Shrinking Religious Freedom in Europe

By: McKenna Ross

Religious freedom in developing countries is often in doubt. But it is not often thought that religious freedom is restricted in developed countries, such as those in Europe. Increasingly, the freedom of followers of the Islamic faith are being restricted due to islamophobia. In addition, women are often the target of restrictive laws. 

In 2011, France became the first country in Western Europe to ban face coverings, such as the burqa or niqab, in public. Though the law does not specifically mention the religion of Islam, followers of the religion are the ones most likely to be impacted by the ban. By banning face covers in public, many Muslim women are prevented from leaving their homes. They must choose between being part of their local community or observing their religious beliefs. French officials have said that the burqa ban is important to prevent women from being forced to cover their faces. Former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, said in 2009 before the implementation of the ban that burqas are a “sign of subjugation, of submission, of women.” But by forcing women to uncover their faces, it is a hypocritical attempt to control them—just as the government claims the Islamic faith is trying to control women. Women deserve the right to choose whether to cover their faces or not. 

Along with France, other countries including Denmark, Belgium, Austria, and Bulgaria have banned face coverings in all public spaces. In the Netherlands, Norway, Bosnia, Kosovo and Turkey, face coverings are banned in limited locations. Regional bans have been instituted in five additional countries: Russia, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Unfortunately, while the burqa ban is spreading in European countries, it is not the only restriction of religious freedom. 

In 2019, laws were put in place in Belgium that required food animals to be stunned before slaughter. While this is a win for animal rights activists, the process of stunning the animal prevents the meat from being kosher or halal and therefore edible for Jewish and Muslim people, respectively. Belgium joined the list of countries that already followed this law, which includes the Netherlands and Germany among other countries. 

Many European governments excuse these bans by saying face coverings prevent full assimilation into the country and those women who wear face coverings due so to “resist the state.” This is an interesting stance to take since there are no laws saying European native citizens cannot be Muslim and therefore wear face-coverings. Assimilation into a country like France does not mean becoming Christian or secular, but things such as learning the French language. And though there are no laws against being Muslim for native French citizens, there has been documented discrimination against Muslim people trying to find jobs. On average, a Christian is two and a half times as likely to receive a callback for a job application than a Muslim applicant. 

In reality, these face covering bans have most likely come from prior prejudiced beliefs against Muslim peoples due to terror attacks in the past, such as the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and London bombings in 2005. The attack on Charlie Hebdo in France by Al-Qaeda which killed 12 people may help explain why the bans continue to be in effect. 

Religious freedom is often ignored in European countries because the countries are thought to be more secular than others in the world. However, religious freedom can be threatened in every country and organizations that defend religious liberty need to prevent religious restrictions in countries all around the world. To maintain religious freedom all people, in all countries, and especially women, must have the ability to openly and freely practice their religions.