“Above and beyond our obligation as citizens to participate and contribute in a positive way to the development of our society, we must seek out those who share our deep concern for social justice and equality for all”
The campaign of defamation waged by Tipping Point and the Canadian Muslim Congress against Tariq Ramadan and his collaborators (Le Devoir and the National Post, November 5 2009) has demonstrated its limits: as an admission of bankruptcy, it could hardly be more eloquent. Instead of arguments and ideas, the coalition is reduced to using paid advertising as a vehicle for distortion, hate speech and character assassination against individuals whose ideas it is unable to confront in an open forum.
In their incoherence, the authors have done no more than cobble together a string of feverish affirmations, baseless assertions and rumors of the kind served up by certain media powerfully allergic to the arguments of western Muslims who insist on their unswerving respect for the secular and democratic constitutional structures of Europe and North America.
What should we be reading between the lines? Not the falsehoods our authors are unable to invent on their own, but their obstinate refusal to participate in open, democratic debate that recognizes, in full modesty, the presence among us of others and of their differences. Worse, we note of late an increasingly virulent outpouring of bile from those who, unable to prove their assertions, can do no better than bang their fists on the table. The Appeal for the Cessation of Corporal Punishment has been available on our website since March 2005.
The challenge we face is far removed from these baseless provocations. In the current climate of suspicion surrounding Islam in the West we must, more than ever, assume our responsibilities. Above and beyond our obligation as citizens to participate and contribute in a positive way to the development of our society, we must seek out those who share our deep concern for social justice and equality for all, whether they be immigrants or not. But we must also have the courage to work together with our coreligionists to reform ourselves, both spiritually and intellectually.
Tariq Ramadan’s public lecture (“The Spiritual Quest: Reforming Ourselves; Reforming the World, Universite de Montreal, November 6 2009) focused on the need for all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims, to strive together. Beginning with our deepest convictions, we must work to transform our environment in conformity with the shared universal values we hold dear.
When we are engaged in a common undertaking of these dimensions, we need not be distracted by interference from those who would attempt to stand in our way. The caravan moves on…
Stocking up on lunch snacks at Costco, I saw a book that immediately grabbed my attention. It had a picture of a woman wearing a niqab, a face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women.
Intrigued, I bought the book, mentally congratulating the publisher for having squeezed $20 out of my pocket. They know only too well that the niqab sells, grabs headlines and diverts attention. It is also a lightening rod for emotions and fear.
A few months ago, the debate raged among Canadian politicians whether wearing the niqab and voting could jibe, and whether women would be allowed to wear the veil in legal proceedings. It has been discussed in Quebec, England, the Netherlands, Italy and many other parts of the world, usually spun to create false controversy by right-wing politicians.
Predictably, this issue is making the rounds again, this time in France, a country in the midst of identity crises. President Nicolas Sarkozy is making the burqa — a full-body covering with a screen over the face — his flavour of the month to deflect attention from his plunging popularity. Amid raucous applause from his fellow parliamentarians, he said:
“In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity … it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”
They know that fear will easily buy votes among a population who feel increasingly vulnerable to the growing number of Muslims, and who will embrace laws which provide a false sense of security in preserving their identity. In 2004, Muslim women were the targets of this strategy through a law banning headscarves from French public schools.
U.S. President Barack Obama addressed this in his Cairo speech two weeks ago: “… it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”
In defending his words, Obama stated, “I will tell you that in the U.S., our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”
He gets it. Unfortunately, the people who lash out at the niqab or burqa are usually those who feel the most uncomfortable with it: journalists, politicians, intellectuals and feminists. Under the pretense of defending freedom of thought, they are actually legitimizing hate, thus generating the exact opposite of what they claim to defend.
Ironically, they don’t seem to be particularly attentive to those whom they are supposedly defending. In speaking for these women, they assume they are oppressed idiots who can only be spoken to, about, or for but never with.
Muslim women wear the face covering for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we never hear their voices, their stories, their choices, how they negotiate the challenges, how it impacts their integration and how they feel.
Sahar Ullah, a Chicago graduate student, voices her experience of wearing the niqab in an online blog, “Most people who had an opinion about niqab never asked me why I wore it although they were willing to express their opinion …” adding “It was actually Muslims that were the cruelest. They insisted that niqab was wrong, I felt more defensive about having the right to make my own choices.”
The laundry list of assumptions people had about her intentions included: ideology; adherence to law; a method of escape; entrapment; pretentiousness; performance of piety; heroism; fear of men; desire to seduce; covered naughtiness; anti-social behaviour; a vain call for attention; a passport to marriage; desire to be silent; an oppressive father; and the classic — anxiety about being too dark.
Perhaps it is time we reassess the biases that are fuelling this debate. To fear means that we lack confidence in ourselves and in others. By allowing this fear to infiltrate our societies, we are entertaining the most serious illusions about our freedom, putting in danger our notions of what a truly democratic society is.
The organization Human Rights Watch concurs: “The ban on the veil violates human rights and stigmatizes and marginalizes women who wear it. The freedom to express religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental rights … and such a ban would send a signal to many French Muslims that they are not welcome in their own country.”
It has been announced that an official commission in France will be created to assess the question of the burqa over the next six months. It smells suspiciously patriarchal.
In looking at the context and origins of the niqab, the majority of Muslim scholars do not view it as compulsory. For the minority who see it as a religious requirement, they should be, under freedom of religion provisions, afforded the right to wear the niqab.
Within Muslim communities, there are growing discussions about Islamic feminism — the struggle for women’s rights within the Islamic terms of reference, against cultural discrimination and a literalist approach to the texts.
These grassroots conversations are an important avenue to reiterate that women should not be forced to do anything against their will. But also that choices made through personal conviction need to be respected — a right embedded in most democracies.
This dialogue had already started during the Prophet Muhammad’s time. He strongly encouraged the active role of women in early Islamic society, insisting that they should never confuse modesty with disappearing from the political, scholarly, religious, social, economic or even military sphere. In other words, Muslim women were the actors of their own destinies.
In concluding his speech, Sarkozy stated that the burqa “will not be welcome on our territory.”
Hopefully he will come to understand that a potential law banning a piece of clothing won’t change anything except outward appearances. True emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women to be free, autonomous and engaged will only occur when they are afforded the right to speak on their own terms, not for someone else’s political agenda.
Shelina Merani is the spokesperson for the network Muslim Presence and has recently launched the local/global website www.muslimpresence.com.
This semester I am teaching a course about Aristotle, democracy and law on a University of London campus which has large numbers of Muslim students. Over the past few weeks, two of them approached me – independently, and at different times. They both asked, a bit nervously, whether Aristotle’s philosophy is compatible with Islam.
They couldn’t have posed a more interesting or complicated question.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and into the Middle Ages, Greek learning gradually vanished from Western Europe. It was the Mediterranean centres of Muslim learning that kept Greek thought alive. Intellectuals such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes authored lengthy commentaries on early Greek treatises on democracy, theology, psychology and many other subjects that are still studied today as classics.
In the later Middle Ages, it was from Arabic translations that Aristotle re-appeared in the West, re-introducing logical and dialectical rigour into medieval Christianity, and heralding the gradual revival of Greco-Roman classicism that culminated in the Italian Renaissance.
Over centuries, through empires and crusades, through the rise and fall of entire civilisations, the body of wisdom weaving steadily through Islam, Christianity and Judaism was Greek philosophy, the great example being Spain in its Golden Age.
Yet some insist that secular philosophy is anti-Islamic. And the students who approached me found themselves in the situation of many young Muslims in the West today. Even the choice to attend a class on law and ethics can provoke dilemmas of identity and allegiance.
Anyone familiar with Plato knows that nothing is taboo in Greek philosophy. Nor is any proposition admitted on faith alone. Logic and nature, ethics and politics, even art, music and literature must be justified through reason. No custom, tradition or religion stands above scrutiny. The very existence of God – or the gods – must be cast off if good reason cannot be mustered in support of it.
For those who believe that a meaningful human life requires faith coupled with reason, the ancient Greeks make unsettling reading. Religious people of all faiths have at times shunned secular philosophy. Religion, like science, closes minds when it leads people openly, or secretly, to declare, “We have all the truth we need. We don’t need philosophy!”
My two students had no intention of shutting down their minds. Both decided that their Islamic faith in no way bars them from free and critical inquiry into ethics, history and society. They embrace Islam to bring a wider world in, not to shut it out. They have no fear of Aristotle. They are, like Aristotle, the arbiters of their own minds. They see in the Greek canon not crusty dogma, but living dialogue. Aristotle poses no more of a threat to them than would an interfaith educational or cultural forum.
According to a poll recently conducted for the BBC, nearly 80 percent of British Muslims, far from shunning Christianity, support a stronger role for it in British life. That figure exceeds by 10 percent even the number of Christians who express such support. How can that be? Wasn’t Christianity the avowed foe of Islam for century after blood-soaked century?
What many Muslims in the West understand, and what my two students embrace, is the insight that cultural, religious or intellectual traditions are interactive and dynamic. Muslims are inviting non-Muslims to re-evaluate their own heritage, because they recognise that re-opening the mind to one tradition is a way of opening it to others.
Past intolerance need place no obstacle in the way of a tolerant future. Muslims are urging non-Muslims to celebrate an important past, which does not preclude that past, or any past, from remaining subject to ongoing, critical assessment.
In recent years, headlines and bookshops have swelled with stark, simplistic distinctions: science versus religion, reason versus faith, the West versus Islam. It is not in the triumph of any one of these, but in constant, constructive exchange among all of them that science and religion, reason and faith, the West and Islam fulfil their highest aspirations.
While many voices have ignorantly dismissed Islam – and indeed all religion – as an embodiment of ignorance, my two students are proving the contrary, as are Muslim intellectuals throughout the world. Like their great medieval forbears, they seek within Islam not closure, but openness. They are using Islam to deepen their understanding of other traditions, and using other traditions to deepen their understanding of Islam.
Eric Heinze is professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London. This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service