Break the barriers

Nilofar Suhrawardy
February 9

Sadly, the very concept of banning headscarves has given rise to yet another wall against the Arab world. This comes at a time when greater importance should be given to breaking the barriers raised on stereotyped images about the Arab world and Islam.

The logic behind imposing a ban on headscarves and other religious symbols in France, in an attempt to encourage greater interaction among people without religion acting as a barrier, is incomprehensible. A Jew, Christian and a Muslim will not lose his/her religious identity by abandoning the skullcap, cross or the headscarf respectively. Rather, if he/she is forced to do so, prospects of it creating a religious schism to the point of communalism is likely to surface. Many may choose to form and attend their own religious schools, which is bound to lead to greater polarisation along religious lines.

Besides, to what extent can the French government ‘encourage’ people to interact more without religion acting as a barrier? The very impression that religion is a hindrance to interaction is wrong. By being religious and/or using a religious symbol, one does not become an extremist. If this logic were supported, every Indian Hindu lady wearing sindoor and/or a bindi would be regarded as an extremist.

If the French government’s logic is guided by the notion that removal of the headscarf would remove an ethnic barrier, then shouldn’t all ethnic symbols be targeted to remove prejudices resting on the same? Can prejudices/discriminations resting on colour differences be removed? This is impossible. And this, in itself, suggests that rather than targeting people and the values they uphold, the French government needs to pay greater attention to breaking the stereotyped images that it harbours.

The French stand against the headscarf is a symbolic indicator of the prejudiced notions held in the West against Muslims and Islam. It is high time the West paid a little attention to breaking the wall that exists within their own mindset.

Muslims and Islam are linked with terrorism simply because a few of them have exploited religion for these purposes. While Muslims and, at times, Hindus have not been spared from being labelled as terrorists, why isn’t the same logic applied to Christians and Jews? If they were all angels or great humanitarians, the concept of suicide-bombing wouldn’t even have arisen.

Terrorists are not the only ones to have exploited religion. Politicians fall in the same line. Prior to actually initiating the strikes against Iraq, President George W. Bush used the church to make speeches to justify his stand. Shouldn’t he be projected as a religious extremist? What about the Hindu and Muslim leaders making a noise about their religious claim to the site where the demolished Babri masjid stood? When compared to these extremists, the religious stature of those supporting the headscarves appears to be only symbolic.

Undeniably, a definite revolution has begun in the Arab world that questions and opposes the stereotyped images propagated against them. The United States’ strikes against Iraq has brought the Arabs face-to-face with one hard fact — that it is time to stop turning to the West, and in particular to the US, for a solution to their problems. Even though several Arab governments are still viewed as US-satellites, the change is visible in the criticism being lashed out in the Arab media. And this necessitates the need to break yet another wall prevailing in the non-Arab world.

Despite West Asia being the epicentre of news regarding the US war against Iraq and other Arab issues, it is amazing how little importance has been given to the Arab media’s approach towards the same.

Only greater communication can break the barriers between the two worlds. The western tendency to uphold and support only what is practised in their culture and entertain a biased approach towards what is valued in other areas needs to change. It is imperative for the West to question its own attitude first, to be its own critics first, before it questions that of others. It is equally vital for them to understand Arab notions and values before raising their voice, law and guns against them.

Perhaps, to understand other cultures and religions, the West needs to learn from Indian Constitution, where secularism is associated with respect for all religions and democracy stands for the force of vote and people’s voices and not guns.

The new importance given to people’s voice in the media in several Arab nations is perhaps a symbolic indicator of real democracy gradually making inroads. Yes, they have a long way to go. So does the West, for which it has to understand that banning headscarves or using gun-power will not break barriers.