Burqa Backlash! Why the Bill to Restrict Muslim Clothing in Georgia Failed

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By Caroline Kent | 4:23 am, November 24, 2016
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Last week a Georgia representative proposed an amendment to state law that would have restricted the rights of Muslim women to wear veils in public.

Republican Rep. Jason Spencer proposed amendments to Georgia’s anti-masking statute, which was first passed in the 1950s to restrict the wearing of Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes, so that it extended to females whilst driving or having driver’s license photos shot.

Justifying his proposed burqa restrictions, Rep Spencer told a WSBTV reporter: “This bill is simply a response to constituents that do have concerns of the rise of Islamic terrorism, and we in the State of Georgia do not want our laws used against us.”

His proposal to legislate the dress of Islamic women in much the same way as we do the KKK aggravated many Muslims in Georgia who questioned why other ways to prevent violence and quell fears- which don’t violate women’s right to wear whatever they want- couldn’t be explored first.

Umber, one of the female team members of the Georgia-based online community atlantamuslim.com, told Heat Street: “Our reaction to this bill is the same as it’s been to any ideas/policies/laws that target a Muslim’s right to cover her body. A Muslim woman, like any woman, has the right to dress how she wants.

“Our goal now is to meet Jason Spencer and other representatives so that they can understand us and value us as constituents and not continue to try to sideline us.”

Feelings on the issue remain high. Georgia State Senator in DC David Shafer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the proposal which was nicknamed HB3: “The government has no business preventing Muslim women from wearing face scarves in public.”

Spencer ultimately retracted his proposal two days after he introduced it – though not necessarily the sentiment that had spawned it – saying, “I have decided to not pursue House Bill 3 in the upcoming 2017 legislative session due to the visceral reaction it has created… HB3 would withstand legal scrutiny, but not political scrutiny.”

Others, such as prominent Georgia-based female Muslim Dr Soumaya Khalifa, argued that voters were united against the bill for reasons that went beyond religion. She told Heat Street: “The representative withdrew the bill not just because Muslims were against it, but because the so many in Georgia felt that it was discriminatory. These are uncertain times, but this week we felt supported by the wider non-Muslim community.”

However there remains a number of voters who, as Spencer put it, “do have concerns of the rise of Islamic terrorism” and agree with him that making Muslims “more easily identifiable” for law enforcers is a legitimate safety issue.

While social media accounts across the USA and abroad loudly decried HB3, the question remains as to whether voters in Georgia would have supported the bill in the privacy of a voting booth. To many, HB3 is just the latest illustration of a sentiment that has been building in the state over the past few years.

In August, the Georgia State Signal reported that a Georgia State University freshman was asked by one of her teachers asked her to remove her niqab (a scarf similar to a burqa) because it “violated GA law”. The freshman refused, claiming it would violate her right to freely exercise her religious beliefs, and the case was deferred to the college’s administration when the student advised that she would involve a lawyer.

In Atlanta earlier this year, police put out a warning about a man planning an anti-Islam rally outside the statehouse; the organizer had encouraged participants to carry loaded guns and shred the Koran.

Islam hasn’t, as many hoped by the nixing of HB3, been killed as a political hot button issue in the state. Rather it has left some feeling that legitimate debate surrounding it has been shut down by PC talking heads who have lost sight of order and defense issues in an attempt to preserve personal liberties.

HB3 has served to many in Georgia as a metaphor for the sort of debates that will no doubt ramp up over the next four years under Donald Trump. Indeed, General Flynn, Trump’s top pick for National Security Adviser, has claimed Islam “is a political ideology” that “definitely hides behind being a religion.”

Many disagree, including recent independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin who tweeted on Friday: “It is deeply concerning that most of Trump’s appointments (Bannon/Flynn/Sessions) have been antagonistic to religious and other minorities…If America abandons religious freedom, other liberties and the truth that all are equal, our nation’s security, economy & unity will suffer.”

The Supreme Court has long supported citizen’s rights to associate anonymously which makes a burqa ban, the likes of which has taken hold in France, difficult to envisage in the USA.

But the balance between freedom and order remains a debate which shows no signs of slowing down in Georgia, or indeed the rest of the country, any time soon.

And after Trump’s term in office is done, we may well find that proposals like HB3, and those who support them in red states like Georgia, are viewed in a far more forgiving light.