A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Rosa Balfour and Corinna HorstSenior fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States; deputy director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Respect of personal freedoms is compatible with integration; dictating what others should wear is not. The summer debate about the burkini, triggered by a few French males, is on the verge of hysterical nonsense. It wasn’t that long ago that European men used to wear similar garments on the beach—those stripy outfits of the 1920s. And why single out Muslim women? What about nuns? Orthodox Jews? Sheikhs?

The current debate obscures and damages harder issues about integration, cultural diversity, and the free choice of women to determine their preferences. Distinctions are lost between the variety of veils many Muslim women wear, some out of choice, some out of imposition. The burka, the head-to-toe coverage that includes the face, makes an individual nonexistent. And it is seen by many to undermine the need to expose one’s face in some public spaces for reasons of security. Here, it can be legitimate to request that women show their faces if needed.

What Europe should strive for is mutual integration and understanding on the basis of a few fundamentals that have been fought for: personal liberties. For women who believe in female empowerment and work against female oppression, it is challenging to accept clothing that hides other women. But post-bikini women cannot lead burkini women; the latter need to find their own revolution.

Both writers are members of Women in International Security.


Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

No, it is not. The Western world led a lengthy, costly, and still-unfinished war in Afghanistan partly in the name of liberating women from the burka.

Why is the burka incompatible with integration into Western societies while the burkini is not? Why is the burka perceived as an instrument of oppression while the burkini is seen as a symbol—in its own way—of liberty and choice for women?

The Western narrative is that the burka is imposed and restricts women’s movement—though women in extremist Islamic societies would say that the burka actually allows them more freedom outside the house—while the burkini allows non-Western women to enjoy the beach and the pool. It does not hurt that the burkini is the modern version of the swimsuits our great-grandparents used to wear to the beach; it is therefore something Westerners today can somehow recognize themselves in.

The real problem with the burka, however, is that it hides the face and eyes—by far the most important parts of the body in Western societies. Wearing the burka is not only a security problem, it also goes against the most basic Western principle: looking into someone’s eyes as the way to build trust. With no eye contact there is no mutual trust, and with no mutual trust there is no way to make integration work.


Dalia Ghanem-YazbeckVisiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center

If integration means the process by which one’s culture and religious identity find space to express themselves, then there is no incompatibility between the burka and integration. If, instead, integration means assimilation, then there is a major problem because the burka and assimilation are definitely incompatible.

Today, many European countries, especially France, are facing an integration problem. Whether this is due to the burka or burkini and its incompatibility with Western values is debatable. Integration problems are more closely related to the socioeconomic conditions of second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants.

The integration of Muslim populations is at the heart of the debate, but the specific topics discussed include whether the Muslim community can build minarets or whether some Muslim women can wear the burka or burkini. This distracts from the real problems, such as how to increase the rate of Muslim children’s success at school, how to ensure equal professional opportunities, and how to stop discrimination against Muslims. Banning the burka is not going to facilitate or foster integration; on the contrary, it will most likely backfire and lead to more damaging isolation.

Furthermore, the debate about whether Islam is compatible with Western values stigmatizes Muslim populations that are rather diverse. It narrows Muslims down to one homogeneous bloc of people who follow a religion that is seen as irreconcilable with Western values—a religion of which the burka has become a symbol. But it disregards the millions who are happily integrated and continuing normally with their daily lives.


István GyarmatiPresident of the International Centre for Democratic Transition

Yes, the burka is compatible. This is the short answer. But the short answer does not cover it all. Integration is a complex issue. Integration means mutual acceptance—communities living together, with everybody’s habits. Non-Muslims must not try to convince Muslims (or Jews) to eat pork. But Muslims must accept that non-Muslims do. Non-Muslims must not try to deter Muslims from wearing burkas. But Muslims must not try to force non-Muslims to wear them. In short: tolerance must be present on all sides.

As non-Muslims, we must learn not to apply double standards. Yes, we tolerate Jews wearing the kippa and the Star of David; we must also tolerate Muslims wearing head scarves and the half-moon. We must be able to provide Muslim children with halal food in schools and kindergartens. Muslims must accept that we do not eat halal and most of us do not cover our heads—except when it is cold.

Most importantly, everybody must observe laws—laws of the country, not the laws of the Old Testament or sharia—as long as they live in a country where the laws are based on fundamental human rights. There can be no exceptions. Those who due to their religion are not ready or able to accept this should look for another place to live.


Kristina KauschNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe

No, the burka is not compatible with integration. But neither is a ban.

A garment can be a symptom or a deliberately chosen symbol of rejected integration. This is a deep-seated problem that cannot be tackled by penal law. A state-imposed general dress code is incompatible with the liberal constitutional order that advocates of the ban so noisily claim to defend.

Provisions banning full face coverage in public assemblies have been in force in Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland for many years. Advocates of the ban of certain forms of female Islamic attire, however, want to penalize clothes as an indicator of other offenses, namely violation of an adult’s civil liberties or spread of radical ideologies. Can it be proved that such offenses have taken place? Perhaps on an individual basis. Will any of these offenses be removed or diminished by a dress ban? Big fat no.

Women who are subjected to domestic coercion will likely continue to experience such distress despite a dress ban. The radical mind-set displayed by a garment will keep expressing itself through other channels and symbols. Most importantly, however, a general ban will further drive societies apart by directly catering to radicals’ propaganda of the host communities’ alleged hostility toward Muslims. A ban on clothes says less about the people who wear them than about a society that is so unsure of its own values that it is terrified by a piece of cloth.


Bruno MaçãesNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe

Of course the burka is compatible with integration. The principled approach is to defend diversity. That means no prohibition of the burka but also no compromise with any attempt to enforce areas where women have to dress in a certain way. Sarajevo is an interesting model, a city where one may see two sisters walking on the street, one wearing a very strict hijab and the other a miniskirt. Europe needs to be clear on the principle and then defend it in practice.


Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Democracy must be seen to be done. It is hard to see how the patriarchally ordained hiding of a woman’s face by the niqab or the full burka is anything other than the rejection of a key obligation of a democratic community.

The row over the burkini is a red herring. Catholic priests railed against bikinis when they first appeared on French beaches in the 1950s, and now right-wing mayors looking over their shoulders at racist and anti-Muslim voters have indulged in some silly posturing. In fact, the burkini exposes a woman’s face and feet and is a bulky version of the body-covering swimsuit that some, especially young, children wear for protection against sunburn.

In France, covering the face from recognition has been politically significant ever since the days of the violent extremist group La Cagoule in the 1930s. As with the Ku Klux Klan, covering the face always is a political signifier about defying democracy, and the Islamist ideology that denies women their democratic rights is keenly in favor of niqabs and burkas, as the film Salafistes showed.

Since the eighteenth century, the struggle for democracy has been a request, often a requirement, for male-controlled faiths to stay out of the public sphere. Imposing burkas and niqabs on women is a reversal to a pre-Enlightenment era and is not compatible with an integrated multicultural community.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

The brouhaha surrounding the burkini ban on France’s Côte d’Azur was more pathetic than absurd. Pretending to beat the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the strategic challenge of jihadism by undressing ladies on the beach shows Europe as a laughable, petulant old schoolmaster, incapable of ruling the new century.

Of course, immigrants have to make great strides to be integrated into their new societies. Pretending to be aloof and isolated in a tribal sphere is at the same time impossible and wrong. Emigration is a revolutionary experience, and there is no going back to the past, for individuals or communities.

The United States, despite tragedies and sufferings, has managed to integrate scores of migrants and refugees. Europe has being going through the same process for generations, at home and abroad. So why is the continent so stuck now? Because to assimilate immigrants you need a strong identity, robust enough to integrate them yet subtle enough to be enriched and transformed by the newcomers. Europe’s identity today is frail, nervous, and uncertain, with mood swings from stern arrogance (“No burkinis!”) to naive slogans (“Open the borders, we are all brothers!”).

Europe’s weakness confuses the immigrants: Should they adhere to European values or not, and what set of values is Europe proposing?


Tommy SteinerSenior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, Israel

The obvious answer to this question is yes. The idea that the choice of women (or men, for that matter) to comply with a religion-based dress code should inevitably suggest disloyalty to the nation, undermine the quest for national integration, and constitute a terrorist threat is not only absurd but also discriminatory.

Bluntly, French politicians seeking to ban—in the guise of French secularism—burkini swimwear that allegedly offends the freedom of women, while accommodating a nun’s habit or a Hasidic Jewish woman’s headpiece, are pandering to and stoking racism. This has nothing to do with the aspiration for national cohesion. It has all to do with political leaders who have failed to address socioeconomic shifts and deal effectively with homegrown terrorism. Rather, and for short-term expediency, European politicians prefer to jump on the bandwagon of public hysteria and succumb to people’s most deeply held fears.

Many (if not most) Israelis viewed with profound disbelief the images of French police coercing a Muslim woman on a public beach to remove her burkini. In Israel, this would be unthinkable. Israelis, terror stricken for nearly a century, are aghast how in face of a two- to three-year spree of painful terrorism, too many Europeans appear to have thrown away their moral compass. Unchecked, rampant islamophobia might well undercut what is left of Europe’s normative power—the last remaining and now shuddering pillar of its international standing.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

It depends on the definition of integration. Banning the burka is motivated by a concept similar to that advocated by German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder that integration is part of an ethnic and cultural unity that provides identity. It is based on a view that citizenship is founded on culture and ethnicity rather than on the civic identity associated with the French and American Revolutions.

Recent attempts to ban the burkini in France or the veil in Germany are manifestations of what Germans would call a Leitkultur, or mainstream culture, and this culture is tied to an older sense of religion and ethnicity, even in what are now secular societies. If this model prevails, then the burka is not compatible with this identity.

However, if Western societies offer a civic identity or what German sociologist Jürgen Habermas called “constitutional patriotism,” then the burka is compatible so long as the person beneath it speaks the national language and accepts the rule of law as defined in that nation. The burka then is part of a larger choice Europe and the United States face today over the nature of their societies.