By Aijaz Zaka Syed
April 16, 2011
A columnist should never tackle the same topic two weeks in a row, advise masters of the trade. So forgive me for ignoring this counsel and barging in headlong where we have been before – ad nauseam. But I couldn’t help myself when I came across this posting on Arab News Online.
Taking part in the raging debate over the ban on the Muslim veil that came into force in Nicolas Sarkozy’s France this week, a reader who identifies herself as “A Muslimah” writes: “Time and time again in ‘free, democratic’ societies women are manipulated and taught to believe that their freedom is directly linked to the removal of their clothing. Such emphasis has never been placed on men, though. It’s the removal of women’s clothing and not the choice to wear whatever they like that – women are brainwashed into believing – preserves their freedom, as is evident from this (French) ban on the veil.”
Her whole post deserves to be read by everyone, and widely shared. But I have to round it off with her closing lines: “Yet, those supporting the ban would have us believe Muslim women are the ones who are manipulated and suppressed. But it’s hardly surprising to see free societies ban women from covering their bodies. These are the nations in which women are used daily as mere commodities for buying and selling. The lands of the living Barbie dolls, where the daily objectification of women and young girls as sexual playthings has reached the mainstream. The female physique has become public property. Women must be on public display at all times.”
Need I add more? I am yet to come across a more fitting and right-on-the-nose take on the issue. Perhaps only a Muslim woman could have spotlighted the absurdity and rank hypocrisy of this whole circus in the continent that takes pride in its image as the land of freedom and civil liberties.
In the land of Magna Carta, no eyebrows are raised if you go around in your birthday suit, go French kissing or get intimate in public. In fact, such actions only prove your liberal ethos and qualification to be part of Western societies. But you are a grave threat to peace and stability of the state the moment you cover your face. How ridiculous can you get.
Do the Europeans even realise the absurdity of their actions? Did President Sarkozy watch the scenes of French cops rounding up and rouging up veiled women in nationwide crackdown even as head-to-toe fully clothed Christian nuns watched? This is why I believe this debate has more to do with politics, rather than religion.
This is not about individual freedoms, religious tolerance or Islam’s incompatibility with France or Europe. There are two issues at the heart of this conflict. First is old-fashioned politics. Even as Europe’s politicians, from Belgium to France and from Switzerland to Denmark, trumpet their liberal values and secular democratic credentials, they tap into the deep-seated insecurities and paranoia of their Caucasian and Christian European populace for swift electoral gains, or power.
So Sarkozy, hoping of re-election, not just comes up with this weird idea of banning the veil and punishing those refusing to take off the piece of cloth that is part of their religious beliefs; he presides over a national debate as to why Muslims cannot be part of the liberal and democratic French society.
His interior minister, Claude Gueant, under fire for terming the French campaign against Libya’s Qaddafi a new crusade, has gone to the extent of saying the problem is with “the growing numbers of Muslim populations.”
In the Alpine paradise of Switzerland they have outlawed mosque minarets because they do not blend in with a European skyline.
In Denmark and other Scandinavian countries and in Holland, they have found another way of rejecting the Muslims – by targeting their sacred icons and beliefs, from caricaturing the Prophet to attacking the Quran in films and art.
Paradoxically, all this is done in the name of Europe’s liberal ethos and tolerance. So even as they pontificate to us about an individual’s freedom to say and do what he or she wants, they are targeting the very same freedom by forcing the Muslim woman to take off the veil.
The second – and core – issue at the heart of this conflict is the deepening fear psychosis of the white, predominantly Christian West about Islam and the Muslims eventually running over and taking over the West and annihilating their entire civilisation. Looked at it from their perspective, you would understand their insecurity and growing paranoia.
On the one hand, their numbers are diminishing, and not just in Europe. The continent that ruled the world for nearly four centuries is shrinking and aging fast. It is yet to recover from the destruction and depletion of its numbers during World War I and II. To maintain its ascendancy, it needs a young population, and lots of it. It’s precisely for this reason that, willy-nilly, it has had to take in the growing numbers of immigrants from around the world, especially from those lands that it not long ago ruled. The new arrivals are heading to the West not merely because it offers greater economic opportunities and freedom; many of them are victims of the long years of colonisation of Asia and Africa by European powers.
On the other hand, notwithstanding these compulsions, the West finds it difficult to reconcile itself to the reality of its changing demographic profile and what it sees as a cultural and intellectual invasion, especially from Islam and Muslims.
European pundits have long talked about Europe turning into Eurabia and London into Londonistan. While in the past few decades millions from Arab and Muslim lands have migrated to the West in search of a better life, Muslim ranks in the West have been expanding also because more and more white Europeans and Americans are turning to Islam for guidance and inspiration.
With excessive materialism and moral decay destroying the family unit and society as a whole, more and more people are finding spiritual solace in Islam. So if the religion is the fastest growing in the world today despite a relentless global crusade against its followers, you know where to look for answers.
Therefore, we need to look from this perspective at this wave of Islamophobia, from burning the Quran to banning the veil. More important, Muslims must desist from responding to these bouts of bigotry with bigotry. Hatred cannot fight hatred. Only love and understanding can. As the Quran suggests, when faced with adversity we must fight it with something that is better.
The current wave of Islamophobia is largely fuelled by ignorance, myths and insecurities. You can counter it with by promoting knowledge and true understanding of the faith that came not just for the Arabs but for the whole of mankind. Not an easy task by any means. We have no other choice, though.