HRS International

Behind a veil of indignation

These days the burka and niqab are topics of intense debate in Denmark, while Norway once again seems to have landed in a hijab debate, this time involving the possible prohibition of political and religious symbols on the judge’s bench. Meanwhile, what’s going on in Sweden? Philip Wendahl reports that in Sweden, too, outfits that cover the entire body are also being debated – especially in connection with Alia Khalifa, who demands to be allowed to continue training for day-care center work while wearing niqab. Such demands symbolize the Islamization of Europe, argues Wendahl, who believes that it is undesirable for society to adapt itself to a small, but loud, group of religious extremists – and that it is especially undesirable when we call to mind the ”new Europeans” who have fled from oppressive religious regimes in search of Western secular democracy.

By Philip Wendahl, for HRSThe responsibility for the outsider status and segregation of immigrants in Sweden lies, to a large extent, with politicians who haven’t been able to address the problem responsibly. But it also lies in part with those individuals who have chosen not to integrate themselves. Migration across international boundaries fosters dynamism and diversity, but just as with everything else there are certain rules of play. We must be permitted to demand that those who come to a country for the first time don’t try to impose their norms upon that country but rather integrate into the shared fundamental values that serve to keep the society together. Many of those who flee to countries like Sweden do so because of religious conflicts and oppression in places like bigotry-ridden Pakistan or theocratic Iran. It is highly important that Sweden continues to be able to serve as a sanctuary for victims – but never for perpetrators. It should be possible for people to move across borders, but it is another thing for medieval ideals and views of (for example) gays and women to be transported along with them. One example is religion’s perverse demand for control of women by means of total bodily coverage in the form of the burka or niqab. Alia Khalifa’s demand that she be allowed to wear such an outfit – that, in short, Swedish society should adapt to her norms instead of the other way around – is ridiculous, since freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion for the rest of us. In Sweden, exceptions have been made in the Aliens Act that permit child marriage and that deprive the children of religious parents of the right to sex education and swimming classes. In addition, we accept veils that cover women’s entire faces and we pump money into religious ”cultural associations.” When children are forced to live in rigid communities, they are being denied their individual freedom. Sweden must once and for all stop tolerating intolerance.We cannot accept a state of affairs in which religious institutions are permitted to retain a primitive view of humanity. It is therefore high time that we close down Sweden’s private religious schools, stop funding so-called ethnic ”cultural associations” and prohibit full-covering veils in public.Instead we should be helping Europe’s millions of Muslims to make use of the freedom of expression they have obtained here not only to distance themselves from the most abominable aspects of Islam but also to reform and secularize their religion. Thanks to Sweden’s secular democracy, they can choose to leave communities that squelch critical thinking, stifle children’s development, and prevent integration – and herein lies the main point.One may wonder how it is that certain people who flee from oppression and delusionary religion choose to live under the same circumstances in their new democratic countries? If Muslims choose to emigrate to open and developed societies, it is reasonable to expect that they adapt to those societies. Just as we no longer permit Orthodox Jewish courts in Sweden, we cannot permit sharia courts or other special or parallel religious legislation of the sort that is unfortunately allowed in such countries as Canada.

Even in Sweden, demands have been made to introduce sharia law for the Muslim population. Even in Sweden, demands have been made for the censorship of newspapers. And in fact demands for the prohibition of such things as images of the prophet Muhammed, as well as other such demands, have met with approval by cowardly cultural relativists in positions of power. This is unacceptable.

We in Sweden must have the courage to rally round and defend those things that most of us believe in – namely our democracy, our freedom of speech, our equality, and our sexual liberation. We do not wish to become like Iran or Saudi Arabia. We do not want our courts to order the stoning of adulteresses or the hanging of homosexuals. We have already been there, back in the dark days when Christianity in its rawest form ran rampant in Europe. We do not ever wish to return to that again.

It is not unreasonable or intolerant, then, to demand that newcomers to Sweden play by the rules of democracy. We should not, like some nationalists, expect people to swear fealty to crayfish parties, the balanced diet chart, the royal family, or other aspects of traditional Swedish culture – but at the same time we should expect that everyone who lives in Sweden will live according to the same democratic system of values that the rest of us do.

Bangalor-born Philip Wendahl lives in Sweden and is the secretary of the party Liberal Mångfold (FP)

Translated from the Swedish by Bruce Bawer.