There has been much hysteria following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that has ruled that employers will be entitled to ban staff from wearing any visible political or religious symbols in the workplace.
Though the ban is being hailed as a direct attack on Muslims, the ECJ has said that the ban does not result in “direct discrimination” and that giving companies the right to ban “any political, philosophical or religious sign” is simply providing them the opportunity to maintain a neutral image.
Though the ruling does not single out the Muslim faith, it is true that it was based on the cases of two Muslim women, in France and Belgium, who were dismissed from their workplaces for refusing to remove their headscarves.
While the ruling itself may have been a genuine attempt to calm growing religious tensions in Europe, it creates more problems than it solves and will ultimately give rise to more friction.
First and foremost, this ban appears to be in direct contrast with Article 18 of the Human Rights Charter which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The freedom of expression, whether that manifests in the form of a controversial speaker, a satirical magazine such as Charlie Hebdo, or donning a headscarf as a symbol of your religious conviction, is a cornerstone of Western society. To restrict this freedom in the name of a more ‘Western’ or ‘liberal’ society is a dismaying oxymoron and an ominous sign if it is any reflection of the nature of solutions in the future.
Furthermore, this ban will directly affect working Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab. Surely, these women should not be obstructed? These women should be embraced for having a faith that does not impede them. Such women have chosen to take an active part in society and are positive role models for other Muslim women. Taking away this prospect will force these women to choose between their faith and their financial independence. Many of these women will favour the former and this will in turn lead to more women out of the workforce, worsening integration issues, leading to more financially dependent Muslim women, and weakening their already undermined position in Western society and globally.
What European leaders need to understand is that secularism should not be used as a tool to castigate expressions of religious belief and observance. Quite the contrary, secularism should be implemented and interpreted as a principle that protects the exercise of religious freedom. A secular state should be neutral on matters of belief, not seeking to nullify religion from the public sphere. Moreover, what this hostility towards religious symbols shows is a weak secular society, one that resorts to bans and prohibitions rather than the promotion of freedom of expression.
With growing anti-Muslim sentiment and a rise in xenophobic bigotry, now is a precarious time for Muslims living in the West. The ECJ ruling will likely result in increased friction and heightened social tensions in European society in a time where faith and its practice has turned into an exceptionally sensitive issue. Western liberals have long criticised, and rightly so, many Muslim nations that fall short of giving their minorities equal rights. Why then does the irony miss the ECJ as they move to deny these rights to the minorities residing in Europe?