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Monday, May 10, 2010

The exotic gift: Understanding the Burka issue.

The Arab World: Inspiration of countless western writers and cinematographers, a land mostly made up of deserts, where people live in...
"The Arab World: Inspiration of countless western writers and cinematographers, a land mostly made up of deserts, where people live in tribes under tents, and go about from one oasis to the other on the backs of camel caravans. A land where minarets call the faithful to prayer from miles away with an enchanting melody. Come explore the Arab world, a magnificent exotic place like no other on the planet."

I probably should've used the past tense there. In case you haven't noticed, this description is at least a few hundred years old, besides the fact that it suffers from many misconceptions. Let me start over...

"The Arab World: The living miracle of a blossoming desert. Here technology and innovation meet timeless tradition. From skyscrapers to state of the art airports and transportation systems, the biggest cities here, inspired by the west's most beautiful cities, show that it is possible to both reach for the sky and kneel down to pray. Come to the Arab world, where comfort and technology meet spirituality."

I would say this is much more accurate, if we exclude northern Arab countries which are neither deserts nor have an islamic tradition. But my point is, this sounds like a nice place to visit, doesn't it ?

Now let's get to the serious business.
Last week Belgium's lower house of parliament passed a law that would ban women from wearing the full islamic face veil in public. This law, which would only be in effect once it passes through the Belgian senate, gives Belgium and islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran something to agree upon: They would all have laws restricting the way women dress in public, where some islamic countries seek to hide most of a woman's skin or form, Belgium seeks to guarantee that at least the face is visible.
This move does not come unilaterally from Belgium. France's president has made it clear that he also intends to pass a similar law in France, on the backdrop of considerable tension following the announcement of the Netherlands', Denmark's and Switzerland's wishes to ban the construction of minarets.

While the ban on full facial coverage might be understandable from a security point of view, the minarets issue seems more related to islam than anything else. And so the obvious question is: Does Europe have a problem with Islam ? Are European countries trying to create an undesirable environment for muslims in the hope that they would... leave ? Well you might think so, but I don't.
I do however have a problem with these laws.

You see, islam is very much an alien culture to Europe. Up until the second half of the twentieth century, the sight of veiled women was quite uncommon in Europe. Islam as a religion, was in fact quite uncommon, and some argue that it still is. However, lenient immigration and asylum laws made it easy for workforce coming from an islamic environment to settle in European countries, and while it was the initial assumption that this additional workforce would integrate easily within the local population, in many cases, whether due to the rapid flow of immigrants or insufficient effort from the respective governments, this did not happen, and what initially started out as an "exotic flavor" in the European population, has grown to be seen today as a challenge to Europe's cultural identity.

It's hard to find a justification for this, we are living in completely novel times and the challenges we are facing, along with their proportions, are unprecedented in history. But essentially, be it the French, the Swiss, the Dutch, or whoever other population in the world, every population is responsible for its own culture, and they have the right to protect that culture however way they want, as long as it does not lead to segregation.

For instance, consider Saudi Arabia. This islamic country goes to a complete standstill five times a day for forty-five minutes, to allow everyone to have time to pray. In fact, during these forty-five minutes, you could be arrested if you're outdoors and clearly not praying. Moreover, there are plenty of non-muslim, possibly christian, foreigners in Saudi Arabia. However, non-muslim religious materials are illegal. Women have to be veiled, and cannot walk the streets without the company of a male family member, in fact they can't even drive. The list is long, and I could go on... The point is: When you go to Saudi Arabia, no matter where you come from, you do like the Saudis. You might think Saudi Arabia is a ridiculous example, and I might agree that their laws are a bit of a stretch, but essentially, apart from those laws that are in violation of human rights, they have every right to protect their cultural identity, and no matter how many Americans, French, Chinese, etc, decide to settle in Saudi, it will not change the way things are. It's weird, but it's their right.

Now let's come back to Europe. Of course you might think that Europeans should be held to a higher standard since they represent some of the planet's "finest cultures", but look at it this way: They have their own values for which they fought with sweat blood and tears. It took them ages to achieve what they did in terms of equal rights, and it doesn't matter how many women in Burkas will go on the record as willingly wearing the Burka, for Europeans this still looks unacceptable, and it's a cultural "exoticism" they are simply turning down.

Earlier I said that I had a problem with these laws, and it's simply that they're coming too late. The damage of such laws is that they might alienate European citizens who are second or third generation children of immigrants. It's like your own country telling you that you are not part of its cultural spectrum. I agree that it's every immigrant's responsibility to adapt and integrate, as for the children of immigrants, they just might be the victims in this story.

On a final note, I don't think these laws are targeted against islam. If it were the case then laws against the religion itself would have surfaced a long time ago. What this is about, is a fight to preserve the cultural signature of Europe, and a maybe not so gentle way of saying that they still think veils and minarets are exotic, as long as they get to visit them in their countries of origin.


May 10, 2010 at 3:03 PM Tarek

LOVED the post Fadz and loved the analogy between the Saudi culture and the European one... I personally think that these laws are coming now as a result of many geopolitical factors in addition to the internal problems that Europe has with Muslims. I remember an Economist or Time cover where the Eiffel tower had a crescent on top of it because of the increase of Muslims in Europe.

I think the main problem is the isolation of the Muslims and their lack of initiative on their behalf in addition to the Governments in trying to integrate them more and more within the European societies. Had that happened, Islamic fundamentalism would have decreased and the correlation between a bruqaa and Taliban would have diminished.

And I agree with what Sarkozy said: there's nothing in Islam that requires a woman to dress up like that. I'll go a step forward that says there's nothing in the Quran (the constitution of Islam) that says that women should be veiled!

Great read. And thought provoking. Thanks!

May 10, 2010 at 4:20 PM Just a test

Glad to hear that Tarek.
It's been a strange process, and this might be a little bit off topic, but somehow writing that article made me realize that in the context of certain countries, wearing the "dechdecheh" might actually be a good thing. From personal experience I know how much of the Lebanese culture we've lost and simply replaced with a "trendier" culture, whether in language, food, architecture... We've simply failed to preserve or evolve our own culture and somehow ended up replacing it altogether.

Anyway this article might be the prelude to an interesting opinion by a French guest writer, who sees things with a somewhat different angle. Hopefully she'll find the time to put her thoughts about this into words.

May 13, 2010 at 3:37 PM Lara

Such a good post Fadi!!
It's so sad that in our days you expect more awareness and respect of other cultures and beliefs is a natural thing and that having different cultures is an exotic mix but instead we're more and more moving toward extremism...

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