Friday, 16 July 2010

Nicolas ‘Ataturk’ Sarkozy and French republican principles

Ataturk (1881-1938) was a product of his time and generation. Having watched the once great Ottoman Empire humbled, he struggled to save what territory he could for modern Turkey. Once Turkey's borders were secured he set about trying to modernize Turkey and bring it into the modern age.

A key plank of his strategy was to fully integrate women into mainstream Turkish society. To this end, he granted women the right to vote and banned the wearing of the veil.
In the authoritarian environment of the 1920s, such actions were possible. Not easy, but possible. (As part of Ataturk's modernizing reforms, in 1925 Ataturk outlawed men from wearing the Fez. The ban resulted in civil unrest in many parts of Turkey.)
French civil society of 2010 is an entirely different matter. And Sarkozy is not a national war hero with cult-like standing whose every word is sacred to the French people.
So when the French Parliament's lower house passes legislation banning the face veil there are bound to be repercussions. One need only examine the politicization of the hijab (not niqab) in Turkey and other parts of the world to determine how polarizing such issues can become.
Of course, the niqab and hijab are distinct items of clothing. Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, the late Dean of Islam's oldest and most respected center of learning, Al-Azhar University, is on record stating that full face veiling has no relationship with Islam. In fact, during a visit to a girls' school in Cairo he ordered a student to remove the face veil.
Arguments against the niqab notwithstanding, the action by French lawmakers' raises another question. Is it worthwhile for a national legislative body to spend so much time and energy devising a law which affects as estimated 2,000 people out of a population of 64 million? Surely, a management consultant would argue that such efforts are a waste of taxpayer money.
Psychologists generally suggest that in order to modify behaviour, positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. Imposing fines for wearing the niqab is negative reinforcement. Perhaps picking out Muslim women role models from mainstream French society – 'middle of the road' mothers, housewives and professionals – and projecting them as the embodiment of 'French' values might work better?
Although the niqab is primarily worn by Arabs, it has slowly permeated other parts of the Islamic world. Here a woman is shown wearing the niqab in Palu, Indonesia

Yes, the niqab is misguided and deviant Islam must be fought tooth and nail. (Perhaps the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' inspired one-eyed veil suggested by a Saudi cleric will be replace the niqab one day!) However, populist legislation may not be the best way forward. Isn't there enough fodder for Islamic extremists to feed upon while espousing their jihad against Western civilization – banning mosque minarets, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?
France is for the French, just as Switzerland is for the Swiss. But to the Islamic world it does seem as if Muslims are needlessly singled out for recrimination by the rest of the world.
For ordinary Muslims, it's tough to see the world only in black and white. But global political trends are fast shrinking the shades of grey in which I and millions of other Muslims thrive!


  1. I personally had no view one way or another on tghis issue, but I read a report on this same matter yesterday and started having some thoights.

    1. The first thing is that I read in that report that there is nothing in the Quran that says that women should be veiled. If that's true, then many of us have been lied to previoulsy by Muslims themselves making this claim. themselves.The problem with the veilMost constitutions.

    2. France has so far been the boldest because one of the issues raised there is something that goes unspoken for so many. This issue is related to security concerns. How? Instances of many be-niqabbed Western male journalists sneaking into Soviet-occupied Afgahanistan to get reports that they wouldn't otherwise was mentioned. Also, before 9-11, there was a Singapore report of a terrorist attack in Delhi in which the perpetrators had smuggled their ammunition under niqabs from Nepal into India. It now seems strangely coincidental that the Muslims (all men) who are most insistent that women be garbed as conservatively as possible are also the same ones that strike you as whipping up sentiments among Muslims unnnecessarily. References have been made to this group as Islamofascists, the fascist streak in many Muslim communities who hold sway over entire communities and countries and accuse other Muslims of being bad Muslims if they disagreed with them.

    Most Constitutions, including Singapore's, provide for freedoms only up to the point that are not a threat to the rest of the public. Thus to your question, "Is it worthwhile for a national legislative body to spend so much time and energy devising a law which affects as estimated 2,000 people out of a population of 64 million?", I would reply in the affirmative. I don't think that it is those 200 women that they are really concerned about but a potential miscreant, most likely male, lurking somewhere.

    BTW, I'm Singaporean, Indian and Catholic.

  2. Hi,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    Your comments have placed me in the difficult situation of defending the niqab. In fact, I am hesitant to defend the niqab. (My artice pointed out that the former Dean of Al-Azhar University has suggested the niqab has no basis in Islam.)

    Still, here goes:

    1. Agreed.

    2. Your argument is faulty on one simple count - weapons, suicide vests, etc. - are not hidden in the niqab but in the body veil, sometimes referred to as an abaya in Arabic. The French law does not ban the body veil but only the face veil. Thus, even the French law does not address the issues associated with arms smuggling, etc. as it will not stop women from wearing loose, all body covering robes over their clothes. Yes, the proposed french law may help minimize the threat posed by men crossdressing as women with the intent of carrying out terrorist activities. However, in the age of suicide bombings the best way to stop someone from carrying out terrorist threats is through robust intelligence networks.
    It wil be interesting to see how the European Court of Justice (ECJ) deals with the French law, if it is ratified by both houses of French parliament.

    I look forward to more comments from you in the future.

    Kind regards,


  3. Someone said, "Also, before 9-11, there was a Singapore report of a terrorist attack in Delhi in which the perpetrators had smuggled their ammunition under niqabs from Nepal into India." What? I guess I'm going to hide grenades in my mouth and rifles up my nose?

    If we want to be SERIOUS about security, then we should not only ban Islamic clothes, but ban all baggy clothes, such as trench coats.

    Our religion doesn't just come from the Qur'an. It also comes from the hadith.

    Narrated Safiya bint Shaiba: 'aisha used to say: "When (the Verse): "They should draw their veils over their necks and bosoms," was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces."

    Yahya related to me from Malik from Hisham ibn Urwa that Fatima bint al-Mundhir said, "We used to veil our faces when we were in ihram in the company of Asma bint Abi Bakr as-Siddiq."

    Narrated 'Aisha: Allah's Apostle used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized .

    This is a long hadith narrated by 'Aisha, (raa), She had lost her necklace and went to look for it, but when she found it, everybody had left.
    She says...Then I found my necklace after the army had gone. I came to their camp but found nobody therein so I went to the place where I used to stay, thinking that they would miss me and come back in my search. While I was sitting at my place, I felt sleepy and slept. Safwan bin Al-Mu'attil As-Sulami Adh-Dhakw-ani was behind the army. He had started in the last part of the night and reached my stationing place in the morning and saw the figure of a sleeping person. He came to me and recognized me on seeing me for he used to see me before veiling. I got up because of his saying: "Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun," which he uttered on recognizing me. I covered my face with my garment, and by Allah, he did not say to me a single word except, "Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun," till he made his she-camel kneel down whereupon he trod on its forelegs and I mounted it. Then Safwan set out...

    Here you have a hadith that says 'Asma, the sister of 'Aisha wore a niqab. You also have a hadith that says 'Aisha wore a niqab. If the niqab "is deviant Islam" as you claim, WHY are there ahadith that indicate that these women wore it? You have the ansar women cutting their aprons and covering their faces with the cut pieces. You have women going to the masjid and offering fajr prayers while wearing their veiling sheets. Why did the Prophet, salla Allahu alayhi wa salaam, not tell them to stop if this was a deviance? He did not, because it is NOT deviant.

  4. Hello,

    Thank you very much for your visit and taking the time to share your opinion.

    I cannot comment on the authenticity of the hadith you have quoted above. However, I can refer to the opinion of Sheikh Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar University, who made numerous statements about the niqab, declaring that it has nothing to do with Islam. If I am not mistaken, I believe Tantawi also issued a fatwa about the niqab. (There is a link in my article reporting Tantawi's views.)

    I am sure that prior to forming his view on the niqab, Sheikh Tantawi will have considered all aspects of religious thought and tradition. As a influential thinker / theologian within the Islamic world, Tantawi will not subscribe to religious positions without adeqiate reflection.

    I do hope that you will continue to visit my blog and I look forward to more comments from you in the future.

    Kind regards,


  5. This might be a somewhat late response to this specific post, but I could not refrain from posting a small comment nonetheless;

    In the Netherlands, there has also been debate about the facial veil (niqaab) and the burqa. Heck, with mister Wilders (of whom I myself am not a fan at all, but that being left aside) being active in Dutch politics, even the 'simple' hijab is topic of debate for multiple reasons (not even limited to real and perceived security-threats).

    What I am trying to say is that I feel that these matters are very complicated. Because indeed - as a poster above me already said, if you ban the niqab for security reasons, then so should baggy clothes, right?
    It's the debate between personal freedom versus (perceived) threats against the safety of other people.

    Not to mention the debates that have been sparked about the niqab being 'Islamic' or not. Who are we to judge a muslima who feels she is practising her faith by wearing the niqab? Or even a muslima who feels that she does not need to veil? Who are we to judge at all?
    Shouldn't we be occupied enough with just looking at ourselves? ;)

    Then again, I perfectly understand how naive this might sound. After all, we all watch and judge others to some degree.

    I was just hoping that some governments could do this in a more respectful(?) manner. Then again, that goes for ordinary people too, I guess.

    Oh, as for me - I am a Dutch student Cultural Anthropology. I was raised a Roman Catholic but find myself very drawn to the Islam for a couple years now.

    Kudos on your blog by the way!
    I only recently found it on one of my random surfing-the-web-hours and I really enjoy reading about your perspective on things.

  6. Hi Eva,

    I am glad that you stumbled upon my blog and took the time to post a comment. (It is never to late!)

    Undoubtedly, the matter of dress is an extremely personal matter. One would expect that in civil democracies the greater the latitude given to individuals the better.

    On the matter of interpreting religion, i.e. is the niqab Islamically ordained, etc., I do have slightly different views. Take the matter of female circumcision practiced in the name of Islam in many countries, including Singapore and Malaysia. Like the niqab, these practices should be seen as personal preferences and not religiously ordained.

    There is a process of intellectual debate and consensus forming among Islamic theologians / societies which should be respected. In the final analysis, the religion will reflect the majority views of its adherents; a consensus which will naturally ossify over time.

    When I was 'discovering' (or shall I say rediscovering) Islam, one book which I can honestly say was a 'life changing' read was 'The Revival of Religious Sciences' by Al-Ghazali. It was a heavy read but well worth it. Perhaps next time you are in a bookshop you can browse the book and see if it (or other works by Al-Ghazali) appeal to you. His work will give you an insight into Islam which, unfortunately, is absent from today's debates.

    I look forward to your visits and more comments in the future - and good luck with your studies!

    Best regards,