Wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, a niqab and a helmet, three protesters tried to enter the Australian Parliament House on Monday. Their attention-grabbing plan was meant as criticism of the recent revocation of a partial burqa ban in Australia's legislature.
On Oct. 2, the presiding officers of Parliament had required people wearing facial coverings to sit in a separate area and not in the public galleries of the parliamentary chambers. The rule — which also made it mandatory for visitors to temporarily remove coverings at the entrance — was supposed to prevent protesters dressed in concealing garments from entering Parliament. After harsh criticism, the rule was revoked last Monday.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the three protesters belonged to a group called Faceless, which had staged similar protests at other sites in the past. After security personnel made them remove their face coverings, the right-wing activists gave interviews criticizing Islam's alleged "political ideology," which they consider to be "contrary" to Australian beliefs.
The three protesters said they were outraged that they had been required to take off their facial coverings, while Muslim women continued to be allowed to wear burqas inside Parliament House.
Some observers of the staged protest reacted with anger. The Queensland director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Wendy Francis, reportedly condemned the use of the Ku Klux Klan outfit as "extremely confronting," "hurtful" and "distressing."
According to her, Muslim women “wanted a peaceful Australia every bit as much as my Christian friends."
The threat of the Islamic State militant group, which has a number of Australian nationals in its ranks, has put an unwelcome spotlight on the Muslim community in Australia. While the debate about a potential burqa ban is still ongoing, Australian Muslims are complaining about a recent rise in attacks and threats against them.
After Australian police launched anti-terror raids recently, at least 30 physical and verbal attacks against Muslims — particularly against women wearing facial covering — were reported within three weeks. A list compiled by Muslim community leaders details that one woman was threatened with having her hijab (which covers head and chest) set on fire, another was targeted with a coffee cup, and one mother was spat on.
Muslims make up about 1.5 percent of Australia's population, and 36 percent of them were born in the country. In the face of increasing hostility, some Australian Muslims have become more outspoken about discrimination.
In 2010, for example, organizers called on Australians to participate in a flash mob event. Participants were photographed standing in silence, with their faces covered in an attempt to protest various European plans to ban burqas.
Subsequently, opponents of burqas being worn in public used similar strategies to gain public attention. In the photo from 2012 shown below, men and women wear burqas during a rally in Sydney. The protesters belonged to Faceless — the group behind Monday's incident in front of Parliament.
According to political scientist Jonathan Laurence, who has done research on burqa bans, the Australian parliamentary case needs to be distinguished from other bans in Europe. "Australian legislators want to avoid politicizing religious clothing, which is admirable," Laurence told The Washington Post.
"This is an inversion of the head-scarf bans in Europe, where the hijab was endowed with a political meaning above and beyond its religious significance," he said, but he acknowledged that the use of a Ku Klux Klan outfit by opponents presented a challenge to Australian lawmakers trying to distinguish between religious clothing and underlying political messages.
This map from July shows countries in which burqas are banned or mandatory.
In 2011, France and Belgium enforced burqa bans. Secularism has been among France's main features since the French Revolution. For example, religious symbols are banned in French public schools.
Australian politicians, however, have generally put a stronger emphasis on preserving religious freedoms.