Published:  12:48 AM, 07 September 2018

Johnson's burka remarks seem to make him a populist

Mafizul Haq's opinion, published on 20 August 2018, is clearly written to highlight the legal and political controversy, which has been polarising the western world over the past few decades. This controversy concerns burka-wearing by some ethnic Muslim women.

A critical look at the piece however does not suggest that it has actually achieved its objective. British politician Boris Johnson's comment, making headlines in the public media, does highlight the symptoms of this religious and political problem, but not its nature or effects.

My own understanding about this controversy is this: Burka-wearing is not a requirement for practicing the religion of Islam, because this female attiring custom is not demanded by the Declaration of Faith (Shahadah), the First Pillar of Islam, which proclaims, "There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

All other principles of Islam, including the remaining four pillars, flow and follow from this first one, meaning individuals become Muslims by committing their belief in Shahadah. Nevertheless, the truth of real life is that nowadays all Muslims inherit this belief through birth, the same way the non-Muslims inherit their religious beliefs.

This is exactly the reason why Prophet Muhammad warned against doing anything in the name of Islam that might annoy and anger peoples of other faiths.

All religions have principles as well as rituals. Principles of Islam include those divine decrees on which our religion is founded, while rituals are the customs by which Islam is practiced. There is thus a fundamental difference between religion of Islam and its rituals.

The Islamic rituals including the last four Pillars are founded on the principles of Islam, not the other way. Conflicts therefore ordinarily evidently arise when rituals are mixed up with principles, i.e., practice is not clearly consistent with principles.

Burka-wearing is an outstanding example of these wrong rituals. However, we often fail to see this distinction because the difference between burka and hijab is not appropriately understood (see the pictures). Hijab ordinarily refers to a headscarf woman use to cover their head and neck, but not their faces. Burka, on the other hand, is a one-piece veil, having just a mesh screen to see through, that covers both their faces and bodies.

History says that burka was prescribed in Medina for Muslim women travelling outside home to protect them from licentious attacks from men. This attire was prescribed to distinguish Muslim girls and women from the slave ones.

The cultural and political situation that residents of western world enjoy nowadays, is absolutely different from what prevailed during the time Islam was being preached in the 6th century. In the contemporary times, women in western society move freely without any fear of even taunting, meaning burka-wearing is not necessitated in this society. Then the vast majority of Muslim women do not wear Burka. More importantly, to the overwhelming majority Muslims of both sexes, Burk-wearing is not a required Islamic ritual.

This line of reasoning suggests that a general ban on burka-wearing cannot be considered as the violation of the individual's fundamental right of practicing religion. As Professor Qadeer, a scholar of Islamic history at the Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, writes in a newspaper article: "The argument about concealing one's face as a religious obligation, is contentious and is not backed by the evidence … In Western societies, the niqab also is a symbol of distrust for fellow citizens and a statement of self-segregation. The wearer of a face veil is conveying: 'I am violated if you look at me'."

In Canada, the judiciary's role concerning burka-wearing has come under serious criticism. This role is usually described as 'judicial activism', which means settling a legal conflict based on the judges' opinions - not the rule of law. An example of this activism is the Supreme Court's ruling that declared the federal government's niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies unconstitutional and hence unlawful.

Even if we accept that the Supreme Court's ruling is faulty, the issue does not disappear unless we demonstrate the reasons why government feels it necessary to interfere in this personal matter. There are at least two reasons why governments in different countries have banned burka-wearing. In Chad, Cameron, and parts of Niger and Congo, burka-wearing are totally banned since 2015.

This law was instigated by terrorist attacks. Although this reason is implicit in the western world, the main motive to ban burka-wearing is the public disapproval. First of all, the burka costume and culture - which originally developed in the 10th century Persia and later slowly spread to the Arabian Peninsula and present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan - is alien to western society, meaning people here are not aware about its background.

Then they cannot understand the reason for wearing in their society. Burka's unique feature to conceal the identity of its wearer is supposed to be annoying to all sensible people, because wearing this attire in the prevailing socio-political and religious environment in the West absolutely lacks commonsense.

Accordingly, it should not entirely illogical to conclude that burka is not an Islamic attire, which Muslim women must wear as the fulfilment of their religious ritual. For this very reason, banning burka cannot contradict the principle of practicing religious freedom. The idea of religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution is being misinterpreted in the western countries.

Although all this may be true, the prevailing judicial culture suggests that the westerners may not able to resolve this issue.  This job is absolutely the responsibility of the members of Muslim community permanently immigrated in this social and religious culture. For, they have come here to make this land as their new home, which requires them to integrate in this society preserving their ethnic identity. The burka culture is not certainly helpful for this integration process.

---Khandakar Qudrat-I Elahi

The writer, a Bangladeshi-Canadian, lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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