By Heather Abraham
Last week’s numerous news reports and articles concerning France’s attempt to ban the wearing of certain modes of Islamic “veiling” in public is more than just the latest example of Western anti- Islamic sentiment. As John Sullivan wrote in his Religion Nerd article of yesterday entitled The Muslims are Coming, this
anti-Muslim sentiment has fallen in with the same “we’re losing the country” mentality that led to the [U.S.] Arizona anti-immigration laws. The issue at the heart of these challenges is identity. (http://wp.me/pTCyD-eW )
I agree with John that identity is at the heart of the matter; the identity of the immigrants as well as the identity of the adoptive parent nation. The veil, Islam’s most controversial symbol, is not the primary issue but has come to symbolize the clash between western secular society and the determined attempt of Muslims to push back against secular cultures that are uncomfortable with public and political displays of religious devotion. Let’s face it, the veil makes many of us uncomfortable; especially for those from secular societies.
Today, the veil, in all its forms, represents Muslim identity and solidarity. In many western countries the veil identifies the wearer as the other, separate and not equal in the eyes of frightened westerners who fear for their homogeneous cultural and secular identity. For Europe, these others are seen as a threat to their cultural, political, and secular identity and many European countries including, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Germany have miserably failed (if not refused) to assimilate their Muslim populations and are now paying a heavy price.
Germany for example, home to the largest population of Muslim Turks outside of Turkey, denied its Turkish “workers” any semblance of belonging for generations. In the years following the catastrophic events of WWII, Germany was in desperate need of able bodied male workers and extended an open invitation to Turkish citizens to come to Germany as guest workers and help rebuild the German infrastructure and economy. Tens of thousands of mostly rural Turks flooded into Germany attracted by the promise of economic prosperity. Generations later, the children and grandchildren of these guest workers were still denied German citizenship and full citizen rights. Like immigrants in the United States today, Germany’s Turks faced opposition and anti-immigrant attitudes for decades. It was only recently, in 2000, that Germany finally began the process of assimilating their ethnic Turkish population by allowing children born in Germany to become German citizens as long as one parent was a legal resident for a minimum of eight years.
For forty years, Germany denied German born Turks and their Turkish parents citizenship; keeping the German Turks in a liminal state for decades. Not fully accepted as Turkish by the Turks nor fully accepted by their country of birth, many of these “German Turks” embraced an exaggerated sense of Muslim identity; the only stable identity available to them. In failing to assimilate their Muslim populations, many European nations have created a divisive atmosphere of suspicion and fear.
Veiling, more specifically, the burqa is an extreme version of a cultural practice which has been embraced by some Muslims as a symbol of defiance to western domination and secularism. As an American, I am uncomfortable with any country targeting a specific group or limiting personal freedom but I can understand the security concerns that the burqa presents. Throughout Europe and the Middle East, there have been more than a few instances where criminals have used the burqa to elude authorities and god forbid that a burqa wearing woman get behind the wheel of a car. Contrary to popular belief, the burqa is a garment worn by few Islamic women and is a relatively new and radicalized addition to the various modes of Islamic veiling. Although the majority of Muslim women do not practice any form of veiling, the veil has become the symbol of resistance of those who reject secularism and a feared if not hated symbol to those who fear radical Islamic political power.
Sadly and most ironically, it is the women who have to wear or should I say endure this strangely shapeless mode of clothing that not only disguises one’s individuality but additionally dehumanizes the wearer. How many times have I used the term burqa and yet never mentioned the woman beneath it? Food for thought, the primary issue at hand is identity and yet the burqa obliterates any personal identity of the wearer who, nameless and faceless, becomes an anonymous casualty in a politicized clash of cultures.
This brings me to the questions of the day: Do we really need to construct reasons to hate one another in order to feel comfortable with our own identity and how much of our own identity rests with our placement or categorization of the other?