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Page last updated at 23:12 GMT, Monday, 19 May 2008 00:12 UK

Row over Denmark court veil ban

By Thomas Buch-Andersen
BBC News, Copenhagen

Danish diplomats to Muslim countries are preparing themselves for another wave of anti-Danish protests after the government announced it would bar judges from wearing headscarves and similar religious or political symbols in courtrooms.

Poster of a woman wearing a burka (image with permission from DPP)
The dramatic image has sparked debate in Denmark

Although the ban will include crucifixes, Jewish skull caps and turbans as well as headscarves, the move is seen as being largely aimed at Muslim judges.

It comes after pressure from the Danish People's Party (DPP), known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Earlier this month, the party produced a widely published poster showing a female judge wearing an all-encompassing burka.

The accompanying text argues that a Muslim headscarf is more than just a feather-light piece of clothing. Rather, it suggests, it is a symbol of submission and tyranny.

The final line of text reads: "Give us Denmark back."

Critics have argued that the burka imagery is misleading as the head covering is already banned from Danish courtrooms.

Cartoon crisis

But DPP leader, Pia Kjaersgaard, said: "Some might take offence because we are using a burka in our campaign. And so what?"

Mrs Kjaersgaard is a key ally of the Danish Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen - a potential candidate for the newly-created position of president of Europe.

She has said that in hospital she would request another doctor were she to be introduced to one wearing a Muslim headscarf.

Since 2005, when a Danish paper published a controversial cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a bearded man with a bomb in his turban, there have been a series of protests against Denmark across the Muslim world.

"Denmark has learned from the cartoon crisis. With Denmark's tarnished reputation in the Middle East, the debate about headscarves is very likely to be misunderstood," said Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen, director of the Danish Institute in Damascus.

Protest against Danish cartoons in Karachi, Pakistan (14 March 2008)
Danish diplomats are braced for further protests

He said diplomats were already preparing themselves for a new round of protests.

Danish Justice Minister Lene Espersen says the ban on religious symbols is needed because judges "must appear neutral and impartial".

But Court President Torben Goldin says the ban is absurd.

"Danish judges go through 15 years of training to ensure that they are only acting according to Danish law and not influenced by their religious or political beliefs," he said.

He told Danish television that the ban merely had good "entertainment value".

'Anti-Muslim'

Danish Integration Minister Birthe Ronn Hornbech has said she is opposed to the ban, calling the DPP's campaign "fanatical anti-Muslim" in tone.

In response, the DPP's second-in-command, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, agreed, saying: "To a great extent, we are anti-Muslim.

"To a great extent, Islam is practised in a way which gives the Danish society problems."

However, he denied that the party is fanatical.

Prime Minister of Denmark Anders Fogh Rassmussen
Mr Rasmussen is a potential candidate for president of Europe

Mr Fogh Rasmussen's centre-right relies on DPP support in parliament to get legislation through.

That, in return, gives the DPP the power to dictate the immigration and integration policy of the Danish government, commentators say.

The DPP has said it intends to work for a further ban on Muslim headscarves to include school-teachers and medical personnel.

Muslim groups have criticised the ban.

"What's next? The length of my beard?" said Zubair Butt Hussain, a spokesman for the Danish Muslim Council.

He is backed by Fahmy Almajid, an integration official, who called the ban "unbelievably stupid".

"It is counter-productive to what we have been working towards for so many years - to get Muslim women to work and to show young Muslims that they are a part of Danish society," Mr Almajid said.

Symbolic scarf

Sabba Mirza, a 25-year-old female Muslim and law student, told a Danish newspaper that wearing her scarf was a personal choice.

"My headscarf is part of the lifestyle I have chosen," she said.

"If that prevents me from getting a job in Denmark, I'll have to move to a country where people are more enlightened and can see past the scarf."

A survey published in Berlingske Tidende newspaper on Sunday found that 51% of Danish voters support the outlawing of religious symbols in courtrooms.

However, the survey also showed even stronger support for barring judges as well as school-teachers, nurses and doctors from wearing T-shirts with political slogans, sexually revealing clothing or shorts.

There have been no similar debates in countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland. British courts accept Muslim headscarves, as well as turbans, in courtrooms.

In France, headscarves and other religious symbols are banned in schools and are unthinkable in courtrooms.

But, so far, the presidency of the Danish parliament, the Folketinget, has said that it will not bar parliamentarians from wearing headscarves when speaking in parliament.




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Denmark
24 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
Q&A: The Muhammad cartoons row
07 Feb 06 |  Special Reports

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