FaithWorld

Debating a burqa ban with a French MP — in English

f24-bothFrance 24, the French international television channel, invited me to debate the proposed ban on burqas and niqabs today with one of the parliamentary deputies leading the campaign. That’s me on the left. On the right is Jacques Myard, deputy for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party and a spirited defender of French interests. Myard wanted to ban full facial veils in France two years ago but could not muster enough support at the time. The mood in the National Assembly has changed since then and another deputy, the Communist André Gerin, got together 58 deputies from different parties to launch the inquiry that began work yesterday.

Here’s the video on the France 24 website. It’s about 20 minutes long. Myard presents the French case for banning burqas and niqabs very clearly. If you’ve read about this debate and can’t understand it, he is worth hearing to get a good feel for how many French people state the case for a ban.

Myard puts the debate squarely in the context of laïcité, the quintessentially French way of separating church and state. That separation is such an important principle in Western countries that even the Vatican — history’s big loser in this debate — now supports it. However, this principle is interpreted in different ways in different countries.

In France, it is seen through the lens of French history, where the Catholic Church was so powerful that the parliament passed a law in 1905 officially separating the two and banishing religion to the private sphere. It is meant to protect the state against the power of religion — exactly the opposite of the American view that the separation protects religion against the power of the state. Religion, more specifically the Catholic Church, was very powerful in France in 1905, but nobody would argue that now. In fact, the civil religion of laïcité is much more powerful now.

niqab (Photo: Woman in niqab, 17 Jan 2004/Mohammed Salem)

Defining the burqa/niqab issue in terms of laïcité frames this debate as a religious one. It widens a practice by a tiny minority of ultra-conservative Muslims into the stéréotype du jour of the Muslim minority (about 8 percent) that makes France so uncomfortable. In a Western society, having people hide their faces in public and refuse to show nature’s ID card even for driver’s licences or wedding ceremonies is a problem. Even at its strictest in centuries past, Christianity covered up its nuns but left their faces open. This is such a basic cultural fact in an open Western society that politicians should be able to appeal to this simple rule to outlaw such masks in the public sphere.

Rabat bets on better imams to counter extremist Islam

marrakech-mosqueMorocco has shifted from mass arrests to tight surveillance in its fight against Islamic militants and hopes a new campaign to reinforce the authority of state-appointed imams will cut off support for jihadism.

As militants reach a growing audience through DVDs and the Internet, the government has tried to seize back the initiative, revising laws governing mosques and adding new theological councils to tighten control of religious life in the regions. (Photo: Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech at sunset, 7 Jan 2005/Tom Heneghan)

Now it is preparing to send 1,500 supervisors into the north African country’s towns and villages to make sure that imams are preaching the moderate local version of Islam and respect for King Mohammed in his role as leader of Morocco’s Muslims.

Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate

burqa-eiffelThe French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils. (Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.

Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.

Poll: Pakistanis against Taliban, disagree over sharia views

swat-talibanA new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan’s army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert’s report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)

The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.

Reflecting their distrust, 71 percent said they believed the Taliban would not even submit to the sharia courts that they themselves have set up or promised to install as a pure and speedy alternative to Pakistan’s corrupt and inefficient civil courts. Only 14 percent supported the Taliban claim that it could provide more effective and timely justice than the state, a claim that partly helped the Islamist militants in the past (although it must be added that only 56 percent expressed trust in the civil courts). Only 9 percent said they thought the Taliban would do better at fighting corruption than the government, which got a lukewarm 47 percent. In any case, these results seem to indicate very little support for trademark Taliban promises that once seemed attractive.

Vatican daily proclaims Michael Jackson immortal – for his fans

or-1It’s not every day that the Vatican newspaper suggests that a man accused of paedophilia and said to have converted to Islam might be immortal. But that’s what L’Osservatore Romano did today. In a tribute to Michael Jackson — itself another sign of the “new look” that editor-in-chief Giovanni Maria Vian has given it — the paper included him in a pop music heaven at an unusually earthly location:

“But will he really be dead? It wouldn’t be surprising if, in a few years, he was spotted in a gas station in Memphis, perhaps with his former father-in-law Elvis Presley, another of those myths – like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon – that never die in the imagination of their fans. And Michael Jackson, who died yesterday at the age of fifty, is definitely a pop music legend.”

The tribute reviews Jackson’s career, from the time “when he was still black” through his “humanly difficult … crossover” to “new genres not entirely attributable to any specific area, where one cannot distinguish between black and white.” It praises his mega-album Thriller “which is known also to those who do not frequent these musical worlds” and calls him a “great dancer” (grande ballerino).

“Sufi card” very hard to play against Pakistani Taliban

sufi-musicians-2One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it’s suffered a stinging set-back in practice… (Photo: Pakistani Sufi musicians in Karachi, 7 May 2007/Zahid Hussein)

Earlier this month, on June 7 to be exact, Islamabad announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) to try to enlist spirituality against suicide bombers. In theory at least, this approach could have wide support. Exact numbers are unclear, but Pakistan is almost completely Muslim, about three-quarters of its Muslims are Sunnis and maybe two-thirds of them are Barelvis. This South Asian school of Islam, heavily influenced by traditional Sufi mysticism, is notable for its colourful shrines to saints whose very existence is anathema to more orthodox forms of Islam. Among those are the minority of Pakistani Sunnis, the Deobandis, who are followers of a stricter revivalist movement founded in 19th-century India whose militant branch led to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Many Deobandis think Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority is not truly Muslim.

zardari-sufiThe late President General Zia-ul Haq was a Deobandi. With massive support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, he favoured Afghan guerrilla groups influenced by the Deobandis and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis in the 1980s war against the Soviet Union.

Tips on reconciling Muslim practises with German schools

The German government and representatives of the country’s large Muslim community said on Thursday they had agreed a number of practical proposals to resolve conflicts between German schools and Muslim practises.

The government cannot legally enforce the proposals because, in Germany’s federal system, each of the country’s 16 states regulates education law.

GERMANY/Yet the proposals — agreed upon at a high-profile summit in Berlin aimed at boosting the integration of Germany’s Muslim residents — testify to an increasingly open and rational debate in Germany about Islam.

Religion crowded out in “cloud” of Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a major address today on the election there. It was in the form of a khutbah, an Islamic Friday sermon that is often the platform for the most important public pronouncements in the Islamic Republic. So one might assume it would be couched in Islamic terminology and religious themes.

But a rough-and-ready indicator, a web “cloud” that indicates the frequency of certain words, tells us otherwise. Aziz Poonawalla over at the City of Brass blog generated a Khamenei khutbah cloud on Wordle on the basis of a quick translation of the ayatollah’s speech. I had some trouble reading all the terms, so I went to that site and generated one myself. Here is the result:

khamenei-1

To be absolutely clear — this cloud is only a rough computer analysis. I generated it in Paris hours after the speech, without consulting any other Reuters bureau, so it played no part in our Tehran reporting of Khamenei’s comments or other coverage on our wire from Beirut and from London. Nothing can replace on-the-spot reporting by Persian-speaking correspondents who understand all the nuances in a political sermon like this.

After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs

niqab-1

Pakistani Islamist women activists in Lahore, 5 Feb 2009/Mohsin Raza

French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory. Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”

“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.

The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”

Is there a place for God’s Holy Mountain in Jerusalem?

God's Holy MountainAsher Frohlich’s painting of “God’s Holy Mountain” (at right) depicts a scene from an imagined future Jerusalem where Islam’s Dome of the Rock stands beside a rebuilt Jewish temple and worshipers of different faiths mingle in the courtyard.

Is this scene too good to come true?

The problem today, in the simplest of terms, stems from the fact that one spot in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem, is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Jews know it as  the Temple Mount and Muslims call it al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). For more about the religious history of the complex, click here.

Today, a gilded dome stands above a rock where Muslims believe Mohammad rose to heaven. It is the same spot where a sanctuary known as the ‘holy of holies’ of two ancient Jewish temples is believed to have been located. Many Jews still pray for the temple to be rebuilt, a step some believe would then herald the return of the Messiah and a time of world peace.