On April 17, a refugee camp at Kohat in Pakistan was struck by two suicide bombers that disguised themselves with burqas, the full-body veil worn by some Muslim women to make sure none of their skin is exposed. The attacks, which killed 41 people and injured 62, are sure to heighten the debate in Europe about whether wearing burqas and niqabs in public should be banned.
A parliamentary committee in Belgium has unanimously approved such a ban, with the final vote in the House of Representatives coming April 22 and it is expected to pass. Movements to ban the burqa in Europe are quickly growing due to concern that the burqas can be used to disguise the identities of terrorists planning attacks like those that just happened in Pakistan and over the lack of assimilation of Muslim immigrant communities.
These concerns are not unfounded. Even though Islam frowns upon cross-dressing, male terrorists dressing up as burqa-clad women in order to carry out attacks is becoming more and more part of their modus operandi. This tactic has even been used by bank robbers and other criminals on many occasions, including in the U.S., as thoroughly documented by Daniel Pipes.
Terrorists have repeatedly donned burqas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in the United Kingdom, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, India, Somalia and Mauritania. In the United Kingdom, one man who tried to set off a bomb in July 2005 in London was able to escape by wearing a burqa. The use of this clothing makes counter-terrorism more difficult because female police, which are in shorter supply, must be used to search those wearing it. The police chief of Iraq’s Babil Province in August 2008 complained about this after two burqa-wearing females attacked Shiite piligrims.
Daniel Bacquelaine of the Reformist Movement party in Belgium says that he supports the ban because it contradicts liberal democratic values. “There is nothing in Islam or the Koran about the burqa. It has become an instrument of intimidation, and is a sign of submission of women. And a civilized society cannot accept the imprisonment of women,” he told TIME Magazine. The argument follows that the ban, therefore, does not violate freedom of religion since it is more of a cultural practice than something mandated by Islam. Of course, radical Salafists like those in Saudi Arabia would disagree.
Banning or at least severely limit the wearing of burqas will cause outrage in the Muslim world and raises legitimate questions about civil liberty violations. However, a surprising amount of Muslims, including imams, support the ban. The Conference of French Imams has declared its support of the ban, saying it is not required in Islam. The chairman of the group, Hassen Chalghoumi, has had his Paris mosque stormed and has received death threats in response.
The ruling of the group of French imams is supported by Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, who was until his death in March the Grand Mufti of Egypt and highest Sunni authority in the Islamic world. In October, Tantawi created a stir when told a student to remove her niqab, saying it “had no connection with religion” and said it shouldn’t be worn, especially in schools.
A female Muslim in the U.K. has written an op-ed saying that “Nowhere in the Koran does it state that a woman’s face and body must be covered in a layer of heavy black cloth. Instead, Muslim women should dress modestly, covering their arms and legs.” She favors the ban because it “is a sign of creeping radicalization” and “is an imported Saudi Arabian tradition.”
Dounia Bouzar, a female Muslim who sits on the board of the Council of the Muslim Faith in France, is particularly forceful in her opposition to the burqa. “Imposition of this garment on women is one manner Salafists get individuals to renounce their individuality and submit to the extremist cult thinking that masquerades as Islam—but which is an abomination of it,” she says.
When an Indian college in September 2009 banned the burqa (and went one step further and banned the headscarf), some Muslim leaders defended the decision. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the author of over 200 books about Islam, said that it is “un-Islamic” to force anyone to dress a certain way, and that “the burqa is not part of Islam.” He was even lenient about the headscarf ban, saying to respect the rules of the school, and “if you don’t agree, you quit the college.” A professor at a New Delhi school that is a Muslim scholar agreed, saying “the burqa has become the symbol of rigidity and has nothing to do with Islam” and recommended that students not wear it at school.
Terrorists have shown that they have no qualms about using burqas as a disguise to carry out attacks with. The European movement to outlaw the wearing of the burqa is understandable in light of the criminal and violent activities carried out by wearing the clothing. Such a ban brings up legitimate civil liberties concerns, but those that disagree are obligated to offer a different solution. If Belgium becomes the first country to enforce the ban and other states take similar measures, they can count on extremists to portray it as proof that the West has declared war on Islam, but there will be plenty of brave Muslims that will not allow that theme to go unchallenged.