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An EU Court Okays Headscarf Bans in the Workplace

Observers say ruling could exacerbate tensions with Muslim immigrants

BERLIN - SEPTEMBER 05:  Young women training to become florists, including a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, bundle flower bouquets shortly before the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the BildungsWerk Kreuzberg, a vocational training school in the immigrant-heavy district of Kreuzberg, on September 5, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. Merkel is visiting schools across Germany in order to get a better unserstanding of the state of Germany's education system.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN - SEPTEMBER 05: Young women training to become florists, including a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, bundle flower bouquets shortly before the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the BildungsWerk Kreuzberg, a vocational training school in the immigrant-heavy district of Kreuzberg, on September 5, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. Merkel is visiting schools across Germany in order to get a better unserstanding of the state of Germany's education system. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN - SEPTEMBER 05: Young women training to become florists, including a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, bundle flower bouquets shortly before the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the BildungsWerk Kreuzberg, a vocational training school in the immigrant-heavy district of Kreuzberg, on September 5, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. Merkel is visiting schools across Germany in order to get a better unserstanding of the state of Germany's education system. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Companies may bar their employees from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols in the workplace, the European Union’s highest court said Tuesday, in a pair of rulings that could further aggravate tensions between Muslims and the European communities they live in.  

The European Court of Justice (EJC) issued separate rulings to address claims brought by two women, from France and Belgium, both of whom had been fired for refusing to remove their headscarves. Company rules prohibiting “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” do not constitute discrimination, the court said. Yet the court also said an employer cannot ask workers to remove such symbols at the request of a customer.

The headscarf has long been a battleground pitting European secularists against Europe's Muslim communities and advocates for religious tolerance. Tuesday’s ruling comes against the backdrop of rising anti-Muslim, nativist movements in Europe, fueled by unease surrounding large flows of immigrants and refugees coming to Europe from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.

Companies may bar their employees from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols in the workplace, the European Union’s highest court said Tuesday, in a pair of rulings that could further aggravate tensions between Muslims and the European communities they live in.  

The European Court of Justice (EJC) issued separate rulings to address claims brought by two women, from France and Belgium, both of whom had been fired for refusing to remove their headscarves. Company rules prohibiting “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” do not constitute discrimination, the court said. Yet the court also said an employer cannot ask workers to remove such symbols at the request of a customer.

The headscarf has long been a battleground pitting European secularists against Europe’s Muslim communities and advocates for religious tolerance. Tuesday’s ruling comes against the backdrop of rising anti-Muslim, nativist movements in Europe, fueled by unease surrounding large flows of immigrants and refugees coming to Europe from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.

It also comes at a tense time for relations with Turkey — where headscarves, once banned under secular rule, are now even permitted in the armed forces under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government. Turkey is holding a referendum to expand the powers of its president this April. Germany and the Netherlands, home to large populations of Turkish citizens, have banned campaign rallies in favor of the referendum. In a tweet, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the EJC ruling would serve to bolster “anti-Muslim and xenophobic trends” in Europe.

While European countries such as France have long argued for the strict separation of church and state, human rights activists say austere policies that banish religious symbols from the public sphere are a form of discrimination.

“Today’s disappointing rulings … give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women — and men — on the grounds of religious belief,” said Amnesty International’s Europe Director John Dalhuisen in a statement.

Center-right French presidential candidate Francois Fillon, author of the tome Conquering Islamic Terrorism, hailed the judgement as one that would “contribute to social cohesion and peace throughout Europe.” Terrorism experts, on the other hand, argued the move might fuel extremism by increasing a sense of isolation among Muslims living in Europe and handing jihadists a recruiting tool.

Banning headscarves, along with burqa bans and travel restrictions, are simply grist to the mill of jihadist organizations and bolsters their propaganda and recruitment efforts,” Reinier Bergema, an analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies, told Foreign Policy.

Perhaps unhelpfully for the EU, the headscarf debate is now associated with France’s far-right National Front whose leader, Marine Le Pen, has compared Muslims praying in the the streets to Nazi occupation. Last month, Le Pen refused to wear a headscarf in a meeting with Lebanese religious leaders, walking away instead.

Non-Muslim religious leaders agreed that the ruling only served to ostracize religious communities in Europe in the wake of rising hate crimes against such groups. “With the rise of racially motivated incidents and today’s decision, Europe is sending a clear message — its faith communities are no longer welcome,” said Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis. Goldschmidt warned Europe not to isolate its religious minorities. Whether Tuesday’s ruling will do exactly that is still to be seen.  

Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

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