At Large

Scarf Wars

Reasonable accommodation or creeping Sharia?

By 4.3.07

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A seemingly trivial incident late last February in suburban Montreal is illustrative of the much larger cultural quandary we face. The occasion was sparked when 11-year-old soccer star Asmahan Mansour was booted off the field for wearing the Islamic headscarf. By a Muslim referee, no less.

What's the big deal with wearing a headscarf?

According to the official, the headgear was a two-strike offense: the scarf was nonstandard equipment and it posed a strangulation hazard. Almost immediately the girl's defenders accused soccer officials of racism and Islamophobia. Some even claimed little Asmahan's human rights were violated and pointed to the many Middle Eastern women's soccer teams (Jordan and Iran, for instance) in which the gals regularly participate in headscarves and outfits that envelop every last inch of skin save the face and hands. At least we think they are gals. Anyway there have yet to be any headscarf-related fatalities.

Those supporting the ban argue that once you allow religious, political or religio-political statements to be worn on the soccer field you are leaving the confines of athletics and treading on the dangerous soil of ideology. You cannot very well allow the hijab and not allow yarmulkes, fezzes, and turbans. All of these headcoverings are loaded with political significance and most are banned in one country or another.

A tempest in a teapot? Perhaps not, since this story can be seen as a microcosm of the larger ideological struggle of identity politics being played out each time Middle East meets West. In the beginning the West proved extraordinarily accommodating. For example: in 1990 a Canadian Sikh member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police won the right to wear a turban with his police uniform. But 9/11 changed that. Since then there have been numerous bans on Islamic headscarves and burqas in public spaces across Western Europe, Canada and Australia. Last year Dutch Prime Minister Rita Verdonk announced a ban on burqas in public places and canceled a meeting with Muslim leaders when one refused to shake hands with her because she was...gasp...a woman.

Lost in this debate is why Muslim women are required to wear the veil. Traditionally Arab men differentiated the virtuous lady from her immoral sister by her dress. The prostitute showed skin, which stirred up the animal lust in the male. The male's excitability was considered the women's fault, therefore the female was ordered to keep her body under wraps. In Islamic societies this is deemed preferable to teaching young men to respect women and control their apparently insatiable animal lusts.

Today Muslim girls are told only that their religion demands their unquestioning acceptance of the veil; that they will be beaten if they do not wear it. In other words the concept of the veil is based on a primitive, misogynistic attitude toward the sexes, the antithesis of Western, rational thought, in which the young are encouraged to be skeptical and to question antiquated notions. Is this mindset something the West should accommodate? Or is such accommodation just another instance of creeping Sharia?

OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE limits to how far a culture should go in accommodating religious customs. Honor killings and widow burning (suttee), would not go over well in the West. The Canadian village of Herouxville recently passed preventative legislation that bans the stoning of women and female circumcision just in case its Muslim immigrants get any ideas of importing their bestial traditions to Canadian soil.

If assimilation is the goal, we should certainly allow (if not encourage) veil-wearing Muslim girls to play soccer or to attend public school. Better that than they should be left to attend madrassas run by radical imams. But draw the line when any religious or political class demands the government provide women-only separate but equal hospital wings, swimming pools and pre-natal classes, that pork be removed from public school menus, and that Dante's Divine Comedy be removed from the school library because of its depiction of Mohammed in hell.

Of course not everyone agrees that assimilation is a worthy goal, or even that it is likely to succeed. (It has been a colossal failure it France.) After all no one encouraged the Amish to assimilate -- so why not leave the Muslims and other religious minorities alone? Then again, the Amish may find American culture decadent, but they have shown little desire to blow up skyscrapers. Nor are they likely to rampage through the streets when someone publishes editorial cartoons of their prophets. Assimilation wouldn't even be under discussion if Islam were not deemed a threat, and only masks the real issue: that the West has yet to decide whether Islam is a religion of peace -- like the Old Order Amish--or a totalitarian ideology.

In the end we must hope that all religious minorities will assimilate at least to the point where they accept Western values of equality and separation of church and state. Those who insist on remaining culturally distinct, who wish to remain ghettoized risk becoming radicalized. When 11-year-old Muslim girls want to play soccer with French Canadian girls, it is folly to refuse them no matter what they wear on their heads.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.