It is by now commonplace that ostensibly “neutral” language—such as the notorious preamble “I am not a racist, but . . .”—can serve to mask or justify covert forms of discrimination. Yet, this basic linguistic insight seems to have escaped the judges of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and—perhaps even more worryingly—many advocates of “secularism” in Europe.
In a recent landmark judgment bearing directly on the long-standing European controversy over the admissibility of Islamic headscarves in various kinds of public spaces, the ECJ has ruled that it is legal for businesses to fire employees that insist on wearing the hijab in the workplace, as long as this is in compliance with a “general company policy” that forbids “the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs.”
While many religious groups and advocates deplored the ruling, several exponents of the “far right,” as well as some advocates of secularism, have celebrated it is as a long-overdue clarification of the European Union’s stance on religious freedom.