Bypassing the real issues By Shada Islam - Saturday 16th April 2011

HERE we go again: more Muslim-bashing in France, more killings of Christians in Afghanistan and more lament in the US, Europe and parts of the Muslim world over the ‘clash of civilisations’.
Meanwhile, as illustrated in the Arab world, what people really want are jobs, democracy and freedom, not more religious bigotry and extremism. There is something toxic and surreal about Europe’s obsession with the sartorial choices of Muslim women. But spare a thought for modern-day European politicians as they try and understand the quirkier lifestyle choices made by a very small minority of European Muslims.
I wonder: instead of focusing on the very real challenge of integration and building an inclusive society why are European politicians and some European Muslims wasting time on burkas and minarets? Is it not revealing that it’s Muslim women, who arguably already face the biggest societal hurdles in becoming part of the European mainstream, who end up in the front line?
For those who have not followed the saga, here are some insights: since April 11, it has been against the law for people in France to cover their faces with a burka, a niqab, a hood or a mask while in a public place. Since I have yet to meet a Muslim man — however pious — opt for such a covering, the French bill impacts solely on the few Muslim women who want to spend their public life sheltering behind the burka.
The French burka ban is the first in Europe, but other countries are waiting to enact similar legislation. In Belgium, the lower parliamentary chamber voted a year ago in favour of banning the full veil. However, the reform is on hold because of long-term political deadlock.
Seven of Germany’s 16 states have banned teachers in state schools from wearing Islamic headscarves. And wearing Islamic veils or headscarves is officially prohibited at universities in Turkey, a country that is predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular. In Britain, the government has ruled out a burka ban, with Damian Green, the immigration minister, saying that “telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they’re just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do”.
I have to confess to certain impatience with Europe’s hand-wringing over the visible presence of Muslims in the public space.
It’s fashionable to declare — as the leaders of Britain, Germany and France did just recently — that multiculturalism has
“utterly failed” and that Muslims must either melt into the landscape or “go home”. There’s little doubt that Europe’s attempts at the integration of Muslims have been largely unsuccessful. But that’s not just because of the Muslim communities’ unwillingness to join the mainstream. European governments have done little to encourage integration, with many failing to enforce anti-discrimination legislation or promote jobs, education and better housing for minorities. Also, Europe is not ‘secular’ as many analysts suggest. Christian traditions are deeply rooted in the culture. For many Europeans, however, religion is personal, a private affair. As such, the very visible piousness of orthodox Muslims and Jews is often viewed with disquiet. In fact, the debate over the burka distracts from the very real problems of integration faced by Europe’s Muslim minority.
Clearly also, with national polls scheduled for next year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is running scared of the far-right Front National and its charismatic and increasingly popular leader Marine Le Pen. The ban on the burka could be just what the embattled French leader needs to re-establish his credentials with Islam-wary voters. I am equally impatient, however, with the minority of women who see the burka as an essential part of their Muslim identity. It is not. Once again, it is a distraction from the real struggle to get a decent education, find a job and fend off discrimination.
The question has of course divided the Muslim community at a time when joint action is needed to confront common challenges.
Trying to set the record straight, a recent report on Unveiling the Truth released by the Open Society Institute seeks to distinguish myths and misrepresentations surrounding women who wear the full-face veil. The study notes that the wearing of the full-face veil is not a permanent practice for every woman. Nine of the 32 respondents interviewed said they did not wear the veil on a regular basis for three main reasons: the general socio-political climate, work regulations or family tensions.
The adoption of the full-face veil is not a rejection of socialisation, it said. In the majority of cases, the women interviewed had active social lives. Many who avoided going outdoors since they started wearing the veil did so only to avoid the abuse levelled at them in public. In most cases, the women interviewed said they adopted the full-face veil as part of a spiritual journey, not because of pressure. Others confessed that they started wearing the niqab after the controversy broke out in April 2009. In fact, many parents considered the full-face veil as an extremist practice, something unrelated to religion. Many parents also rejected their daughters’ full-face veil because they wanted their children to pursue a professional career.
Muslims who have made it as politicians, business leaders, artists and the like in their home countries or in their adopted lands have done so by putting in long hours, team work and hard labour. Success is difficult to come by for those who purposely exclude themselves from other people.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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