Written by Rob MacFarlane
Once again, the debate over public displays of religious clothing, as well as the relationship between state and faith, has been brought to the fore. On 25th April, a court in Quebec upheld a law that has banned public sector workers from wearing religious symbols at their places of work, which includes yarmulkes, crucifixes, and hijabs. Earlier in April, the French senate also passed a bill that bans girls aged under 18 from wearing religious symbols. The law extends to parents as well, restricting their wearing of visible religious symbols while accompanying children on school trips, and outlawing ‘burkinis’ and prayers on university premises. Although, it is merely the latest of many times France has moved to restrict the public display of religious symbols. In 2016 courts ordered the removal of a statue of the Virgin Mary and in 2010, it became the first country in Europe to ban the full Muslim veil in public spaces.
The Quebec court ruling comes the same day as anti-lockdown protesters in London are seen wearing yellow stars with ‘no covid certificates’ written on them. In the UK the right to freedom of religion or belief is protected under article 9 of the 1998 Human Rights Act, and this includes the right to manifest beliefs in the form of religious clothing. It can be argued that freedom of speech also protects public displays of religion. So although considerably offensive to followers of Judaism, the use of the Star of David in the aforementioned way might therefore also be protected under UK law. While these are not extreme forms of religious persecution, there are nevertheless worries that this could be the beginning of something more sinister.
Laura Marks OBE, a leading interfaith activist and founder of the Muslim-Jewish initiative group Nisa-Nashim, says that the censoring of religious symbols is tantamount to censoring individuals’ personalities. “These attempts to suppress people’s expression of their religion are very problematic and very painful and leads people to feel very persecuted”. She says this results in individuals and communities feeling unwanted by society. “It really is very intersectional. Your faith identity is very closely related to you“. Fundamentally, religious symbols are used to convey humanity’s relationship with concepts of faith and/or holy/sacred events or places. However, in modern times some symbols have come to be more commonly associated with the groups who follow these teachings. As politics has shifted to promote polarisation within society, its no surprise religion has become an area that many people are divided on.
An argument for the censoring of religious symbols concerns security and public safety. The Tell MAMA annual report for 2018 revealed that of the number of anti-Muslim incidents that occurred in 2017, a majority occurred in public areas. Additionally, there is a worry these symbols propagate harmful ways of thinking. For instance, many religions are criticised as being based on patriarchal structures and archaic ways of thinking, while acts of terror have in the past been perpetrated by individuals citing religious motivations. In March, Sri Lanka implemented a ban on Burkas and other face coverings, nearly two years after the attacks which were claimed to have been carried out by The Islamic State militant group, citing national security concerns. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara told reporters the Burka was “a sign of religious extremism”.
The ongoing secularisation of society could be another factor in the passage of these laws. Although its a hard statistic to measure, numerous surveys indicate the number of non-religion/belief holding individuals has been increasing in the UK over the last few decades. Chief among them is The British Social Attitudes Survey, which reveals that 52% of those asked did not belong to any religion. This marks a stark contrast to the figures recorded at the inception of the survey in 1983, with two thirds of the British public identifying as Christian in that year. A passage from the surveys’ key findings reads, “The majority of the public believe that science and technology are a force for good both now and in the future”. A key factor in the public’s attitude towards religious symbols is therefore how their perception of the role religion plays in society, in contrast to the degree in which it is represented.
However, just because religious thinking has become less mainstream doesn’t mean society shouldn’t be accepting of them. Laura says that, as opposed to censoring religious symbols, more education around faith and religion is needed. “Rather than seeing a head covering as something to be fearful of or as a barrier maybe we can see it as something to be interested in or be joyful about”, she says. In the UK, religious affiliations include Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism. Within each faith, its important to note that some symbols are far more visible than others. Take the hijab or burka for example, both of which fall under the face coverings designation, yet are key indicators of the wearer’s religion and sex. While many view them as symbols of women’s oppression, it could just as equally be an expression/celebration of an individual’s faith.
Scientific studies have shown religious symbolism to be sources of positive feeling. A study on the effects of religious symbols on brain activity published in 2014 found that, compared to neutral symbols, religious symbols stimulate significant visual and emotional responses. Specifically, positive religious symbols induced far greater neural activity than negative, or even neutral ones. Multiple clinical trials have also shown religion and spirituality to be factors in combating depression, anxiety, stress, and even in improving immune functions. The 2014 study concludes this is because ‘religiousness is associated with significantly reduced visual processing of negative stimuli’.
Nowadays, the debate on religious symbols continues to be one that divides. The question ‘Should religious symbols be banned in public places?’, posted to Debating Europe in 2018, still draws comments from all sides in relation to the topic. All of this points towards a world where religion is becoming more closed off, both from society at large and other religions. This is the antithesis of what a majority of faiths and by extension their symbols, stand for. The overwhelmingly positive significance of these symbols has been lost in a sea of political language and violent histories.