September 7, 2009
The debate over Nicholas Sarkosky’s attempts to ban the wearing of the niqab in France gets at much of the dilemma I experience in relation to Islam. If you do a search for relevant articles, look for the burqa rather than the niqab. The burqa is the head covering worn by some Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere which has a gill of some kind covering a woman’s eyes, where the niqab leaves a slit in the head covering making a woman’s eyes visible to others. The hijab is a headscarf which is often worn by Muslim women in America.
The view of some in France, as I understand it, is that these head coverings are signs of the oppression of women in a male dominated religious culture and therefore fundamentally at odds with the liberal values of secular France. Some Muslim women however point out that they are French nationals, often born in France, who are highly educated and who choose to wear the niqab as a sign of their own religious commitment to modesty in a secular state which they see as having no moral boundaries or center. So is this a question of civil rights or freedom of religion?
I have seen some blog sites in which many of the commentators are convinced that the fundamental underlying issue represents neither civil rights nor religious freedom but a full fledged hatred of Islam and a determined effort to make France inhospitable to that faith.
My efforts to understand my own responses to Islam have led me to read Islam Under Siege (Polity, 2003) and Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), both by Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He identifies three primary streams or models for Islam which he identifies with three places in South India.
The stream he associates with ‘Ajmer’, home of the founder of the Chisti order and sympathetic to those familiar with the more mystical traditions of Islam represented by Rumi and generally familiar as Sufism. Adherents of this model can be austere and puritanical all the way to people who might use drugs and or alcohol, (prohibited in Islam) in service of their mystical pursuits.
The ‘Deoband’ model includes all mainstream Islamic movements from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia to the Muslim brotherhood or Hamas in the Middle East. They all seek to trace their view of the world to Muslim tradition in a conscious way. Ahmed would include Ibn Taymiyya from the past and Syed Qtub more recently among those who represent this model. Our friends at the Al-Farook Masjid of Atlanta would fall into this broad category which can include that minority who resort to terror all the way to people simply trying to keep the traditions of their tribe or culture in foreign lands.
‘Aligarh’ represents a modernist Muslim response to the world. This is where Ahmed finds himself and bemoans the declining influence of the movement as many of his coreligionists (and many conservatives of other faith streams) seek to reject Modernism and its consequences in the face of globalization with no perceivable moral center. This model includes genuine democrats and military dictators (Muhammad Abduh in Egypt in the 19th century to the Shah more recently. They wish to preserve what is essential to Islam while engaging modern ideas. They may be extremely devout or effectively ‘secular’.
Clearly none of these models provide and exact match to the complexities of Judaism or Christianity, but they help us see the same trajectory of growing conservatism in reaction to what many perceive as a world out of control, a world of instant communication and no moral guiding principles, a world in which global markets are good at creating wealth but dreadful at distributing it in any way that makes for community or justice, a world in which the gaps between rich and poor are growing ever more severe.
The excellent Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks has pointed a way toward addressing these challenges in another excellent book called The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (Continuum, 2002), in which he argues for constructive engagement between peoples of faith.
The French debate about the niqab does not admit of simple or simplistic analysis but points to a whole host of issues and challenges in the large sweeping currents that affect all of our lives.
More to follow in due course.