Wars over Symbols

The face veil stirs up many controversies – not only in Europe, but also within the Islamic world. For Mohamed El-Moctar, an Islamic scholar and religious historian, however, it's a practice that has nothing much to do with Islam. Stephanie Doetzer met him in Doha

photo: Stephanie Doetzer
"The current spread of niqab is a reflection of the fact that Muslims feel under pressure. I hope that once we gain more self-confidence, we'll also be more open," says Mohamed El-Moctar

​​ Anyone looking for Islamic jurisprudence concerning the face veil on the internet will be flooded with contradictory opinions: Some scholars say the niqab is not compulsory but better, others say it's an un-Islamic fashion, and yet another group claims that a hijab is not complete without niqab... What's your take on it?

Mohamed El-Moctar: If you take a closer look at the sources of Islamic jurisprudence, then there's no doubt: The niqab is not a religious obligation. In pre-Islamic times, face veils were part of local customs in some regions of Arabia and North Africa. Traditionally, the face veil was not only used by women, but also by men. For example, if you look at the tribes of Tuareg, you can see that it is an ancient tradition and an adaptation to the desert environment.

So you mean the niqab actually has nothing do with Islam?

El-Moctar: Islam did not forbid the face veil. We have evidence that the Prophet knew women who used to wear it, just like he knew women not wearing it. So women are free to choose. But there's one notable exception: It is not allowed to wear niqab during hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. There are some hadiths, sayings by Prophet Mohammed, explicitly banning it during the pilgrimage. If niqab were an obligation, surely it would be an obligation during the hajj. After all, this is where three million men and women worship in one crowded space.

Generally, Islam did not forbid the local customs of people who accepted Islam as their religion. People would become Muslims, but they would still keep many of their traditions. This also explains why Islamic practices in North Africa are different from those in the Gulf and again different from those in South East Asia.

And obviously the meaning of the face veil differs from one place to another. In Qatar women with niqab just blend in, in Syria it's unusual and in Central Europe there's probably hardly any way to attract more attention...

El-Moctar: Exactly. In the Gulf, I respect it as a local custom and an individual decision. I cannot tell people how to interpret and practice their religion. But we need to remember that it's a practice that is not common in most Islamic countries. I myself come from a very religious country – Mauritania – but the first time I personally saw a woman wearing niqab was in 1997 in Yemen. In Yemen, it's normal, but in Europe it stands out. And there is an Islamic teaching saying that a person, whether male or female, should not wear dress that attracts abnormal attention.

Two women wearing the niqab in an American donut shop (photo: Stephanie Doetzer)
American donut shop in Doha, Qatar: "Whenever there are signs of decline, religious people tend to focus on the legalist, formal aspects of religion rather than the spiritual aspects," El-Moctar says

​​ Then why are there so many different opinions among Muslims themselves?

El-Moctar: I'm aware of the differences of opinion, but we should bear in mind that for three out of the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the face veil is not required. For Malikis, Hanafis and Shafi'is, niqab is not a duty at all. Within the fourth school of thought there is an opinion saying that the niqab is an obligation. It used to be a minority opinion even in this school of thought, but in modern times, it has become the dominant opinion. But still, it is but one opinion in one out of four judicial schools.

But obviously this tradition is spreading... A couple of years ago, one could hardly ever see women wearing niqab in Cairo or Damascus, and now it has become part of the picture.

El-Moctar: I agree. And that shows that some schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence are gaining ground, especially the Salafi-Hanbali school. The niqab, in general, is part of Salafi thought.

How do you explain that?

El-Moctar: The French orientalist Henry Laoust once said that whenever Muslims enter a time of crisis, they turn toward the Hanbali school of thought. He's right. The Hanbali school of thought stands for rigid, literal interpretations of Islam. And whenever there are signs of decline, religious people tend to focus on the legalist, formal aspects of religion rather than the spiritual aspects. They become obsessed with form rather than the essence, with external appearances rather than ethics.

And at the same time religion is used to define the identity of a group?

El-Moctar: Yes, they are also turning toward Salafi interpretations because of the current obsession with identity. Muslims are facing an identity crisis – and the European societies are facing an identity crisis as well. So both are struggling with who they are and becoming less flexible. But identity has to be flexible. A person can be French, Muslim, European. Or Arab, Christian, Syrian, for example. The problem starts where we try to reduce human beings to one identity.

Is this what the Salafis are doing?

El-Moctar: Exactly. And some Europeans are doing the same thing: Asking Muslims to choose between their Islamic identity and the European identity, without realizing that the two are not mutually exclusive. Salafi thought is not the kind of thought that would help the Islamic world to transform. But it's a mechanism of cultural self-defence. It happened during the Crusades, it happened during the Mongol invasion, and it's happening today. Muslims are becoming less open-minded, more rigid, less confident. I think it's a universal mechanism that can be observed in all societies when they feel under threat.

I lived in the US before 9/11 and after and I've observed the same phenomenon: They became much less tolerant and much more nervous after the attacks. And I think it's also happening in Europe, even though it's happening in different ways. People feel that Europe is not the Europe they know any more. And in the Islamic world people feel under threat, in cultural and religious terms.

The current spread of niqab is a reflection of the fact that Muslims feel under pressure. I hope that once we gain more self-confidence, we'll also be more open.

Photo: AP/DW
Different kinds of Islamic veiling: El-Moctar argues that both Muslims and non-Muslims are getting caught up in controversies about symbols that are distracting them from the real issues

​​ If it's a reaction to pressure from outside, this would suggest that Muslim extremism is actually fuelled by precisely those critics of Islam who claim to be fighting extremism...

El-Moctar: True. The more pressure there is from the outside, the more Muslims turn towards extremism. It's a vicious circle. Instead of leaving it to Muslim scholars to convince their communities that this is not a religious duty, the current debate in the West is just making people more stubborn. It only attracts the sympathies of other Muslims, who are actually not in favour of niqab, but who see these laws as yet another example for the persecution of Muslims in the west. Now, a lot of preachers are talking about it and telling their congregations all over the Islamic world: "Look at these Muslim women, they're being persecuted in Europe because of their faith!" It's creating the kind of discourse that we really don't need today.

But what would you say to Muslim women in the West who insist on wearing it? Niqabi forums on the internet are full of statements like that.

El-Moctar: I tell them that it's unwise behaviour to wear it in the West and futile to ignite a cultural war over something that is not even required by your faith. I lived in the US for ten years and I do think there is a sort of cultural adaptation needed for Muslims living in the West. They don't need to focus on such... trivial issues. If there are differences of opinion with their European or American compatriots, than they should be about something relevant, not about something like the niqab or about cartoons.

So would you say it's not a big deal if some Western governments decide to ban it?

El-Moctar: Well, objectively speaking, if a government says that for security reasons they don't want this, they have a point. This is the unfortunate effect of the post-9/11 world that we live in. Whether people who are saying this are sincere about their concerns or not, is another question. But the real danger goes far beyond that: the Western and the Islamic world are increasingly fighting wars over symbols, instead of talking about the real issues that are affecting the lives of people. By real issues I mean: immigration, the economic crisis and of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is poisoning relations between the Islamic world and the West – we are now being distracted from all these issues through these symbolic wars.

Two niqabi-women shopping (photo: Stephanie Doetzer)
"Women are free to choose": For three out of the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the face veil is not required

​​ So what's your recommendation for both sides?

El-Moctar: The Algerian philosopher Malik Bennabi once said that some Europeans are playing at Spanish bullfighting with Muslims. You take a red piece of cloth, show it to the bull... and like the bull, Muslims are overreacting these days. That's a sign of immaturity. If one journalist or churchman can make the whole Muslim world jump up in anger, then this really means we're not mature enough. We're reacting instead of acting. And I'd like both sides to act rather than to react to what the other is doing. This is true for Europeans as well: It doesn't make sense for a parliament to discuss niqab because of a few ladies wearing it in the streets of Paris. Surely they must have more important things to do.

I'm against banning niqab by law. But if the European governments decide to forbid niqab, Muslims should accept that. They should not protest against it. It's not an issue, so they should not make it an issue. Most of all, both sides really need to take a deep breath. It's unwise to wear it – and unwise to ban it.

Interview by Stephanie Doetzer

© Qantara.de 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de


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