Banning the Burqa

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Reuven Firestone

While on sabbatical as a family in Egypt a couple of years ago, we quickly became accustomed to seeing women wearing head coverings on the street. Nearly every single Muslim woman over the age of 12 wore one. The general word for these is hijab, which is a quranic term meaning “barrier” or “screen.” In a famous verse (33:53) it refers to a partition in the home of the prophet Muhammad to separate the women of his family from the eyes of the many people who would come to Muhammad’s home seeking an audience with him. Its meaning is basically the same as the Hebrew word mechitzah, the barrier that separates the women’s section from the men’s section in traditional synagogues.

The intent of the Quranic verse was to protect the women of Muhammad’s family from the intrusion of strangers and the possible embarrassment that could result. Because of the egalitarian nature of Arabian society in general, religious interpreters applied the notion not only to the family of the prophet, but to all Muslim families, and soon the term was applied to a common form of modesty practiced also among Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian women at the time — covering the hair. The purpose was to encourage modest dress and protect women from the prying eyes of men.

We found the issue of modest dress curious in Egypt. Modesty in Cairo today means covering every inch of skin aside from the face, hands and feet, and that includes covering the hair. But at the same time, teenage girls and young women often wear tight tops and jeans that reveal every bump and wrinkle of their bodies. It is rare to see a niqab in Egypt, the full-face covering or veil.

Burqa is an Arabic term that refers to any face covering with eye openings. It is common today to use burqa to refer to the Afghan garment that envelops a woman’s entire face and body except for a small square area around the eyes that is covered by a concealing net or grille. The more accurate term for that is actually chadri.

In any case, niqab or burqa refers to a piece of clothing that covers the entire face, or all the face except the eyes. The issue of covering has been a point of contention for Muslim religious scholars for many centuries. While all consider modest dress required, some scholars also consider covering the face obligatory. Others consider it highly recommended but not required. Still others actually consider it forbidden, and the issue continues to arouse debate in the Muslim world.

Surprising as it may seem, France has decided to weigh in on the issue and has begun the process to issue its own version of a fatwa on the matter. Already in 2004, Parliament passed a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French government-operated schools. This outlawed not only the Muslim headscarf, but also kippot and outward wearing of the crucifix.

Last July, President Nicolas Sarkozy targeted the burqa as an affront to human and civil rights. “The burqa is not a religious problem,” he told the French Parliament. “It’s a problem of freedom and the dignity of women.” Later that same day, while visiting Muslim graves at a WWI cemetery, he said, “Islam is today the religion of many French people…. France can’t allow French Muslims to be stigmatized.”

Those are astonishing words. I don’t understand how banning religious expression is not a religious problem, and I cannot for the life of me understand how banning a garment indicative of Muslim modesty is not an act of stigmatization.

I do understand, however, why people might consider banning the burqa to be supportive of Muslim women’s dignity. We naturally want to help people who we imagine are being persecuted. But condemning the burqa is imposing one set of culturally and religiously defined values or an aesthetic standard onto people who may not agree. How do we know that wearing a burqa is a humiliation? How is it shameful? How do you or I know how a woman wearing a full-face veil feels about it? Personally, I find many outfits that are worn in Beverly Hills among a variety of men and women to be humiliating. Why not pass a law banning the wearing of miniskirts and low-cut tops among sagging, aging women? Or black toupees on graying old men?

Here’s an example closer to home. I personally find the practice of shaving a beautiful young woman’s head, even if intended for modesty, to be an act of chillul haShem. We were created in God’s image. We desecrate God’s image whenever we purposefully disfigure our bodies. And halachah does not require shaving married Jewish women’s heads. It is only custom, and only within some communities, yet it would be a terrible and unethical act of interference on the religious and cultural rights of Jews for any government to ban the practice.

Two weeks ago, a government commission in France recommended banning the burqa in public buildings such as schools and hospitals, but not on the streets. Jean-Francois Copé, leader of Sarkozy’s majority party in Parliament (the UMP) explained, “The two reasons why we have to implement legislation is to respect the rights of women and, second, it’s a question of security. Who can imagine that in a country like ours, people can walk everywhere in the country and also in our cities with a burqa, without the possibility to recognize their face?”

Banning someone from wearing a veil is not respecting a woman’s rights. It is exactly the opposite: It is a blatant act of disrespecting her right to choose what to wear. Security may be another matter, but if wearing a full-body burqa is forbidden in public buildings but allowed in the streets, how is that increasing security when a terrorist could walk anywhere on the streets of Paris wearing a burqa packed with explosives? I admit that I would make a terrible suicide bomber, but it seems to me that if I wanted to smuggle body explosives into a public place, I would wear a trench coat rather than traditional Islamic or Arab dress. Why invite scrutiny in the current climate?

These new developments in France remind me of a similar move almost exactly two centuries ago when Napoleon called a Grand Sanhedrin in 1807. That was when an assemblage of Jewish notables was put under intense government pressure to change thousands of years of Jewish tradition in order to conform to French sensibilities. The Jewish leaders were asked 12 questions that were intended to determine whether Jews were worthy of French citizenship. They included such questions as whether it was acceptable in Jewish law for Jews to marry Christians or whether Jews were allowed to be usurious toward non-Jews. The Jewish leaders fudged their answers, wrote in vague language and were not entirely forthcoming (to say the least). Their answers nevertheless passed muster, but “passing” required, among other stipulations, that the Jewish leaders condemn all “false interpretations of their religious laws.” How would that be determined? Who would rule on the so-called “false interpretations?” The trade-off for citizenship was the denial of the unique value of our religious culture and the vibrant nature of Jewish religious discourse. The result was, among other things, a huge wave of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.

No, banning the burqa is not an attempt to protect the dignity of women or to increase security. It is an attempt to make “ethnics” conform to a flat and unimaginative sense of what it means to be French. It is legal enforcement of an outdated and oppressive ideology that does not respect the fundamental freedom to express one’s religious identity in public.

Reuven Firestone is a professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

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Alaska Opens First Halal Shop

January 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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ANCHORAGE (News Agencies)–It was a long time coming but Alaska has finally got its first ever Halal shop. The store owned by Gambian immigrant Lamin Jobarteh  stocks the essential culinary items required by Anchorage’s 4,000 Muslims.

Earlier Muslim families used to order bulk shipments of Halal meat and groceries from Seattle and Vancouver which are the nearest cities to Anchorage. Now Jaborteh gets his slaughtering done at  Matanuska-Sustina Borough slaughterhouse. The former banker says he has learned new skills for his profession including preparing custom orders of meat.

The Muslim community in the state is putting down its roots with plans to build a mosque and community centre on a 70 acre piece of land. The community has already raised $1 million and construction is expected to begin this summer.

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How to Connect with Qur`an

September 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dr. Aslam Abdullah, TMO Editor in Chief

The whole town was abuzz with the news that the best reciter of the Qur`an from the Middle East was coming to lead taraweeh prayers.

very one was talking about his voice, the magic of his recitation, the way his reading rises and falls and the way the melody of his recitation mesmerized everyone.

Especially in Ramadan this ritual is played out in Muslim communities around the world.

Although listening to a beautiful recitation of the Qur`an is captivating, but let us revive the essence of what the month of the Qur`an is meant to be.

In a population of over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, some 50 percent are illiterate. Acquisition of knowledge is one of the obligations upon every Muslim. Nearly 83 per cent are totally ignorant of the book that is the foundation of their faith. Some may read the Arabic text but do not know what they read in their prayers.

The Qur`an describes itself as a message for people who reflect and think. Muslims all over the world have begun to place emphasis on learning. Muslim families are genuinely concerned to ensure that their children learn biology, mathematics, chemistry, social sciences from the best schools with full honors.

Where the Qur`an is being taught it is limited to reading and memorization. To learn and excel in various fields of knowledge is essential but at the same time to learn and excel in the understanding of the Qur`an cannot be neglected.

A patient cannot memorize and just listen to the doctors prescription and believe that he will be cured. Once a prescription is written, the patient immediately picks up the medicine from a pharmacy and starts using it.

But the divine prescription for curing human ills is neglected in a manner that is unexplainable. To memorize the Qur`an is an honorable deed that God will bless but it is better to learn also the meaning of the Qur`an.

When a child is raised up in an environment where the Qur`an is seen as a book to be recited only on certain occasions without the need to understand it, his relation with the Qur`an will be superficial unless there is some dramatic change in his or her attitude toward the divine book.

The Qur`an is the most read yet most neglected book in our recent and distant history. Millions of people have memorized parts or the whole of the Qur`an yet we do not see the practice of the Qur`an in our societies. If the purpose of this book was to be recited and read without understanding the Qur`an would not claim to be a guidance for humanity.

Alif. Lam. Mim. This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off (evil). Who believe in the unseen, and establish worship, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them; And who believe in that which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) and that which was revealed before thee, and are certain of the Hereafter. These depend on guidance from their Lord. These are the successful.

Baqara:1-5

The Qur`an was meant to be a book of guidance in every aspect of life. The recitation with understanding was recommended primarily to highlight the importance of its message in every day life. Yet we should also spend time reflecting on its message and looking for its application in our own lives, using it as a guidance in every aspect of life.

The month of Ramadan gives us a unique opportunity to restore our understanding of the Qur`an and learn its message. Yet most of the time and in most of the places, we fail to avail ourselves of the opportunity to further our understanding of the Qur`an beyond the surface level.

Modern technology gives us tools to capture the best voice and repeat it at our will. But this is not the only purpose of the revelation. It is meant to be understood, followed and implemented in one’s life. Reading Qur`an is good no matter what.  But if we are not living according to its guidance, perhaps we have not fully devoted ourselves to the Qur`an despite our reading.

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