The controversy over the wearing of the niqab, hijab and burka in Western nations is picking up once again. For many Westerners, the wearing of the veil is a mark of a repressive medieval religion – the recent case in the UK where a Muslim school forced its female teachers to wear the hijab and the subsequent condemnation by officials at the National Union of Teachers is indicative of the backlash Muslim traditions face. Al-Madinah School in Derby is also accused of practicing discrimination between male and female pupils, forcing girls to sit at the back of the class – hardly a ringing endorsement for modern Islam’s commitment to contemporary values on gender equality.
Another recent controversy emerged over the issue of Muslim wearing the veil while giving evidence in court, and similar issues were raised about whether or not Muslims working for the National Health Service should cover their faces when treating patients. In France, politicians took the measure of banning the veil in public places; the bill prohibiting concealment of the face being passed into law in July 2010 and coming into effect the following year. It highlighted the tension between Western secularism and Islamic tradition and raised the difficult question of how to reconcile the two, if indeed reconciliation would be possible at all.
The hijab is often seen as a symbol of the oppression of women within Islam, and there have been countless news stories over the years which seem to justify that perception, for example the 15-year old Egyptian girl who rejected the pressures from her family to wear the hijab and shot herself. In Sudan, 35-year old Amira Osman Hamed may face a whipping if convicted for refusing to wear the hijab, reflecting a policy which rings of the Taliban’s punitive stance on religious principles. The media, with its characteristically sensationalist manner, amplifies these stories to a point where many believe that this is indicative of all Muslims – a world where Islam and extremism are one and the same thing.
A tweet I received some time ago summed up how easily misconceptions about the Muslim world can arise when a person’s knowledge comes from the mainstream media: ”Please tell me what middle eastern country allows women the vote, allows them to walk without the burka, or doesn’t stone them?” Arab women are able to vote in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Mauritania, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere. A minority of Middle Eastern countries currently use stoning, and while obviously barbaric it is also very rarely employed. Overall rates of execution in the Middle East are considerably lower than America, where the death penalty is still endorsed by much of the population despite numerous cases of the execution of people wrongly convicted. As for the idea that women are forced to wear the burka in public across the region, in some Middle Eastern nations it is actually prohibited, a sign of a growing secularism which views the garment as a symbol of fundamentalist Islam largely rejected by the population.
Nevertheless, the simplistic view of Islam as a religion of oppression and extremism inevitably becomes embedded in the psyche of many people in the West who, with little or no first hand experience of Muslims and their traditions and fed on a diet of “Islamofascist” terrorism propaganda, develop a misguided hatred of the Islamic world and bigotry towards Muslims. Fear of the unknown leads to irrational hostility and intolerance, and concepts such as multiculturalism become a tinderbox from which endless protracted debates on cultural integration versus cultural assimilation flare up and invariably spiral out of control.
Right wing commentator Anne Coulter summed up the knee-jerk reaction from some Westerners in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, when she said that suspect Tamerlan Tsnarnaev’s wife should be imprisoned for wearing a hijab. Coulter stated, “This immigration policy of us assimilating immigrants into our culture isn’t really working. They’re assimilating us into their culture. Did she get a clitorectomy too?” Coulter unwittingly highlighted how uneducated many of those who attack Islam are – the barbaric mutilation of female genitals is a practice carried out in parts of Africa, not Chechnya, where the alleged bomber came from. Far be it for those on the right to temper their prejudices with a degree of understanding.
At the extreme end of this mindset the arguments become incoherent and absurd:
These ingrained attitudes can lead to hate crimes – acts of violence against the “other” every bit as barbaric as those carried out by religious extremists. It is an irony that is surely lost on the perpetrators, who fail to recognize the extremist nature of their own views as they condemn others for theirs, whether real or perceived. When a member of the English Defense League sees a Muslim they see only the crude and fallacious stereotype of the “terrorist” plotting to destroy buildings and impose Sharia Law on the UK – a one-dimensional cartoon villain straight out of an 80s Hollywood action movie.
The post-9/11 era was characterized by a revival of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations”. Huntington wrote in a 1993 article for Foreign Affairs:
It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
Inevitably, such a clash is based on divisions which blur when viewed through a geographical lens, with representatives from various cultural groups living side by side in a community. Huntington viewed this as a conflict between “the West and the Rest”, where non-Western nations would either seek to assimilate Western values (avidly pushed upon them by Western governments) or pursue an isolationist policy. It is a simplistic view which fails to appreciate the fluctuating nature of culture and the existence of diversity found within communities, the increasingly global melting pot in which borders play a diminishing role.
This points to an arrogance in the Western mindset that is rarely acknowledged; the assumption that the Western way is obviously the best way and should be proselytized around the globe. The idea of Western cultural imperialism isn’t a new one but its effects are obvious to anyone who has traveled outside of Western nations – corporations have made great strides towards homogenizing cultural values and promoting the very ideology – materialism – their profits rest upon.
Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” represents another form of ideology, resting as it does on the assumption of Western superiority, which, as Noam Chomsky has argued, has been used as a justification by the US ”for any atrocities that they wanted to carry out”. Edward Said’s criticism was considerably harsher, describing the thesis as ”the purest invidious racism, a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims.”
On the global political landscape it is Western leaders who have consistently proven themselves to be warmongering and barbaric, another point lost on those who are fearful of the influence of Islam and hateful towards Muslims. Our aggression towards nations in the Middle East is not only permissible in their eyes but completely justified by the false narratives peddled by the likes of Samuel Huntington and journalists in the popular press. The use of force becomes something noble, a necessary measure to protect us from our enemies. It is a mentality widely held by those in power, allowing people like Madeleine Albright to deem the deaths of half a million Iraq children as a result of punishing sanctions as “worth it”.
Ultimately, issues such as Muslim women wearing a particular garment of clothing serve as a smokescreen distracting away from far more important wider issues concerning tolerance and peaceful co-existence with our fellow human beings, as well as the inherent problems of ideological extremism in all its forms. Rather than focusing on the differences between cultures and beliefs and attempting to either convert them to our own way of thinking or eradicating them altogether, we should be celebrating our differences and joining together to fight against all who would seek to impose their beliefs through force or coercion.