Friday, October 20, 2006

Targeting Muslims - the new Inquisition

By Bradley Burston

Were I a Muslim living in the West, I'd be mad as hell. Not to mention terrified.

Were I a Muslim living in the West, I'd begin to believe that a new Inquisition had begun. An inquisition aimed at no one but Muslims.

Were I a Muslim living in the West, my wife, or my sister, or my daughter might well decide to wear a headscarf or a veil when she went out in public.

Perhaps it would be because she was tired of men and boys ogling her, objectifying her. Perhaps it would be because she felt she was entitled to her dignity. Perhaps she simply might prefer modesty and privacy to fashion slavery.

Perhaps she just thought it was a free country.

And perhaps, on that last point, she would have been mistaken.

For years, and especially since 9/11, law-abiding Muslims have been verbally and physically attacked across North America and Europe. They are scorned for their faith, shunned for their piety, falsely condemned for dual-loyalty, blamed for the crimes of terrorists they abhor.

Of late, however, there has been a disturbing new trend, particularly in Europe, where cabinet ministers and influential lawmakers have increasingly made it their mission to combat, of all things, the head scarf and veil worn by growing numbers of Muslim women and girls.

In Germany, the states of Baden-Wurttenberg and Bavaria recently introduced legislation to outlaw the wearing of head scarves in schools.

Bavarian Education Monika Hohlmeier said the head scarf was increasingly being used as a political symbol. To the understandable ire of Muslims, Hohlmeier went on to say that it was acceptable to wear Christian crosses or Jewish symbols.

In Spain, home to the original Inquisition, Minister for Social Affairs Juan Carlos Aparicio was quoted as having said that the Muslim veil was "not a religious sign but a form of discrimination against women," and having compared it to genital mutilation.

In Britain, the government minister for race and faith relations, Phil Woolas, was quoted this week as demanding that Muslim teaching assistant Aisha Azmi, 24, who refused to remove her veil at work, be fired for that reason.

"She should be sacked," Woolas was quoted as telling the Sunday Mirror. "She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job."

Azmi worked at the Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, which took pains to state that her suspension had nothing to do with religion.

The scarf issue had already taken center stage when former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, now an MP and Leader of the House of Commons, voiced public objections to the wearing of the niqab, a full-face veil, at face-to-face meetings with his constituents.

The national debate has since widened, with David Davis, a top Conservative Party official, taking the anti-veil stance to a new level.

''What Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether in Britain we are developing a divided society,'' Davis said. ''Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid.''

The anti-veil arguments dovetail with a parallel campaign, which takes as its premise the concept that Islam itself renders its adherents incapable of integrating into Western societies.

"If you are going to have Islamic schools, the question is whether they are going to embrace Western values," Patrick Sookhdeo, a Pakistan-born Anglican priest in England who converted from Islam, told the New York Times this month.

"I would argue that Islamic values are not compatible with Western values," he said.

And what Western values might these be? Are they the time-honored Western values of intolerance for people of color, suspicion and marginalization of non-Christians, fear and loathing of non-Whites? Exploitation of and contempt for the residents of former imperial possessions and colonies?

At this point, there will be a pause for the springloaded Islamophobes among us to suggest that it is any society's right and duty to protect itself against elements that may foment terrorism. There will be those who will argue that the veil may both mask and encourage extremism.

Perhaps it is time for us in the Western world to declare that Islam has a right to exist.

Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that non-violent, non-Judeo-Christian religious observance is a right, not an act of war.

Scarves don't explode. Veils do not kill. The niqab does not incite.

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