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France's burqa ban: A brave step that we Muslims should welcome

France’s ban on wearing the niqab in public defends secular society – and the rights of Muslim women like me. Liberals bemoan the ban's infringement on personal freedoms. But Islamists who mandate that women wear the veil are incorrectly interpreting the true message of the Quran.

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Modern veil symbolizes division, ignorance

Beyond symbolizing the precepts of religion in this unique post 9-11 era, veils also graphically articulate the widening chasm between West and East. In some minds, the veil demarcates profound and irreconcilable ideological divides. As throughout history, the veil continues to be a stark visual trope that brutally bifurcates. Veils have long divided society by gender in the past, and today, even more so, by politic.

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Today, the veil is undeniably the international symbol of Islam. Such a symbol ironically obscures the faith’s complexity and pluralism into a single faceless monolith. Every day, Muslim women are veiled, unveiled, de-veiled, or re-veiled, and their positions in relation to fabric are often overtly political and frequently shifting. As the veil has become a political statement in the migrant Muslim Diaspora, it is frequently mistaken for a symbol of devotion, most often by ritualistic Muslims themselves.

Because of the niqab, Muslim women generate attention, rather than deflect it – the exact opposite of the principle of veiling. They obscure the long-forgotten ideal of Islamic veiling (a dedication to chaste modesty and dignified purity) that extends well beyond either clothing or gender, foolishly relegating a rich philosophy into mere cloth. Islam mandates modesty of the male Muslim as much as of the Muslim woman, through conduct, not necessarily specific garment – a principle smothered in today’s revival of rote ritualism.

These Islamist Muslims push the limits of societal tolerance beyond the pale, provoking latent intolerance. The Netherlands is perhaps the most inflamed example of this today. Their actions, and not the state’s, ultimately limit the progress and acceptance of all Muslims, whatever the extent of our external symbols of Islam.

Worse, through their own innate ignorance of Islam, these Islamists contribute to profound fragmentation of their adopted society, espousing insurrection that threatens the state from within. This destruction of the host society is anathema to the believing Muslim and deeply against Islamic ideals, which demand cohesion and collaboration at the broadest societal level, irrespective of the nature of that society’s leadership.

Will Muslims protest false Islam?

France’s ban is not to be demonized but lauded. In the short term, it will be painful and ugly and certainly likely to deepen the poles around the extraordinary trope of the veiled Muslim woman. However, this ban is a necessary evil in order to curtail the advancement of rigid expressions of a false Islam into greater positions of influence.

Yet within this civil turmoil, there may be some gain. Limiting face-veils to a private practice within the home can yield a more cohesive society, if only Western authorities are courageous enough to carry this through. Authorities will succeed only if they are supported by educated Muslims intimate with the nuances of veiling beyond a literal construction.

Sarkozy, in his absolute refusal of France’s intimidation to encroaching Islamism, has gifted an unparalleled opportunity for Muslims everywhere. Rather than explain veiling to the non-Muslim, it is the Muslim populations in the diaspora whom we must teach. Muslim women in particular have a central role to play in this dialogue.

As Muslim women, we must always remember that we are more than our womanhood. We are Muslims first, women second. We are more than our modesty, whether it is swathed in fabric or faith. We are more than these practices, whether mandated by men at home, or men of state. In this regard, Sarkozy’s ban is, in fact, not a test of France’s tolerance, but rather a test of our own.

Can Muslims overcome the rigid myopia of Islamism that emerges from within our midst? Or will we, too, be smothered in a veil of our own making – the asphyxiating veil of ignorance that threatens to strangle us all?

Qanta A. Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her experience practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook; honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland; and a 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter @MissDiagnosis, and her Huffington Post blog.


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