good will. “During the fight her niqab came off,” said a policeman, “but by the time we arrived she had put it back on again.”

Bans on face veils in public spaces are often attacked as an affront to religious liberty. But that’s hardly so. Despite their common use among Muslim women, and despite popular misconception, there’s no specific commandment within Islam ordering the wearing of a burka, which covers everything from head to toe, hiding the eyes, or niqabs which leaves the eyes unveiled. The Koran, the Islamic holy book, simply mandates that followers dress modestly and obscure “any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary.”

The regulation applies to both men and women. Wearing face veils is cultural, not religious, but in many Islamic nations there’s little difference between culture and religion. Covering up began in Iran (then called Persia) in the 10th century and spread to Arab lands. Today it’s mostly associated with the Wahhabi form of extreme Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

As a cultural practice, donning a face veil is an uncomfortable one for Europeans, where the bikini was invented, named for the atoll in the South Pacific where nuclear testing was done after the end of World War II. (The effect of a bikini can indeed be explosive, depending on who’s wearing it.) France, home of the largest Muslim population in Western Europe — about 10 percent of the population of 70 million — banned full-face coverings in public in 2011, with fines of 150 euros for violators. Belgium quickly followed with a similar ban, with violators subject to seven days in jail and fines of more than 1,000 euros. A Netherlands ban applies only to people in public spaces like public trains, schools, and hospitals. A 2014 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ruled that veil bans do not “breach human rights,” enabling further restrictions.

The Canadian province of Quebec banned face veils last year, though that remains on hold by a court order. Australia is pondering a ban. The African nations of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and the Republic of Congo have bans in all or parts of the country.

One argument for such bans is safety. Full-face veils obscure the identity of their wearer; burkas make it easier to hide weapons or bombs. The other, more controversial argument, is cultural. The sensible notion that a 10th century costume, one that separates women from the public and arguably marks them as a little less than human, has no place in a modern society.

That was the argument that former President Nicolas Sarkozy made in 2011 to obtain the French ban. “The full veil is not welcome in France because it runs contrary to our values and contrary to the idea we have of a woman’s dignity,” he said. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is open to most things, not all of them sensible, nevertheless proposed a ban of burkas in 2016.

“We say, ‘Show your face,’” she said. “Full veiling is not appropriate here. It should be prohibited wherever legally possible.” She argued that veils make integration more difficult, a compelling argument in a country straining under the mass arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. “From my standpoint, a fully veiled woman scarcely has a chance at full integration in Germany.”

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