Following his Hamas-hummus prank in the movie Bruno, one could imagine a Sacha Baron-Cohen character quickly dismissing the idea of banning the burqa: How could we do that!? Throw away so much tradition? Pastry filled with delicious mashed potatoes … even cheese or mushrooms. The burqa has been one of the great contributions to middle eastern cuisine … it’s hard to believe that any country would want to ban it!
Following bans in France and Belgium, the burqa debate has now made its way to Australia, with a Liberal Party senator calling for its ban in the wake of a bandit using it as a disguise. This in turn led to the whole issue being politicized with comments from both Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd. The opinion pages are rather polarized on the issue, with the burqa ban either pandering to xenophobia, or a boost for equality. There doesn’t appear to be much middle ground on this, and both those for and against the burqa ban have somehow been able to argue that their position is one that promotes human rights.
The question is: what does this mean to the Jewish community, and can/should there be a united position on the issue?
While the ban in France originated as a consequence of Muslim immigration, it does have roots in the strong separation between Church and State in that country, and has been applied equally to garments associated with other religions, including large crosses, yarmulkes, and turbans. If we as Jews support a ban on the burqa, are we opening the door for similar rules against traditional Jewish clothes?
Friends of mine have been asked to remove their yarmulke for passport photos, or to remove their hair-covering at airport security. In the cases mentioned to me, the people in question have asserted their right to dress in accordance with the requirements of their religion, and ultimately, this was respected by the officials and if necessary, a compromise was reached. As Jews, we do need to stand up for our right to dress as our customs require if this is being challenged.
In Australia, we already have laws that restrict people from walking into a bank while wearing a helmet or balaclava that obscures their face. These same laws would seemingly also apply to someone wearing a burqa; so from a safety perspective, there seems little need to extend what we already have.
Muddying this debate is the fact that a federal election is looming, and Kevin Rudd is very much on the back foot after a series of policy back flips and an apparent reposition of the Labor Party away from the values many people voted him in on. His comments have already stood as a subtle warning to the opposition of the danger of making this an election issue. From what I hear of the talkback radio discussion on this topic, such a debate doesn’t seem to bring out the best in Australians.
The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.