Islamic Veil and Democracy
by Amit Pyakurel
edited: Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Posted: Wednesday, November 22, 2006
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Reciprocal attempts needed to balance Islamic radicalism and democratic norms
Europe has been frequently confronting the controversy regarding the Muslim hijab (head-scarf or veil) and niqab, one of the essential practices in Islam. As the Muslim population are widespread across the European states, they have been frequently facing hassles regarding the headscarf worn by the Muslim female employees. In Germany, in several states, female teachers have been banned from wearing the head scarves. Two years ago, in France, students attending state-run schools were forbidden to wear the hijab.
In Italy, in accordance with the anti-terrorist law passed last year, it was made illegal to conceal one's features in public, including the wearing of the burka. Britain is yet to resolve the dispute over the head scarves issue. And Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, which has imposed a "strict law of secularism," vehemently prohibited any women from wearing the veil to the presidential reception during the 83rd anniversary of its foundation on Oct. 29. Turkey, which has made "secularization" the law of the land, is also facing a hullabaloo regarding the ban imposed upon the Muslim veil by the president of the republic.
Accept it or not, though we have left behind many eras of hardships born by human ignorance, many Islamic religious norms, even today, often ascribe to what other people see as a kind of "conservatism." There are also significant examples of moderate Muslim population who have opted for change by coming out of such inflexible customs and blending themselves in with the modern concepts of thinking and living.
We can still see various societies and regimes carrying the values which they say "are taught by the religious aspect of Islam" that portray unfair restrictions and comparatively many more obligations to the people under the sway of Islam. Extremely vicious methods such as honor killings, which are still profound in some Muslim societies, as in Afghanistan, are another cruel truth, often being imposed in the name of Islamic religious or cultural doctrine. Such an extreme form of radicalism, though rare, has rather helped to earn negative judgment towards Islam. However, the efforts taken by the large moderate and sane population of Islam, who are against such barbaric crimes, deserve praise at the same time.
From the viewpoint of the comparatively liberal and democratic societies, it's easy to accept that wearing a veil does discriminate against the female population among their male counterparts, and it could also socially differentiate or somehow isolate the Muslim women from the people of other cultures. A woman behind a veil certainly has to bear discomfort, and her obscurity from the outside world; it limits her interaction with her surroundings. Naturally, it distinguishes herself among her own counterparts, and any onlooker who doesn't have knowledge about the custom would take it as astonishing.
But, beside arguing against such unfair religious norms of Islam, let's also speculate how fair is it to impose "restriction" over one of the "radical aspects of Islam; i.e. the veil or head scarves? The authorities that have imposed such a "ban" would come up with a genuine reasoning that no one has the right to assert their religious privileges that emasculates the democratic rights of other people and secular beliefs. Here, when we seem to favor the democratic and secular freedoms of others, we also need to understand that obligatory methods imposed upon someone not to follow certain religious or cultural aspects is yet another violation of democratic rights. A similar bargain could be for both sides, as it's unjust to force someone to put on a veil, and it may also be unjust to force that person not to wear it.
The Muslim critics who have emerged against the ban on head scarves carry the sentiment that social transformation can't be attained through force. They also refute the saying that heads scarves could "hinder the integration" of the Muslim population into Western or European societies. However, the Muslim critics have blamed the "prejudices" made against them by their non-Muslim counterparts as an obstacle for integration.
It could be a noble attempt to interlace the radical Muslim population into the secular and more open-minded societies. But at the same time, it's worth speculating that it would do more harm than good to force someone to change their religious norms or perspectives. Such forceful tactics would however invite backlash from stern followers, including the radical entities inside them, who could interpret it as humiliation towards their religious and cultural values. As many Muslims already feel less privileged among their European counterparts, a feeling could also emerge as this being another attempt to prove their religious doctrine inferior or as a disrespect posed towards the whole Muslim community.
Toxic and radical norms of any religious doctrine, be it Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, need to be changed so as to abide by the basic principle of human rights. But forceful interference would create just another hassle, and the example is the hostile reaction caused by the Muslim population over the "ban." What would be effective is to educate and encourage the communities influenced by such religious fundamentalism. After all, time itself would eventually change any attitude or behavior that goes against the popular belief of the society they live in.
Besides, we also cannot refrain from criticizing the very radical stand of some people in the Muslim community, be it in imposing the seemingly inhumane cultural and religious norms or reacting harshly or violently to any measures which they oppose. The very radicalism and false interpretation of Islamic norms is seen only to earn the community more negative evaluation from their non-Muslim counterparts. Prospects such as tolerance, sanity, and co-existence need to be equally respected by every religious entity, including the Muslims. The example of the significant number of rational Muslims is what these radical groups of Islam should follow, which would indeed respect the value of multi-religious, multi-cultural, and secularism of the modern democratic world.