Muslim Women in Germany Are Celebrating a Legal Victory — But They Shouldn't Have To

Source: AP
Source: AP

The right to religious freedom and self-expression took a step forward Friday when Germany's highest court struck down a local ban on teachers wearing headscarves in school, the Associated Press reported.

The local law from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia had required teachers to wear alternative attire; local officials had feared the headscarves could be disruptive. The ruling will also apply to a number of other German states with similar bans.

"Anything that reverses the trend in Europe of banning religious attire, I think is a good thing," Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Mic. Hooper warned that recent laws passed by European governments aimed at curbing religious expression would likely be futile. "Preventing people from practicing their faith has the opposite effect."

A tense environment: In the last few years, the headscarf has emerged as one of the most contentious cultural issues in Europe. In 2004, France passed a law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Critics charged it was ostensibly a way to ban headscarves. In 2011, France forbid the wearing of full facial coverings, a move that largely targeted the burqa worn by Muslim women. At least one municipality tried to prohibit similar religious attire at public beaches. Belgium enacted a similar ban on full veils in 2011, with comparable measures adopted in a smattering of cities and towns across the continent.

Fault lines over headscarves underscore Europe's enduring challenge to assimilate its over 44 million Muslim residents — itself a highly diverse community. In France, the site of the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre by Islamist fanatics, most Muslims originally hail from France's former colonies, Algeria and Morocco. In Germany, most are Turkish Muslims who originally came as migrant workers in the 1960s and opted to stay, often as non-citizens. 

Muslims refugees have come on rickety boats seeking asylum from conflicts in Syria and the Palestinian Territories. In a Europe squeezed by soaring unemployment, the arrivals have breathed new life into xenophobic politicians from France to Hungary. In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly declared German multiculturalism to have "failed utterly."

"Europe can act a little more like America," said Hooper, who lauded the United States for its constitutional commitment to free expression. Indeed, while the U.S. has more than its fair share of repugnant anti-Muslim hate crimes, constitutional protection of religious freedom would likely prevent headscarf laws. While individual mosques have often faced hatful local opposition, nationwide bans, like one in Switzerland outlawing the construction of minarets, would be unthinkable in the U.S.

The decision by Germany's courts to protect headscarves is actually a triumph of the ideals of freedom and tolerance. It's undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Europe, and something we can all be proud of.

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Jon Levine

Jon Levine is a staff writer at Mic, covering politics and people. He is based in New York and can be reached at JLevine@mic.com.

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