This House would ban religious symbols in public buildings

The topic of tolerance towards religious symbols has caused much controversy among many both in the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Religious symbols are incorporated into every religion and are expressions of both faith and devotion. Examples of religious symbols include the Christian, particularly Catholic, Crucifix, the Muslim Hijab and the Sikh Kirpan. For many people, particularly from the West, the Hijab or Muslim head covering symbolises the repressive and extremely regressive character of Islam. However, for its supporters, it represents the defence of women's modesty against the assault of modern society. In this way, religious symbols and their meanings and consequences differ depending on cultural perception. Recent controversy has arisen around France's plan to ban the Hijab, along with other visible religious symbols, in schools. France's secular constitution provides the grounds for excluding religion from their schools. However it is not just western countries who have taken this approach. Turkey has for many years suppressed the Hijab in schools, public buildings and among employees of the state. In the aftermath of 9/11, many minority Muslim communities in western countries view attacks on the Hijab as part of a wider attack on Islam conducted in tandem with the 'War on Terror'. In a similar way, there is anxiety as to the freedom to bring Sikh Kirpans' to school because they are ceremonial daggers. It should be noted that the Sikh religion requires the Kirpan to carried with the Sikh at all times. In this way, the practice of the religion is seen to be restricted and can, therefore, be possibly considered as discrimination. However, there are other forms of religious symbolism that are not necessarily a requirement of the religion and are merely an expression of faith. There was recent controversy over a British woman who lost her job simply because she continued wearing a Crucifix after she was told not to by her employers. All of these points present an interesting question. Should authorities be more lenient on religious symbols that are a requirement of the person? Also, should there be a limit to physical or material expressions of faith?

Title 
Many symbols are seen as a symbol of oppression on women.
Point 

Religious symbols are seen to, in some cases, increase the equality divide between genders. As an example, the Muslim Hijab is considered by some as a very powerful symbol for the oppression of women, particularly in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan where it is compulsory. Therefore, when it is worn in Western countries that encourage democracy and equality, the wearing of the Hijab is seen as almost counter-productive to the goals of democratic society. For this reason Belgium has recently banned the wearing of the full Muslim veil, much like France in 2010.1 Often Muslim dress rules for women are seen as more severe than those for men. Inequality between men and women is a form of discrimination and liberal societies should fight all forms of discrimination.

1 'Belgian ban on full veils comes into force', BBC News Europe, 23rd July 2011, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Counterpoint 

Religious symbols are not seen as oppressive by those who choose to wear them. Many Muslim women view the veil as a means to protect their modesty and privacy. Just as we would not force any women to be seen in public in her underwear if she did not feel comfortable doing so, why should a woman be forced to show her hair if she does not want to? Modesty is a personal judgement call; some are comfortable in the smallest bikini while others prefer a lot more clothing. No one but the woman herself should make that decision. In fact, concerning the ban of the veil in Belgium, Muslim women have immediately challenged it and regard the ban as discriminatory.1

'Belgian ban on full veils comes into force', BBC News Europe, 23rd July 2011, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Title 
Religious symbols cause problems in schools.
Point 

As well as division in society in general, religious symbols are also a source of division within school environments. The Hijab causes schools many problems. It is potentially divisive in the classroom, marking some children out as different from the others and above the rules that the school enforces for everyone else. This may lead to alienation and bullying. Full headscarves may also be impractical or dangerous in some lessons, for example PE, swimming, or in technology and science lessons where machinery is being operated. In the same way, there have been discussions as to whether to ban the display of Crucifixes in public classrooms. Authorities in Italy have followed through with the ban saying that such a Christian symbol segregates those who are not Christian.1

'Decision due in Crucifix ban case', Times of Malta, March 17th 2011, accessed on 24th July 2011

Counterpoint 

Intolerant schools cause more problems for not allowing freedom of religious expression. In a multicultural society, students should be aware of the different religious practices and cultural traditions of their classmates, and be taught to understand and respect these. Without such respect, religious groups with distinctive symbols, such as Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and Christians, will be driven out of mainstream education and forced to educate their children separately.1 As for the worry about safety issues, particularly concerning hair length, most classroom accidents occur when loose, long hair gets caught in machinery or in a flame which would not be a problem when hair is held in place under a headscarf.

'Religious Rights and Wrongs', The Economist, 4th September 2008, accessed 24th July 2011

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Title 
Religious symbols cause division within Western society.
Point 

Religious symbols can be seen as possible tools for fuelling division within society. When some women wear the Hijab it creates pressure on other Muslim women to also cover their heads. Pressure comes both socially from wanting to look like other women in their community and religiously from imams and family leaders pressing for observance. As such, Muslims themselves are divided and religious oppression against women is internalized.1 Approving of Muslim head coverings in society cements the Hijab as an essential tenet of Islam, in the minds of non-Muslims as well as believers. However, many different schools of Islam exist and as on other issues, they often disagree how to interpret the Koran's dress prescriptions. Moderate interpretations accept modest forms of modern dress while severe interpretations require full covering with the Burka or similar veil. Banning the veil furthers the cause of moderate interpretations and prevents the entrenchment of severe interpretations.

Rumy Hassan, 'Banning the hijab', Workers Power 283 February 2004, accessed on 24th July 2011

Counterpoint 

Muslim women are not the only ones to feel a cultural division over their mode of dress. Most people are affected by the societal norms surrounding them. Fashion trends could be seen in exactly the same light as religious traditions. Banning head coverings is only likely to provoke a more extreme reaction among highly religious communities1. Framing laws to ban only Islamic forms of dress could be considered an attack on one religion. Feeling under attack could cause the Islamic community to close off into itself. They could set up religious schools where their children can dress as they want them to and not mix with children from other faiths. These effects could never be good for the integration of society and would further the influence of extremists. Internationally, the perceived attack on Islamic values would inflame wider Muslim opinion, feed conspiracy theories and add to the dangerous feeling that there is a clash of civilisations.

'France Bans Burqas: A Look At Islamic Veil Laws In Europe', Huffpost World, 4th April 2011, accessed on 24th July 2011

Title 
A ban would be simple to enforce.
Point 

A ban would be simple to create and enforce. Religious symbols are for the most part meant to be shown therefore it is simple for police or authorities to check that someone is not wearing them. There are many societies that have had bans on a religious symbol in public buildings, for example in France where there is a ban on religious symbols in schools has been in force since 2004. In France the ban is made even easier to enforce by restricting it to 'conspicuous' religious apparel.1 Moreover when the ban is only when entering public buildings it can be enforced by the teacher, or the building's security guards rather than being an issue for the police to deal with.

BBC News, 'French scarf ban comes into force', 2 September 2004, accessed 28/8/11

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Counterpoint 

Deciding what people can and can’t wear should not be the responsibility of schools. Enforcement may be potentially simple but only at the cost of creating a conflict between schools and their Muslim pupils and staff.

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Title 
Western societies are secularly focused
Point 

Many societies are founded on secular values that do not permit the sponsorship of any religion by the state. British society aspires to this and has consciously acted to separate religion from state authority with many organisations such as the National Secular Society encouraging the suppression of any religious expression in public places.1 In this climate it is important that all citizens of the state are seen as equal. If some dress differently to others, deliberately identifying themselves as members of one religion, this can harm the unity and ethos of the state. This holds particularly true for institutions of the state like schools and government offices. In this way, it is possible to deduce that religious symbols are detrimental to the secular and equality focused identity of Western society.

'UK: One Law for all and the National Secular Society Back Bill that Aims to Curb Sharia Courts', 11th June 2011, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Counterpoint 

Even though the wearing of religious symbols could be a part of that specific religions' culture and practice, it must be remembered that Western society and culture brands itself as secular and, therefore, should take precedence over clashes with minority cultural practices. In Britain there has been controversy over movements to include Sharia Law in the British legal system, which ties in with this same argument of culture clashes concerning religious methods.1 Essentially, the question arises as to how far is tolerance for different cultural practices detrimental for the maintenance of a secular British culture and state.

Abul Taher, 'Revealed: UK's first official sharia courts', The Sunday Times, 14th September 2008, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Title 
Banning religious symbols is just a way of unfairly targeting people.
Point 

Banning religious symbols could be viewed as just a way of targeting a group of people. In a nutshell, religious symbols would be used as a scapegoat in order to both highlight and blame for problems that are much bigger. Removing the hijab, the Crucifix or the Jewish skullcap would take away someone's culture, religion and heritage, and, therefore, banning them would cause more problems.1 It could potentially increase hatred within religious groups, and lead to more racism and more criticism, ultimately making the country a worse place to live.

1 at 'Belgian ban on full veils comes into force', BBC News Europe, 23rd July 2011, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Counterpoint 

A ban on religious symbols would not be targeting the whole religious group. It would highlight the problems of symbols, such as the veil or Kirpan, within the boundaries of society. At the end of the day, full Muslim veils can be used as a disguise and, therefore, could pose a s a potential problem to the general population of people.1 If hundreds were people were killed by someone wearing a veil, would people be defending it then? In this way, it is the same for people wearing hoodies nowadays. A few tearaways and everyone socially brands them as criminals, or "chavs." This scares people, especially the elderly and as such poses a risk not just to their health, but also to their safety. As a result, the religious symbols such as full veils should be banned due to safety concerns.

'Belgian committee votes for full Islamic veil ban', BBC News, 31st March 2010, accessed 24th July 2011

Title 
Religious symbols are personal, therefore, they should not matter to others.
Point 

At the end of the day, the wearing of religious symbols is the choice of the individual. Many have considered intervention in the practice of religion and symbolism as an intrusion into privacy and individuality. The recent bans on the full Muslim veil, particularly in Belgium, have been criticised for causing those who feel they have an obligation to wear it to be ostracised and forced to be confined within their own home.1

'Belgian ban on full veils comes into force', BBC News Europe, 23rd July 2011, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Counterpoint 

Some argue that religious symbols, particularly those that are clearly seen, are not just for personal benefit. They affect the safety of the society around them. For example, there have been worries about how the Muslim full-veil may be used as a disguise for terrorists and how veils make it harder to ascertain someone's identity. Therefore, some symbols at least involve others, maybe even unintentionally, through the uneasiness and suspicion they cause.

'The Islamic Veil Across Europe', BBC News, 15th June 2010, accessed on 25th July 2011

Title 
If you ban one thing, you have to ban lots of things.
Point 

Every religious symbol should be treated equally so as not to cause discrimination. It's just not viable to ban one symbol. If you ban something, for example, as sacred and religious as the Muslim veil, people will then start rallying cries for other things to be banned. At the end of the day, if the Government feels that it is in the best interests of society not to ban the veil, then we have to believe them. Really if one thing is banned then the uproar that would happen would have significantly worse consequences than before the ban. There have been worries about the banning of the Sikh Kirpan because outsiders regard it as a possible weapon and a danger to people in public places.1 However, in the Sikh perspective, the Kirpan is a sacred symbol very similar to other religions' symbols.

'Timeline: The Quebec kirpan case', CBC News Online, 2nd March 2006, accessed on 25th July 2011

Counterpoint 

It would not be necessary to ban all religious symbols if one was banned. Banning religious symbols that are regarded as dangerous, such as the Kirpan, would be very different from banning crucifixes as the justification would be different.1 And if people start asking for other things to be banned, their cases should be listened to. Some of them may have a point for banning them. However if a symbol poses a risk then it should be banned in order to prevent that risk.

'Kirpan incident raises questions about court ruling', The Montreal Gazette, 16th September 2008, accessed on 25th July 2011

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Title 
It is their culture and religion.
Point 

Religions themselves tend to encompass their own distinctive culture and, to many of their members, this culture and its methods comes before anything secular. For this reason, Muslims should be allowed to wear personal items as it states in the ruling of their religious book to do so. Had a particular garment been required in the Christian religious book - The Bible - then no doubt those stout Christians would follow this particular ruling. The question is, would it be wrong to take away something close and meaningful to these religions? Surely, a religious symbol or method is purely personal, and, therefore, banning such symbols would be an intrusion into their individuality.1

Jessica Shepherd, 'Uniform Dissent', The Guardian, 9th October 2007, accessed on 24th July 2011

Counterpoint 

That the state is secular does not diminish the right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the UN charter, that all states have signed up to, and considered by many to be a basic human right.1 Some religions require special diets, others prayer at specific times. Why shouldn't a religious mode of dress receive as much protection as these other aspects of religious freedom? Surely equality in society is most accurately presented through allowing each individual, including their religious beliefs and modes of expression, to practice their religious traditions without hindrance.

'Declaration On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Intolerance And Of Discrimination Based On Religion Or Belief', 1981 Resolution of the UN Charter, accessed on 23rd July 2011

Bibliography 

Abul Taher, 'Revealed: UK's first official sharia courts', The Sunday Times, 14th September 2008  accessed on 23rd July 2011

'Belgian ban on full veils comes into force', BBC News Europe, 23rd July 2011 , accessed on 23rd July 2011

'Belgian committee votes for full Islamic veil ban', BBC News, 31st March 2010, accessed 24th July

'Decision due in Crucifix ban case', Times of Malta, March 17th 2011, accessed on 24th July 2011

'Declaration On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Intolerance And Of Discrimination Based On Religion Or Belief', 1981 Resolution of the UN Charter, accessed on 23rd July 2011

'France Bans Burqas: A Look At Islamic Veil Laws In Europe', Huffpost World, 4th April 2011, accessed on 24th July 2011

Jessica Shepherd, 'Uniform Dissent', The Guardian, 9th October 2007, accessed on 24th July 2011

'Kirpan incident raises questions about court ruling', The Montreal Gazette, 16th September 2008, accessed on 25th July 2011

'Religious Rights and Wrongs', The Economist, 4th September 2008, accessed 24th July 2011

Rumy Hassan, 'Banning the hijab', Workers Power 283 February 2004, accessed on 24th July 2011

'The Islamic Veil Across Europe', BBC News, 15th June 2010, accessed on 25th July 2011

'Timeline: The Quebec kirpan case', CBC News Online, 2nd March 2006, accessed on 25th July 2011

'UK: One Law for all and the National Secular Society Back Bill that Aims to Curb Sharia Courts', 11th June 2011, accessed on 23rd July 2011

BBC News, 'French scarf ban comes into force', 2 September 2004, accessed 28/8/11

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