The hijab ban: A metaphor for the 'clash of civilizations'?

Written By: Wajahat Qazi
Delhi, India Published: Oct 26, 2018, 11.44 AM(IST)

Representative image. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

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It becomes imperative for and on European societies to actually undertake a review of their assumptions about Islam, Muslims and devise practical means of interaction which could be both functional and conceptual.

A veritable clash of cultures, if not civilizations appears to be panning out in Europe. While the nature of the problem is historical with the past casting a shadow on the present, it is perhaps best encapsulated by the burqa or hijab (Muslim veil) controversies. (Many European countries have banned the wearing of the Muslim hijab, especially in public places and on “security” grounds). 

The issue has become more pronounced in France which has a sizeable Muslim population. So much so that the United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized France’s burqa ban, stating that the law in contention violated the rights of two women who were fined for wearing full-faced veils in public. The committee called for the women to be compensated and for a review of the law that forbids women from publicly wearing clothing that conceals their face.
In a way, France’s hijab ban, predicated as it is on flawed and flimsy grounds, is a metaphor its and broadly speaking, Europe’s problem with Islam. The “problem” is twofold having historical antecedents: first, is the shadow cast by the Crusades(roughly speaking,  the religious wars between European Christendom and Islamdom). Both Christian Europe and Islamdom defined themselves politically against each other. Each was the other’s “Other”.  Second, after and during the decline of the Islamic world, politically and economically, was the issue of European Imperialism and Colonialism, wherein much of the non-West, including the Muslim world, was subjugated by the Europeans.
Overlaying this condition are the philosophical difference(s) between Islam and the West (especially Europe). Europe’s experience with organised religion and the split with (from) the Church has, by and large, made the entity sceptical of religion. Its renaissance, stripped of accretions, constituted a rebellion against religion. This along with elevating reason and, well, fetishizing it, renders the European world view an odd one.  The European outlook, defined by a scepticism or even hostility toward religion is fed by its peculiar history and by Europe’s modern “religion”: reason and its sovereignty thereof. But, while Islam does not disavow reason, sovereignty in Islam rests with God. This is the fundamental philosophical difference between Islam and the West(Europe).
 Cumulatively, and in combination then Europe views Islam with jaundiced eyes. ( The same might apply vis a vis Islam with Muslims not loath to look at Europe(West) with distrustful perspectives).
Historically, Islam and Europe encountered each other in a negative idiom, first, to repeat through Crusades and then through Colonialism and Imperialism.  But, enter the 20th and the 21st century, both find themselves in proximity yet again on account of globalisation, people and refugee flows. However, despite the onward march of modernity, progress and history, both view each other from and through the prism of the past with the Hijab ban, an eloquent reminder of this.
From a political philosophy point of view, the aversion to the Muslim hijab and the ban thereof actually undercuts what has been termed as “cultural relativism” which holds that peoples’ beliefs, values and practices must be understood against the yardstick of their culture instead of being judged by other cultures and perspectives. However, against the backdrop of populist nativism spreading across the West, the reference to cultural relativism might seem and sound like an academic quibble.
 So, the focus should shift to pragmatism.
Islam in Europe is a  reality that can neither be wished away nor made to disappear. Muslims have and will continue to pour into Europe by virtue of refugee flows, diasporic and family connections and so on. All this has and will leave an imprimatur on the region.  Pragmatism, given these realities, would lend itself to the suggestion that, in the least, a Modus Vivendi, be found between Muslims in Europe and their host societies, in particular, and between Islam and the West, in general.  

In the final analysis, relations between Europe (West) and Islam can only be predicated upon a Modus Vivendi and nothing beyond. This accrues from the fact of profound philosophical differences between Islam and the West. An indelible part of this pragmatism should be to allow and let Muslims practice their faith, both in form and substance, and let them retain their identities in Europe.
Religion and identity are not only potent phenomena but also something that imparts meaning to peoples’ lives(especially Muslims). 

And, fiddling or interfering with these have, both historically and contemporarily, led to deleterious consequences. It may be speculated here that the Islamic State’s (IS) European cadres joining and becoming part of it might have been premised largely on grounds of identity and its loss. The cadre in contention was generally 2nd or 3rd generation European Muslims who, disenchanted with the loss of their original identity,  sought to seek and recover it, even at the cost of self-annihilation. Such is the potency of religion, faith and identity.
Against this backdrop, it becomes imperative for and on European societies to actually undertake a review of their assumptions about Islam, Muslims, and, at the risk of repetition, devise practical means of interaction which could be both functional and conceptual. A good starting point to reach out and build trust with estranged Muslim communities in Europe, would be to revoke the ban on the Hijab.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.
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