The French have demonstrated their resistance to the rising tide of fundamental Islam by drawing a line at the use of the full face Burka by women. Under Islamic law, the husband has the right to request that his wife wear a covering, including a full face covering. Whilst the origins of this garment go back a long way in time, its primary purpose is to hide the woman’s face thereby protecting the husband’s property—as women (both wives and daughters) are regarded as the property of the husband/father. It was no surprise that objectors would test the law and subsequently, two Muslim women were arrested in Paris within hours of the new law coming into force. The reasons for the ban are many: but the threat to cultural norms was one and was another. A full Burka can protect the dignity of a Muslim woman: as well as hide the identity of a terrorist wrapped in explosives.

There is a saying among Europeans that when in Rome; do as the Romans do. The principle being that if you chose to assimilate yourself into another culture, you should expect to live by their rules and norms of behaviour. The French are not alone in their stance. Belgium also introduced a full ban last year, although it has not been enforced with any vigour. A ban also looks likely in Holland, Spain, and Switzerland. There are no plans to introduce a similar ban in Britain, although politicians from the UK Independence Party and some Tory backbenchers have suggested one. Nineteen other Muslim women have also been arrested since the ban came into force, as protests erupted outside Paris’ famous Notre Dame Cathedral against what the Islamic community deems a draconian law.

The problems of cultural assimilation apply to all cultures, including commercial ones. Conflicts and disputes can, and often do occur, when organisations merge or a new senior employee perhaps brings their own cultural ideology into a business, seeking to change the existing culture. Commonly such events occur in the aftermath of a takeover or buyout. In families, cultural conflict can occur when perhaps two divorced adults remarry, maybe with children from their previous marriages, and bring two different sets of values and ideologies together: when this happens, compromise is the key to success. However, as the French Burka ban demonstrates, some things are just non-negotiable; some cultural variations are too much to accommodate. For ADR professionals, valuable work can be done in analysing and pre-empting likely flash points in mergers and acquisitions. It is not an exact science by any means, and trying to get inside the mindsets of two cultures to predict the consequences is a tough call. I have worked with private clients whose personal values differ significantly, and disputes have arisen out of an inability to effectively communicate or merge beliefs and values. Helping them to explore and unpack the real concerns through processes such as reconciliatory mediation can be really helpful.

I am sure the French Government, like their European counterparts, did their research well. They have accommodated as much as they can, but in the interests of cultural preservation and national security decided the full Burka was just a step too far. For the Muslim community of Europe, clear guidelines about what is and isn’t acceptable in European culture may help avoid future conflicts.

Their culture, whilst some 1400 years old, is nonetheless significantly pre-dated by the European cultures, and as I alluded to earlier, when one wishes to assimilate into another culture, one must expect to compromise somewhat to fit in. One only has to look at the lives of expatriates living in Muslim countries to see how they have to observe the laws of that country! Within Europe today, there are significant rising tensions as the indigenous peoples see their cultures being eroded by the influx of the Islamic culture. The long term future of Europe looks decidedly uncertain, and in times of uncertainty and change, conflict will likely emerge. Hence, there is a need for more and more principled peacemakers and mediators to help parties navigate the uncharted waters that lie ahead. Waters that I personally believe Europe is very close to entering!

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.