European Muslims criticize veil ban plans

Muslims who attended a conference in Austria's capital criticized European countries Sunday for considering the possibility of banning face-covering veils, saying it is counterproductive and regressive.

Veil bans are being considered in Belgium and France, and lawmakers in other European countries have also raised the issue.

The roughly 100 imams and Muslim religious advisers from 40 countries participating in the meeting in Vienna agreed that Islam doesn't make it a requirement for women to wear face veils and saw little need to discuss it because of consensus on the matter, said Carla Amina Baghajati, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Religious Authority in Austria, which hosted the meeting.

"Nevertheless, we are critical that it comes to a ban," Baghajati said. "Why? Because it's counterproductive." She was among about 30 women taking part in the meeting.

An extensive draft resolution presented at the end of the two-day conference called for programs to promote the education of Muslim girls and women and said every mosque should have a female contact person for women's issues.

It also expressed concern about a Swiss referendum late last year to ban the construction of new minarets and stressed that the practicing of Islam encompasses the respect of people from other religions or who hold different world views.

"Muslims don't want to be seen as a problem but rather as part of the solution for modern challenges," the document said.

The laws proposing bans on face-covering veils give the impression there is a need to restrict Muslims because there is "something dangerous" about them and that they don't respect women's rights and need to be taught, Baghajati said. This, she added, brings up the divisive "we" and "them" notion that Muslims in Europe are trying to overcome.

A discussion within the Muslim community has helped keep the number of women dressing this way in Europe to a minimum, she said.

"This inner-Muslim discussion helps that we have very, very (few) women wearing these kind of clothes."

Famile Fatma Arslan, a Dutch lawyer and fellow conference participant, warned that the bans, if approved, could backfire.

"By creating a ban, you're not being preventive but you're being regressive," she said. "If you raise children and say 'this is something you shouldn't do,' my kid, or my kids, or my nephews are doing it."

Instead, Arslan added, the focus should be more on the empowerment and education of Muslim women.

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