BERLIN: The German interior minister came out strongly against the burka Thursday, saying the body-covering garment worn by some religious Muslims impeded communication and obstructed integration. Calling on German and European Muslims to embrace European laws and norms, the minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said he generally accepted the rights of Muslims to wear the head covering of their choice but that the burka was a step too far.
"Politicians should not deal with headgear of men and women. But the burka is different," he said in outlining Germany's agenda for its European Union presidency. "You can't see the eyes of someone, and that is the opposite of what we believe communication should be like. Integration requires communication, and we don't want to isolate each other."
Schäuble, a leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center right Christian Democratic Union, added that he wanted to make Muslim integration a key issue of the six-month EU presidency, which began this month. Alluding to the recent terrorist plots in Britain, Denmark and Germany — which are alleged to have been perpetrated by second-generation home-grown radicals — he said it was essential to prevent the entrenchment of "parallel communities" where Muslims lived on the fringes of European society. Pointing to a values gap apparent in some elements of Islam, he noted that Christianity had undergone an Enlightenment after the excesses of the Crusades, while parts of the Islamic world had not experienced it. He added that Muslims in Germany needed to accept universal human rights, including the equal treatment of men and women. "There are parts of Islam where the Enlightenment still needs to be implemented," he said. "The role of women in Islam is a big problem; as soon as Islam wishes to regard itself as part of Europe, Islam will have to solve this issue." Schäuble's comments on the burka were the latest in a Europe-wide debate over Muslim integration in which the garment has been seized on by some critics as a symbol of the irreconcilability of conservative Islam with European values. Jack Straw, Britain's leader of the House of Commons and a former foreign secretary, stirred controversy in October when he revealed that he asked Muslim women in his constituency to remove their burkas when addressing him because he felt the garment impeded conversation. More recently, the Christian Democrats in the Netherlands won the most seats in Parliament after strongly advocating a law banning burkas in the street, in schools, trains, buses and law courts. Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy has also echoed Straw, saying the burka is divisive. In Germany, which has three million Turks, many of them from religious Muslim backgrounds, debate over head coverings has been fueled by a recent decision by 8 of Germany's 16 states to ban teachers from wearing any political or religious symbols in schools, including head scarves. In some states, Muslim women have appealed the law. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany, which represents three million Muslims, has repeatedly called the regulation unconstitutional because it does not treat all religions as equal. In Catholic-dominated Bavaria, for example, Christian crosses are allowed in schools while teachers are forbidden from wearing the burka. A similar debate about the hijab, or head scarf, meant to shield Muslim women from the eyes of men outside their family, has intensified since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Viewed erroneously by some as a symbol of fundamentalist Islam, it has become at once a source of religious pride and defiance for many European Muslims, as well a target of criticism for some who argue that it impedes assimilation. France, a secular republic, bans head scarves in schools, while in Turkey they are banned in the civil service.
Source: International Herald Tribune (English)