In heaven all the interesting people are missing.
Pulling a veil over reason itself
« on: 2004-01-06 17:07:35 »
French proposals to re-examine the secular heart of their constitution have again raised the issue of the wearing of the veil in public institutions such as schools and universities. The poet Adonis comments.
Despite what the fundamentalists would have us believe, nowhere in the Quran or hadith is there a single, unequivocal passage that imposes the veil on Muslim women. Their view is based on a different reading of the text. Is it acceptable then, on a religious level, that a mere 'interpretation' can have the force of dogma and law?
The veil remains a bone of contention. By what right or authority can a select few impose their interpretation on everyone else? Would these few go so far as to use violence against women; against all those whose opinions differ from their own; against the world? The issue of the veil has a long history in Muslim societies and remains a live one in that largely traditional world.
But when fundamentalist Muslims import this and other internal issues into Western societies, all they succeed in doing is to create problems for their own communities and to do irreparable damage to Islam's vision of man and the world. Émigré Muslims, particularly those who have become citizens of the country in which they live, should acknowledge and establish a sharp distinction between their lives in public and in private.
Those Muslims who insist on the veil must realise that their very insistence demonstrates that they do not respect the feelings of people with whom they share a homeland; that they do not respect their values and are questioning the fundamental tenets of that society; that they are making a mockery of the laws and liberties for which these people have fought over time; and that they are denying the principles of republican democracy in the countries that have welcomed them with work and freedom.
Some people claim that Muslim women in the West who wear the veil have chosen to do so of their own free will. There may well be something to be said for this view. However, when one sees girls as young as four years old wearing the veil in the streets of Paris, for example, can anyone seriously claim they are doing this voluntarily?
More serious still: why do fundamentalist Muslims who have emigrated to the West see in the openness of their new home nothing more than an opportunity to proclaim their own narrow-mindedness and isolation? Why do they choose to 'emigrate' once more from their point of arrival? Their presence in these countries is made possible only by the openness of their host societies.
When they express their beliefs by parading in the veil or a beard, they undermine Islam by reducing it to superficial questions of form: holding up mere slogans and rituals to the world's eye. Those who call for the imposition of the veil represent only a minority of the Muslims living in the West; indeed, in the Arab world itself. If wearing the veil were made the subject of a democratic decision, it would be dropped immediately.
But, instead of respecting democracy and its principles, this active minority is trying to overthrow these principles and impose its convictions by force. I cannot see how such a position might be defensible, how it might help the cause of Islam or how it might be a legitimate response.
Anyone who looks carefully at the fundamentalist position cannot regard its supporters as men of religion, as simple pious souls. They are politicians embarked on a political mission. Muslims and Westerners ought to deal with them on this basis: they represent not religion but a party.
The mosque is the only place where a Muslim should demonstrate his 'difference'. While in the West, this is the place where he can freely express his religious 'identity' - as should be the case in the Arab world generally. All social and public practices outside the mosque are a challenge to the values of the host community.
Public institutions belong to all citizens: schools and universities, in particular, are open to all. They are places from which all external marks of denomination and distinctive 'signs' should be excluded. And to this category of 'public institutions' we can add streets, cafés, meeting places, cinemas, conference halls, and so on.
The wearing of religious signs and symbols in these places is a violation of their very meaning and function. It is, in fact, the symbol of a desire for separation: it means we refuse integration. This insistence on visibly demonstrating difference has a theatrical and exhibitionist element, which has nothing to do with religion.
There is an intimacy, secrecy almost, at the heart of religious experience. It is suffused with simplicity, modesty, silence and contemplation - a long way from this cult of appearances. When certain Abbasid Caliphs ordered non-Muslims to wear distinguishing symbols, it provoked unrest throughout the kingdom. It was a sign of anxiety, of retreat.
And it is the progress of society that will reverse such measures. It is strange and incomprehensible that certain Muslims in the West insist on wearing such distinctive symbols. By insisting thus, they insult their history, and condemn their culture and their presence in the world.
If we look closely at this business of the veil, we realise that it is not a simple violation of the law and culture of another; it is, above all, an insult to oneself. It is a different relationship with life, one more akin to flirting with death.
In conclusion, let me say that the religious interpretations that compel Muslim women to wear the veil in secular countries where church and state have long been separated and where equality of the sexes is firmly established, reveals a mentality that is not content merely with veiling woman, but seeks to shroud man, society, life in general - to pull the veil over the eyes of reason itself.
Adonis is the leading poet in the Arab world. This item appears in isue 4/03 of Index on Censorship. It was first published in al-Hayat, London. Translated by Will Bland.