Europe Freedom of Religions Purdah and Veiling

Editorial: Freedom of Religion – a right not a wrong

Freedom of Religion – a right not a wrong At a time when there should be a greater effort to promote under- standing and respect for different religions it seems that the exact opposite is happening. Certainly across Europe there seems to be a wave of opposition against Muslim women observing their faith by the way they choose to dress in public. Both France and Italy have banned the veil in differing degrees and other European countries are turning a blind eye to similar bans within their countries. In Britain there has been a far reaching debate sparked by the Rt. Hon Mr Jack Straw requesting Muslim women to remove their veils and more recently in November the Dutch Cabinet proposed to seek a ban on all Islamic veils being worn in public. What is more disturbing about these events is that they are taking place in the heart of Europe. Whilst Europe presents itself as the leading light on human rights it is fast becoming a model of intolerance, with governments making it acceptable simply to attack a religious belief whilst failing to grasp its true meaning and value. Even more worrying is the fact that such religious discrimination is in direct contrast to one of the key conventions of the European Union itself. Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights clearly states that: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, con- science and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’ 2 The Review of Religions – December 2006 Fareed Ahmad – UK EDITORIAL COMMENT It goes on to clarify that the freedom to manifest one’s religion is only to be restricted in the interest of ‘public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’ It would take a fantastic leap of the imagination to deem the wearing of a veil, or similarly a coat and scarf, as a threat to any of the above. So are such freedoms now under threat? It would certainly appear to be so, although interestingly enough the case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, who was dismissed from employment for wearing a small Cross on her necklace on the outside of her uniform drew sympathies, rather than criticisms, from Mr Jack Straw and the Church. On the one hand they were critical of the wearing of the veil in public and on the other they vociferously defended the right of people to express their faith by wearing a Cross. In Ms Eweida’s case Jack Straw argued that any ban on her public display of faith was ‘wholly inexplicable’. It seems that some ministers have taken on the role of fashion gurus to determine what level and style of faith can be expressed in public and what cannot. His double standards over these two issues are ‘wholly inexplicable’. But such views over the Islamic veil have not been expressed by politicians alone. The outspoken Anglican Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who has brought fresh vigour to religious debate in British public life, has also been critical of the veil. He talks of British society and its ‘Christian culture and heritage’ that acts as a moral compass for this country and on issues such as the veil says that Muslims should not expect British society to be ‘recon-figured’ to accommodate them. It is odd that he is choosing to rely on social norms to determine what is acceptable rather than taking a more principled stance on the issue. If we are supposed to follow social norms then why did anyone waste time on the Civil 3 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – December 2006 Rights movement in America, or seek to end apartheid in South Africa? These were periods when being of a particular race was looked down upon and resulted in fear and oppression. Indeed the Archbishops view that the veil ‘renders you less secure because you stick out and it brings unwelcome attention’ could well apply to the African, Asian and West Indian populations of America and Britain at that time, yet it did not mean that everyone should have changed their colour so that they could have fitted in better. Those people were keen to banish social ignorance about racial difference and promote tolerance and mutual respect based on education. Similarly Muslim women today are seeking to banish ignorance about the veil and if such acts are deemed to be a ‘reconfiguring’ of society then it would seem to be a welcome and positive move. Furthermore if such periods of history were part of the ‘Christian culture and heritage’ then would Dr. Sentamu argue that it should have remained unchanged and others should have just accepted it at face value? Clearly not and the reason would be that his faith would not accept such discrimination. What this tells us is that social values are dynamic and constantly subject to change but religion must provide a moral and objective counter-balance to keep society in check and to promote morality and equality. So what does the Christian faith have to say about the veil? Unsurprisingly we note that it is in chime with Islam’s emphasis on modesty and it portrays the covering of the body as a virtuous act. The Bible tells us that: ‘And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. For she had said unto the servant, What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, it is my master: therefore she took a veil and covered herself.’ (Genesis: 24: 64-65) 4 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – December 2006 ‘In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.’ (1 Timothy: 9) ‘But every women that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.’ (1 Corinthians 11:5) All this clearly shows that the veil and covering the head are righteous acts that should be encouraged. Indeed if there is a Christian cultural heritage to Britain – and Europe for that matter – then the right to wear the veil should be welcomed and promoted by the clergy. That would reflect true courageous leadership, the same leadership that was shown when defending the case of Nadia Eweida – even though wearing the Cross is not a requirement of the Christian faith. On this Dr Sentamu said: ‘For me, the Cross is important because it reminds me that God keeps his pro- mises…Wearing a Cross carries with it not only a symbol of our hopes but also a responsibility to act and to live as Christians…This symbol does not point only upwards but also outwards, it reminds us of our duties not only to God but also to one another.’ (BBC News 21 November 2006) I would expect that the same sentiment is expressed about the veil by Muslim women. The veil is a symbol of modesty, liberty and dignity. It is a reminder of our responsibility to God’s command and it reflects a pure and chaste state of mind, enabling us all to stay on the moral path. Islam teaches us that there must be freedom of religion – in belief and in practise – for peace in society. This is emphasised to such an extent that the Holy Prophet(saw) offered his mosque to 5 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – December 2006 a Christian delegation from Najran to offer their prayers. This alone should be sufficient to demonstrate that Islam defends absolutely the freedom of religion. From the right of Christians to build a place of worship to their right to wear a Cross (in a mosque or anywhere for that matter) Islam permits no barriers to the observance of faith. Indeed the same rights have been granted to all faiths, enabling them to be practised without hindrance. It is worth noting here that some Muslim countries too do not conform to this noble principle and this is clearly wrong and not in line with the teachings of Islam. This complete freedom in matters of faith is the spirit of religious freedom in Islam that was given to the world over 1400 years ago and the same spirit and teaching that is so relevant even to this day. References: • The Daily Mail, 13 Nov. 2006, • The Daily Telegraph, 15 Nov. 2006, • BBC News, 21 Nov.2006 6 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – December 2006 References to the Holy Qur’an item count ‘Bismillah…’ (In the Name of Allah…) as the first verse of each Chapter. In some non-standard texts, this is not counted and should the reader refer to such texts, the verse quoted in The Review of Religions will be found at one verse less than the number quoted. In this journal, for the ease of non- Muslim readers, ‘(saw)’ or ‘saw’ after the words, ‘Holy Prophet’, or the name ‘Muhammad’, are used. They stand for ‘Sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam’ meaning ‘Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him’. Likewise, the letters ‘(as)’ or ‘as’ after the name of all other prophets is an abbreviation meaning ‘Peace be upon him’ derived from ‘Alaihis salatu wassalam’ which are words that a Muslim utters out of respect whenever he or she comes across that name. The abbreviation ‘ra’ or (ra) stands for ‘Radhiallahu Ta’ala anhu and is used for Companions of a Prophet, meaning Allah be pleased with him or her (when followed by the relevant Arabic pronoun). Finally, ‘ru’ or (ru) for Rahemahullahu Ta’ala means the Mercy of Allah the Exalted be upon him. In keeping with current universal practice, local transliterations of names of places are preferred to their anglicised versions, e.g. Makkah instead of Mecca, etc.