The Muslim world occupies a vast stretch of contiguous land extending from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East and from the Ex-Russian republics in the north to the borders of Uganda in the south. But a considerable number of other faith groups besides Islam exist within each country, such as Christians (Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, in addition to other denominations), Jews, Hindus, Bahais, Sikhs, Buddhists, Druses, Zoroastrians, etc.
Lebanon, for example, has a majority Muslim population, but its constitution assumes proportional equality with Christians. India, on the other hand, has a majority of Hindus, but its Muslim population equals that of Pakistan. There is a substantial Muslim population in other countries, including Europe and the Americas, with six to eight million in the United States.
But having a Muslim population does not mean it is monolithic in its composition. Thus, in addition to the Shia (with its subgroups) and Sunni division, within Sunnis there are four major schools of thought. And because Islamic sacred sources allow of a variety of interpretations, there is always room for additions.
Also, there is a great cultural diversity within the Muslim community, composed as it is of various ethnicities, intermixed with the local customs and traditions.
Thus it not uncommon to confuse cultural diversity with the requirements of Islamic faith, especially when it comes to outsiders with a vested agenda. This is particularly the case with issues concerning women.
"The Western feminist gaze has become the dominant lens through which the realities of Muslim women's lives and the societies in which they live are interpreted and defined," write Jasmin Zine and Katherine Bullock in a special issue "Islam and Women," of the prestigious American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. [14(4), 2002]
"Despite a few more recent exceptions, these negative and essentialized representations have maintained their currency through the persistence of colonial stereotypes as recurrent motifs. The meanings that have been inscribed on the Muslim woman's body as 'oppressed' or as a passive victim of patriarchal domination provide limited ways of understanding the complex narratives through which Muslim women actually live their lives as actors and resisters."
For example, in Afghanistan, burqa-clad women became "the trademark of Islamic repression." And these images served, at least partially, "to justify all forms of military action under the trope of 'liberation,' as was the earlier formula for colonial intervention in the Muslim world."
It is ironic that those very women still walk burqa-clad, which constitutes part of their culture, but they are now a forgotten commodity, as is the rest of Afghanistan, laden with landmines, bombed-out buildings, and steeped in poverty.
President Jacques Chirac of France presents another extreme in his recent backing of a proposal to ban headscarves, or hijab, in public schools. Wearing of modest attire constitutes neither a cultural practice, nor a political statement but a fulfillment of a religious requirement.
The proposed ban would also apply to Jewish yarmulkes and large Christian crosses, but it is widely regarded that it is aimed at restricting Islamic religious practices. Christian and Jewish religious leaders in France and throughout the world have opposed any ban on religious identity.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams described the French government's move as "provocative and destructive."
Chirac says the ban was needed because France's cherished tradition of secularism was under threat. But such a radical understanding is contrary to the basic concept of freedom, and contravenes the French constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result, thousands of women took to the streets protesting this violation of their religious right.
Here in the USA this type of approach would be contrary to the American concept of separation of church-state, whereby American tradition restricts itself from involving in personal religious matters.
Siraj I. Mufti, is a researcher and freelance journalist, and is an active member of the Tucson community.
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