Burkas and Other Religious Anachronisms


How much of an anachronism an ancient tribal culture or religion can be in today’s world  was demonstrated recently in Amsterdam, when its Mayor Job Cohen said that women who refuse to give up wearing the burka for jobs should have unemployment benefits cut.

The view here is that – clearly –  it really isn’t fair to expect local taxpayers to support individuals financially who, because of their beliefs or lifestyles, render themselves essentially unemployable. If – in the case of the burka – an individual has been ordered (I would call it “condemned”)  by their culture or religion to walk around with a bag over their head – then the consequences of that action (such as limited employability) should be born not by the Dutch taxpayer – but by the individuals who have chosen to live that way. That position seems entirely reasonable to me.

Of course, to cut these folk’s off the government’s payroll will result in cries of discrimination by those who seem to attribute some innate value to whatever belief someone might come up with that makes them dress up that way. In addition, some will claim that this is just another move to try to ban a specific religious group.

But such an attack clearly misses the point being made here, as this is not about banning religious groups or what they do to themselves to give expression to it. This is about restricting your employability while being on government financial support – support that is being extended to you on the assumption that you make every reasonable effort to find employment. And if everyone can play by these rules, such a system is fair and equitable, and I would have no issue contributing to such a system.

Now, there are situations where people are restricted to certain kinds of employment because they have a disability or sorts, or some other kind of condition that is beyond their control – i.e., there is nothing they can do about it. However, in the case of following some bizarre religious or cultural custom that is limiting your employability – such as having to hide your face in public – well, that is still a matter of choice in the Netherlands (as it would be in any democracy). But then you would have to face the consequences of such an act, such as the fact that very few people would want to hire you.

And that is not an act of discrimination – the usual red herring that gets thrown around here – but the fact that what you are doing is incompatible with the prevailing culture.  In the West we like to look each other in the face, and this is an essential component of our social interaction. Putting value in that is not discriminatory, but an essential part of what it means to live in an open democratic society. That means we all have rights, not just those who come here to ride roughshod over the most common rules of established social interaction.