Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 5 Issue 125 | December 22, 2006 |

   Cover Story
   Straight Talk
   Special Feature
   Human Rights
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks

   SWM Home

Straight Talk

Religion Under Fire

It seems that religion has been put on trial and right in the forefront is Islam. It is strange that there are almost 1.6 billion Muslims around the world and yet it is only a fraction of this statistic that manage to get noticed and not necessarily for the right reasons. These days Islam and terrorism have almost become synonymous. The rest of us who probably consider ourselves as moderate Muslims, viewing religion as something private and practice our faith without making a huge fuss get relegated to the sidelines. Our views do not seem to be of any importance. And why would they be as there is nothing radical in the way we think or behave. Nor does it matter that we treat not just our religion but other people's religion with respect and feel that following our faith does not affect other people or that it does not encroach on other people's space. When do you ever hear of us in the media? But recently an even more marginalised group have come under the glare of the media spotlight --- those women wearing niqabs (burkha). You would think these are people who least need to be put under a microscope but that is exactly what has been happening in the UK in the last few months.
Wearing the niqab is often viewed as a reluctance of Muslims to integrate into the society they live in

Earlier this year the Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw, created an uproar by asking a member of his constituency who was wearing the veil if they would mind removing it. He said that it would make him feel more comfortable to be able to talk with the person face to face as it would allow him to make better judgments about the strength of the case made by someone talking to him about a particular problem. It did not take long for this issue to suddenly become headline news that everyone was talking about. We were inundated with pictures of women in niqabs as if they were an alien species and as one would expect many people jumped on the bandwagon and started claiming that it was unnerving to try and interact with women whose faces they could not see. In fact people went as far as saying that women should not wear niqabs in their place of work. To highlight this, is the example of a Muslim schoolteacher 24-year-old Aishah Azmi, who was dismissed for not removing her burkha while teaching. Last month she lost a discrimination and harassment case at an employment tribunal. I am not an advocate of the full niqab myself, but I do respect other people's desire to wear either the Hijab or the full veil. On the other hand I also think that it can be disconcerting for children to be taught by someone whose face they cannot see. But surely there must be a compromise somewhere within reason.

What is more worrying is that the niqab issue is being twisted and blown out of proportion. It is now being used as an argument suggesting that this is one of the examples of how Muslims do not integrate into the societies in which they live. It is also unsurprising that the Muslim community in the UK should take exception to comments such as this. There are always two sides of every argument and it is true that there are many Muslims who refuse to integrate or acclimatise to their surroundings. They feel that in doing so they would have to give up on their identity as a Muslim but what they forget is that it is possible to practice your faith without losing its essence and still be part of the larger community. But then again for people to integrate would also mean other people being more tolerant and aware of Islam and its followers rather than tarring everyone with the same brush.

The majority of Muslims in this country send their children to schools that are not of a religious denomination --- in fact it is only a small proportion that actually goes to Islamic schools. Likewise, our three children go to school in London and they take part in all the school events including the Christmas carol concerts that are held in a church. This year my children asked me if they could be excused from the concert as they felt it did not mean anything to them nor did it hold any religious significance for them. It was something that my husband did not feel particularly strongly about but it troubled me and made me wonder whether it would imply that we were not “integrating” by not sending them to the concert. This time we decided that they should take part and regard it as a school activity rather than a religious one. However, their subsequent comments also make it clear that it is not just the Muslim community that need to integrate. For their Christmas lunch at school, they were served a meal that had pork in it. Their question was why the schools had not made any alternate arrangements for children with other dietary requirements. I could ask the same question. They have also brought up the fact that although Islam is taught as part of the curriculum for religious studies, it is far less comprehensive than the sections on Christianity and Judaism. How are children supposed to learn about the true nature of Islam if it is only skimmed over even in schools? Surely exposure to other cultures and religions should start at an early age and that too in schools. Then again during our religious festivals such as Eid, office going people have to take leave to say their prayers in the mosque and spend the day with their families, and children have to miss school as there is no official holiday.

It is unrealistic to think that suddenly there will be mass religious enlightenment and things will change dramatically over night. But before people start pointing fingers and talk about integration, they should look to themselves as they may have a part to play in the bigger picture.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006