Blogs > Walid Phares > How the State Department Gets the Niqab Wrong

May 20, 2013

How the State Department Gets the Niqab Wrong

The State Department recently issued a report denouncing what it called "a spike in anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and Asia." It said that "Muslims also faced new restrictions in 2012 in countries ranging from Belgium, which banned face-covering religious attire in classrooms, to India where schools in Mangalore restricted headscarves." The State Department report confuses religious persecution, which is to be condemned, with politicization of religions, which is a matter of debate and includes strategies of which the U.S. government should not be a part nor within which the U.S. government should side with one faction against another. If countries ban the right to pray, broadcast and write about theology, any theology of any religion, this would be against human rights. Belgium and India do not ban religions per se. In fact, they are more tolerant regarding diverse religious practice than most of the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Obama administration is not criticizing secular European and Asian Governments for deciding to ban prayer or theologically philosophical dissertations, but rather criticizing these countries for banning the hijab or niqab in public places.

In the Muslim world, there is a diversity of choices for females. The burka is not the only free choice.

The Obama administration understands the wearing of the hijab as religious injunction to all Muslims. This is not the case, as senior theologians have decreed, including al Azhar, and the niqab is not a universal Muslim obligation as one can see in fifty-three Muslim-majority countries. It is a matter of choice.

The organized groups calling for a systematic imposition of the niqab are Islamist forces. This translates politically into an official endorsement of the Obama administration of the Islamist political agenda under the camouflage of religious rights. The niqab is part of the political agenda of radical Islamists, indicating that the Obama administration is now directly or indirectly backing one faction in the Muslim world, the Islamists, against another faction, the moderates and liberals.

The Obama administration, by using the charge of Islamophobia against countries that oppose the political agenda of an ideological and political faction known as Salafists and Khomeinists, has become a partner with these factions against secular, liberal, reformist movements who do not abide by the niqab rule. It is one thing to defend religious communities and something else to defend the agenda of ideological factions. The niqab is part and parcel of the ideological agenda advocated by the Islamists, not a tenet held by all Muslims. If the Obama administration is worried about the Islamist agenda not yet met by European and Asian countries, it should claim so, but the administration cannot claim defense of a religious injunction to all Muslims while the latter have no consensus on the matter.

It has been noted over the past few years that U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East, the Arab world and Muslim-majority countries has been increasingly under the influence of pressure groups implementing the doctrinal and political agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime. The State Department has been made to believe that the Islamist agenda and the beliefs and values of all Muslims are one, which is a grave mistake. The Obama administration should have learned from recent lessons as well as those from the past. Popular majorities in countries affected by the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen are not necessarily followers of Islamist principles. Rather, strong oppositions representing a vast swath of civil society are demonstrating vividly against the Islamist regimes produced by the Arab Spring. The issue of hijab and niqab is one of the many issues that divide Muslim-majority societies. The Brotherhood and the Iranian regime claim that the veil should be a manner of the female’s uniform, not only in the region but also for the women of Muslim communities in the West. This is the reason their lobbies are portraying the hijab and niqab as an obligation to all Muslim women, thus a collective religious right, above all other considerations in secular societies, including gender equality and public security matters. This is a wrong interpretation for the U.S. to take as it misrepresents the facts. The veil, as a collective uniform for women, is not a matter of full consensus in Muslim-majority societies. It is an expression by Islamist political factions that desire the expression to become an obligation. As simply an expression, it cannot be imposed on all Muslims, nor can it be extrapolated to be understood as a fundamental right to all members of society.

We therefore recommend to the U.S. government and other governments around the world to make a basic distinction. The rights of prayer and its offshoots are universal to Muslim communities; such rights should then have consequences in and on Western and other non-Muslim countries. But the matter of hijab and niqab is a political right, not a religious one. And as a political right, it follows the limitations placed on it by the laws of the land. Even political rights can be obtained given hospitable circumstances, but the United States should not be siding with one political faction against another political faction in an ideological debate in the Muslim world and among Muslim communities in the West and Asia. If Washington espouses the agenda of Islamists, it would become part of the industry of Islamophobia, that is to create fear about religious persecution in order to support the political agenda of authoritarian Islamist factions.

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