539. Man in Blue – Religious Symbols, Clothing and Headwear

In the public space (e.g. the street): There are rarely problems about religious symbols, clothing and headwear worn in public spaces, with the exception of the niqab and the burka. A general ban on niqab or burka is not the right way of tackling the issue of identification of people wearing face covering clothing.

There should be regulations on how people wearing face covering items of clothing can be identified, both taking into account the security aspect and the respect for the persons who have to be identified. Security checks based on face recognition should only happen when there is a real security issue and should take place inside an enclosed space, eg a police van, and in the presence of female officers only.

I do not understand why some Muslim woman feel that they have to wear a niqab or a burka, but it is not down to us to decide what others do.

When discussing wearing of religious symbols, clothing and headgear we should start from ‘first principles’: why ban anything if there is no harm to others, why ban if there is no negative effect on the service given/work done. Banning does not make the affected person ‘neutral’. Health and safety issues can be solved with some flexibility and creativity.

In employment (business, factories): Declaring a business or factory ‘neutral’ should not be used as an excuse for discrimination of people who wear religious symbols, headwear or clothing. General bans should be declared to be against any kind of liberal equalities law.

In public institutions (eg schools, hospitals, municipal offices): The laws on disability allow discrimination based on the ability/inability of a person to do a particular job, not on the basis of the fact that they have ‘a disability’.

The same principle should apply to employing a person wearing religious symbols, headwear or clothing. The public institution does not become Islamic, Sikh, Christian or Jewish by having employees of these faith traditions on the staff, and these staff members are Islamic, Sikh, Christian or Jewish, symbols or not.

The criterion should be: are they doing a good job, do they give a good service? The judge wearing a hijab, yarmulke or turban should deliver justice to all. In most European countries it would be very unequal if people who wear religious symbols, headwear or clothing were not part of the police, the army or the judiciary.

We want the people of different backgrounds to fully take part in society, but at the same time put up barriers that excludes people of minorities. This is counterproductive. Young Sikhs and Muslims in Belgium often feel that whatever they do, the country does not want them.

I do not claim that the above addresses all aspects of the religious symbols issue, but my piece contains arguments that are based on the principles underlying the EU directives on the various strands of diversity. Those that oppose the wearing of symbols often believe that being equal means that we should all be the same.

The article was written after discussions between people of faiths and humanists from different European Countries

533. The Man in Blue – The Vote in Gent (Ghent) Council

I have lived and worked in Belgium from June 2010 till June 2013. In that period a lot of time and energy was spent by Sikh activists on trying to get more access to secondary schools for those of our youngsters who wear patkas or turbans.

In 2010 there was only one secondary school that allowed students wearing religious ‘headgear’ in Sint-Truiden. When I left in 2013 there were none. When I arrived most primary schools allowed patkas, now only the ‘free’ (Roman Catholic) primary schools allow them.

Instead of going forward we have gone backward. The history of Belgium is quite different from that of France and the Netherlands. Belgium only became an independent country in 1830. During the time when what is now Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and later the Austrian Habsburgs the state, and therefore education, was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Initially after independence the same condition applied and it was only after a long struggle that ‘neutral’ state schools were founded, and there is still in the state school sector a tendency to keep all things ‘religious’ outside the schools. The schools are not really neutral, they are humanist or agnostic schools.
Add to this the modern factors of xenophobia/islamophobia and you understand why there is such a strong movement for neutral schools and neutral government services.

But it is not all bad news. The current chair of the socialist party of the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking region has proposed abolishing of bans on the wearing of religious symbols. This was followed up in Gent, where employees of the city who in any way deal with the public could not wear religious symbols.

Since the last local election the city is ruled by a coalition of Socialists, (conservative) Liberals and Greens. They had agreed to leave the ban in place, but their hand was forced by a petition against the ban. The petition had sufficient signatures to force the council to have a debate followed by a vote.

As Greens and Socialists have a majority in the council and there was also some support from others (but not from the Liberals) the ban on the wearing of religious symbols was abolished.

The Liberals indentify strongly with the fight for neutral state schools, but also many members of the Socialist members identify with it. The debate in the socialist party is far from over, although even its Antwerpen branch has come out against the ban.

But the political reality in the Dutch speaking part of the country is that there is a good chance that the nationalist NVA will win up to 40% of the vote in the 2014 elections. And that party is totally against the wearing of religious symbols in ‘neutral’ schools and government buildings.