02/08/2010, 00.00
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An anti-burqa law to renew Islam in Europe

by Samir Khalil Samir
Wearing the all-enveloping outer garment is not a religious requirement, but a cultural tradition from Saudi Arabia. It is the symbol of an attack by extremist Islam on Europe, and this has generated contempt for a certain retrograde form of Islam. A law is needed against wearing full-face veil in public spaces, but what is even more needed is a broad dialogue between East and West that would allow Islam to be modernised and integrated into European culture, and thus have an opportunity to contribute to world civilisation.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The practice of wearing the veil has spread across the Islamic world in recent years. Hundreds of articles have been written about it in the Arab-Muslim world. Among Muslims, the practice has been met by a number of reactions and points of view. In some cases, it has been totally or partially banned (especially the full-face version); in others, women have been encouraged to wear it, in some cases at all times. This shows that the Ummah’s is far from being unanimous (ijmâ‘) over the “Islamic nature” of this type of garment, or about the attitudes towards it. In any event, the veil is an issue around the Muslim world. The full-faced veil is indeed a major problem.

The full-face veil scares

The burqa and the niqab raise fear . . . for good reason. They scare Muslims and non-Muslim alike. When this practice is associated with Islam, when it is made into one of its essential elements, this fear is not only about Muslims, but also about Islam itself. The term phobia in “Islamophobia” in fact stands for “fear”.

Indeed, many Westerners do “fear” Islam. The more Muslims try to advance their demands in the name of Islam, the more Islamophobia will grow. Westerners will ask why should are they so different and special that they would want to come to live in a social, cultural, political, economic, vestimentary and culinary milieu that is not theirs, one that existed long before their arrival.

The feeling that Islam pervades every aspects of daily life, that it demands a certain type of behaviour, has created a sense of “invasion”. And this raises fears. Many begin to wonder: If I give in on this issue, which one will be the next? Will there ever be an end? Some ask themselves whether Islam can ever be integrated in Europe”.[1]

Is the veil compulsory?

When the veil is discussed, many raise the issue of religious traditions and freedom. According to Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the dean of Al-Azhar University, the most famous institution of higher learning in the Muslim world, the burqa and the niqab are not Islamic. Both are a sign of tribal affiliation. For this reason, he had the full-face veil banned from hundreds of buildings that come under al-Azhar’s jurisdiction. Elsewhere, the two articles of clothing have been banned on grounds that they belong to another culture (i.e. Arabia).

Gamal al-Banna, brother of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote a book and signed several articles in which he argued that the Qur‘an does not require Muslim women to wear the veil.

A’ïchah, Umm al-Mu’minin, is known to have reacted negatively when she saw one of her slave girls (amah) go out wearing a veil. She slapped her, saying: “How dare you? You are but a servant!” [2] In fact, the veil symbolised the dignity of upper-class women (especially the wives of the Prophet). Equally, it is hard to imagine a woman working in the fields with an all-enveloping outer piece of clothing, even more so, if it includes a full-face veil.

In Egypt on 16 November 2006, Culture Minister Faruq Hosni (later a candidate for the post of UNESCO director general) in a telephone interview complained about the growing acceptance of the veil. “There was a time,” he said, “when our mothers went to university and work without a veil. We grew up in that spirit. Why should we go back now?”

The stranglehold of the Muslim Brotherhood on parliament is such that the organisation called for his resignation . . ., which did not occur because Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, intervened on his behalf. Often women are more courageous in our Arab countries . . . because they have nothing to lose.

Would banning the veil be against freedom?

Some say that a law banning the veil would be an attack on freedom. That is true, but there is a reason for it. Are not all laws attempts against freedom? Freedom has limits defined by common sense and shared values, which also have the right to be protected. Hence, in France (and elsewhere in Europe), walking naked in public spaces is banned (except in designated places). Hence, where is freedom then?

As Paul, who hailed from Tarsus, an important centre of Stoic philosophy, put it, “[Y]ou were called for freedom (eleutheria), brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal, 5:13). By flesh, Paul meant passions and all that is opposed to the spirit.[3] In this sense, law frees us from bad dispositions.

Why a law?

The women who wear a full-face garment (niqab or burqa) do not do so out of respect for tradition. They are usually young Muslim women, born and bred in France (where the debate over the veil is the most heated), or French women who converted to Islam. If the two pieces of clothing were part of a tradition, no one could object to see women wear them. For example, many old women in Sicily wear black from head to toe, even when they carry heavy loads on their head. This might come as a surprise to some, but no one has criticised them because they respect a traditional practice of their country.

In France, the issue is very different. Women who wear the burqa or the niqab do so for ideological reasons, to challenge Western society, which they consider corrupt. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they are advancing a dangerous political project, which is dangerous not because it is political, but because it is not out in the open but is rather presented as something religious. The fact remains that the full-face veil is not required by either the Qur‘an or the Sunnah.

The experience of other countries makes this even clearer; that of Egypt for instance, the largest country in the Arab. The ordinary headscarf was an oddity in 1975; now it is the rule. The full-face veil, which used to be rare in 1995, now is becoming commonplace![4] Following the fall of ideologies and in the absence of democracy, justice or equality, religion has become the only certainty in the Muslim world. Such a trend, observable across the Middle East and North Africa, shows that if we allow things to continue the way they are, covering the head can only become more widespread.

The reasons behind the full-face veil

In the West, the practice of covering comes as a cultural shock. It cannot be justified in the name of religion because nothing requires it. Tradition cannot be used as justification because those who wear it now are doing it for the first time, and the countries where they live are opposed to it. Why adopt it then?

At best, I think it is a defensive reaction to a certain laxity in Western morals and behaviour. Even though morality may be loose in the West, should people respond to one extreme with another? Or even do something shocking?

Modesty is the ideal for every person in his or her right mind. However, modesty does not require this kind of clothing. In fact, the notion of modesty varies across time and space, in the West as well as in the Arab and Muslim world. Modesty is a virtue that applies to all humans, men as well as women. If the full-face veil (or even just then ordinary veil) were the best way to practice modesty, or should it become the rule, why are men not wearing it? That is because it is not part of the tradition.

Collective or national customs define, here and now, how modesty is expressed. In France (and Europe), French (European) customs and rules decide what is right. Above all, clearly no religious obligation exists. The fact that even Muslims are far from any consensus with regards to this garment means that it is not compulsory for Muslims. By contrast, ALL MUSLIMS agree that the five daily prayers (and more generally the five pillars of Islam) are compulsory for every Muslim, even though many do not perform them. Undeniably, there is no agreement on the veil.

Impact on Western reactions

It is clear that the full-face veil is contrary to French customs and way of seeing things. It is especially in contradiction with the fundamental notion of gender equality and the idea that religious or philosophical beliefs should not be expressed too ostentatiously. Like all customs, these notions are not laid out in a law or included in the constitution, but are the result of a national consensus that accurately reflects an aspect of the France’s “national identity”, an issue that is much discussed at present.

Since the veil is viewed in many countries (most notably in France) as a symbol of cultural regression, the 2,000 French women (who might not even be French citizens but might simply be residents in the country) who want to wear the full-face veil are, in my opinion, hurting Islam, all Muslims and Arabs.

Unwittingly, they are creating an image of Islam that is reinforcing Western stereotypes in which Islam is seen as a religion that trailing behind the rest of humanity, one that will inevitably pull the West backward. Sadly, all expert opinions, by Arab scholars and others, have highlighted this backwardness, supported by data. Is it wise then to add some religious element every day to prove that Islam is the cause of our backwardness? For this reason alone, opposing the full-face veil is worthwhile.

What is the solution? Should the state legislate on the matter?

Who must “fight” the full-face veil? Should the state adopt a law? If the latter were the case, it would be very sad. On the one hand, we may ask whether it is necessary for a state to legislate in a matter that affects only 2,000 people out of a population 62,500,000 people (0.003 per cent). Our answer is in a Latin expression: De minimis non curat praetor (the government does not concern itself with trifles). On the other hand, if the law says nothing and Salafist pressures continue—something that is very likely because they are for a cause that seeks victory, one that will be followed by others—, then the issue will not be dealt with. Some short gap solutions might be found, with some general guidelines laid to give local communities or institutions the power to decide.

Unfortunately, the “de Creil” affair[5] of 18 September 1989 suggests that conflicts of this nature are not healed by the passage of time alone. The French government had to set up the Stasi Commission and pass a law (on the separation of state and religion and ostentatious religious symbols) on 15 March 2004 to reduce tensions. Yet, the letter that Ernest Chénière, headmaster at the Collège Gabriel Havez in Creil, wrote to the parents of Fatima (13) and Leila (14) Achahboun and those of Samira Saidani was reasonable for it said, “Our goal is to limit the excessive showing of all religious or cultural affiliation. Please, have them [the daughters] respect the secular character of our school.”

Can Muslims find a solution?

The most reasonable solution can only come from within. Muslims must solve the problem themselves. It would be great if we had a group of “sages” who could explain the actual nature of the issue, and go into the reasons that limited in past its appeal in most Muslim countries, whilst favouring its recent sudden appearance in the Muslim world as well as Europe.

Sadly, that is crux of the matter. A certain kind of solidarity based on clan or ancestral affiliation is preventing us from conducting self-criticism, especially of things that appears to be religious in nature. For some reason, we are paralysed. The overwhelming majority of Western Muslims are against the full-face veil. Yet no one has the courage to take the issue to the streets to demonstrate against it or put pressure on fellow Muslims, much less on imams.

We should explain publicly why such a garment is ethically contrary to French (and Western) culture and why it is deemed degrading to women. Islam must more than ever rethink itself. Practicing Muslims must help their co-religionists separate Islam from certain outdated cultural practices; they must also help them understand where the line runs between religion and politics within Islam . . . in other words, they must help them build a modern Islam, based on its beliefs, one that can make a spiritual contribution to world civilisation.


What is the way out? In spite of inevitable reactions among Muslims and some non-Muslims, a law would lay down limits of a ban, in schools and universities, government offices and in places people have to show their identity.

At the same time, Muslims must go through their own tanwîr (enlightenment) in order to create an enlightened Islam, undertake their own Aufklärung. This must be done using the internet (on sites like www.oumma.com), in forums, in radio and TV discussions, in every media. Indeed, we should do this in conferences, round-tables and in mosques, emphasising the positive aspect of this goal, namely how to rethink Islam in today’s Europe.

For my part, as an Arab Christian, of Islamic and Christian culture, I am certain that Islam (like other religious traditions) has a cultural and spiritual role to play in world civilisation. We must identify what is best in Western and Islamic civilisations and what is less so. This process is best done together because confrontation serves no purpose, except to poison the atmosphere and increase tensions. As such, it will not be easy. It would nevertheless be beneficial to Islam and Christianity as well as to the Arab and the Western worlds.

For the indigenous population, the large number of Muslims in Europe is seen as a threat . . . . Sadly, it is so at present. Both sides are responsible for the situation, but the presence of so many Muslims can also be a source for reflection and balance for either tradition. Such work of understanding must be done jointly, in a cultural, ethical and spiritual dialogue that includes everyone (agnostics and non-believers as well, since ethics and spirituality are not a preserve of believers alone).

As a believer, I think that the presence of a large number of Muslims in Europe can be seen as something providential, an act of divine Providence (al-‘inâyah al-ilâhiyyah) . . . for them as well as for the Europeans because both can renew themselves in justice and equity, acknowledging each other as legitimately different and yet complementary. W-Allâhu samî‘un ‘alîmun! (َاللهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ! ), Allah is Hearing, Knowing.[6]

[1] I am thinking about Prof Giovanni Sartori, a sociologist and political scientist who is well known in Italy and the United States who recently wrote an editorial article on the issue that was published in Italy’s Corriere delle Sera newspaper, on 20 December 2009.

[2] Quote from the Life of the Prophet (Sirah Nabawiyyah).

[3] Here, flesh refers to nafs in the Qur‘an, as in the expression (إنَّ النَّفْسَ لأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ . . . most surely (man's) self is wont to command (him to do) evil (Shura Yusuf, 12:53).

[4] All we need to do is compare photos taken at Cairo University in the 1970s with today’s reality to see how far the veil has come!

[5] In Creil, three female Muslim students were suspended for refusing to remove their veil in school.

[6] Qur‘an, 2:224,256 ; 3:34,121; 9:98,103; 24:21,50.

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