Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Coronavirus exposed the real reasons behind France's 'burqa ban'

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, France is faced with a paradox: It has just made the wearing of masks compulsory in certain public spaces, but maintained the years-long ban on Muslim full-face veils. This suggests, as the Washington Post recently noted, "if an observant Muslim woman wanted to get on the Paris Metro, she would be required to remove her burqa and replace it with a mask".

The French government made the use of face masks in public mandatory on May 10 in an effort to safely ease the country's strict coronavirus lockdown. More than 50 other countries, from Germany to Uganda, had previously passed similar laws and provisions to stem the spread of the virus and get people back to work.

While in most countries the discussion about compulsory face masks focused on the effectiveness of the measure, in France, where not long ago the government proudly stated that "the Republic lives with its face uncovered", this decision raised questions about the way the state defines French identity and values.

Face coverings started to be discussed in the context of French national identity for the first time more than a decade ago, during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency.

In October 2008, the High Authority for the Fight against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE), France's public watchdog group on discrimination, equated the wearing of a burqa to the "submission of women" in a ruling over an administrative decision that denied a woman wearing the garment access to the French-language classes that were required for her to remain in France. As it sided with the public authority that took the controversial decision, the watchdog said: "The burqa carries the meaning of the submission of women which goes beyond its religious scope and could be considered as undermining republican values presiding over the process of integration and organisation of these lessons."

The ruling laid the foundations for the perception that this religious garment is not only fundamentally anti-feminist but also foreign to French culture. It also ignited a debate on "republican values" which quickly transformed into a debate on whether Islam is compatible with the French Republic.

Just a few months after the publication of HALDE's ruling, as the call for the banning of all Muslim face coverings became louder across the country, President Sarkozy himself joined in the debate. 

In a State of the Nation address, the president claimed that face coverings worn by some Muslim women were not a "religious problem" but a problem of "liberty and women's dignity" and declared "the burqa is not welcome in France".

Sarkozy's words ignited another major public debate, with one side accusing the president of weaponising feminism and secular values to exclude Muslims from the French identity and the other emphasising the importance of protecting the nation's core liberal values.

While the few women in France who wear full-face veils were never included in the "burqa" debate, several prominent public figures - mostly men - passionately argued that no one would willingly choose to wear such a garment and that anyone wearing it was undoubtedly a victim of male oppression. Failing to realise the irony of denying women agency over their own bodies and outfit choices while trying to "save them" from gendered oppression, these people eventually convinced the country that all face coverings should be banned to protect women's rights and French values.

As a result, in September 2010, the French Senate voted in favour of a bill banning the concealment of the face in public spaces. In March 2011, weeks before the ban came into force, the government issued a new circular about the scope of the ban and offered some cultural justifications for it.

"To conceal the face is to infringe the minimum requirements of life in society," the circular stated. "This also places the persons concerned in a situation of exclusion and inferiority incompatible with the principles of freedom, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French Republic."

The circular, therefore, officially acknowledged a link between the way a person chooses to dress themselves in public and that person's place in French society. To be recognised as a French person, the circular affirmed, one has to show her face in public, as a confirmation of her commitment to the "common values" and "shared destiny" of the country.

This is why the French government's recent decision to make the wearing of face masks mandatory in public places raised questions. The government's move to make face masks compulsory while refusing to reverse the ban on Muslim face veils reaffirmed the conviction many already had that the so-called "burqa" ban has nothing to do with the incompatibility of face coverings with the French way of life and everything to do with the state's reluctance to include visible Muslims into the French national identity.

As millions of French people now participate in public life with covered faces without any issue, it is indeed clear that the French state banned Muslim face veils not to protect the values of the Republic, but to promote an assimilationist understanding of Frenchness that does not tolerate minority cultural expressions.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the French state's hypocrisy about several other forms of behaviour, too.

For example, back in 2019, following an attack on the Paris police headquarters by a Muslim employee, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner delivered a controversial list of potential signs of radicalisation to the French Parliament. Alongside innocent cultural expressions, such as wearing a long beard, he suggested that a Muslim person's refusal to kiss someone to greet them, as many French people usually do, could be a sign of radicalisation. Now, however, the state is actively encouraging citizens to refrain from kissing each other in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. There is, of course, no suggestion that refusing to kiss someone can infringe the requirements of life in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the extreme measures that were taken to fight it, showed that neither the wearing of face veils nor other forms of Muslim cultural and religious expressions, have ever posed a threat to the French way of life. It showed that the motivation behind the "burqa ban" was not to protect republican values but to prevent Muslims from being included in public life. The French state simply used cultural markers that are associated with "being French" in the national psyche to draw the contours of an exclusionary national identity.

Now that COVID-19 demonstrated that one can indeed participate in public life and remain "French" without showing her face or kissing acquaintances, the nation could do well to rethink the way it treats Muslims.


Monday, 1 June 2020

Indian Muslims at the Forefront of COVID-19 Relief Efforts Despite Rising Islamophobia

In late March when India announced the lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, everything came to a grinding halt in the country of 1.3 billion people. Millions of migrant workers, students, and tourists got stuck in cities and towns far away from their homes. Most of the migrant workers earn daily-wages, so as the days passed they struggled to make ends meet. The needed succour but the government appeared to have abdicated its responsibility.

It was then that civil society groups of different shades came out to provide relief to the stranded migrant workers and their families. These included established aid agencies, political parties, community collectives, student initiatives, and religious groups. Everyone is helping in their own way and in some cases, the groups collaborated with each other to amplify the efforts.

But the way Muslims have responded to the crises is unmatchable. Muslim volunteers in India are at the forefront of the relief efforts to help the needy. They have set up community kitchens across cities and towns from North to South and East to West of the country. They prepare food and water which they feed to those either stranded or walking their way home.

These efforts are run from offices, community centres, homes, roadside points, and mosques where rations are collected and then distributed among the people in a coordinated manner. The volunteers have created WhatsApp groups for better coordination and make effective use of social media to mobilise the volunteers and raise funds for the relief work.

During Ramadan when Muslims were observing fast, numerous videos popped up on social media showing Muslim men racing to help the needy walking under the sweltering sun. Facebook and Tik Tok, the popular video-sharing app, is rife with videos showing Muslim volunteers supporting skull caps on highways handing out food and water packs to the migrants making their way home on foot, bicycles, buses or trains. They carry banners inviting the travellers to stop for a free meal.

The volunteer efforts have soothed the problems of the travellers amidst a mounting migrant crisis due to lockdown. Some estimates suggest that 170 people have died while they were trying to reach their destination during the lockdown. Most of the deaths happened due to accidents but some died of hunger and exhaustion.

Though the government has started special trains, the services are marred with problems like waiting in long queues, screening of passengers, and lack of onboard facilities which has forced many to take the arduous route – they ride bicycles or prefer walking hundreds of miles to reach their home as the uncertainty about work in future looms large.

People are tweeting out stories under the hashtag #MuslimSaviours to highlight the role of Muslims in alleviating the migrant crisis triggered by the lockdown.

There have also been numerous reports of Muslims coming out to help perform the last rites of their non-Muslim neighbours when their community members failed to do so because of the coronavirus scare.

In the city of Pune, Muslims donated around 50 thousand USD in charity to a hospital to equip itself for setting up COVID Intensive Care Units.

In the same city, a group of Muslim men are feeding fooder to the stray cows unable to satiate hunger in the lockdown. The cow is a sacred animal for Hindus and in recent years Muslims have been subjected to mob violence by Hindu extremists on the suspicion of cow slaughter.

However, Muslim generosity towards those in need of assistance has come amidst a renewed wave of hate crimes against Muslims including physical assaults, verbal abuse, open discrimination, and social ostracisation. They are being falsely accused of spreading coronavirus.

Hatemongers on TV speak of terms like corona-jihad and corona-bombs. This is the result of a vilification campaign systematically carried out by a large section of mainstream and social media against Tablighi Jamaat after their Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi emerged as one of the Coronavirus clusters. In several instances, people associated with Tablighi Jamaat have been subjected to violence both by mobs and police. In one episode the mob charged against a group of Muslim relief workers who were proving food to stranded migrants in the city of Banglore.

But what explains the reasons behind this generosity despite being subjected to hate and violence?

Syed Sadatullah Hussaini, a community leader, heads a Muslim organisation called Jamaat e Islami. While addressing the Muslims of the country in a press statement on the eve of Eid, he urged them to be ready for the service of humanity:

We must not get distracted by the negative propaganda unleashed by some sections of media against Muslims. We must communicate the noble and pristine teachings of Islam and focus on this task with complete confidence and concentration.”

Hussaini appealed to his community to “consider the problems of fellow countrymen” to be their problems.

In the city of Bhopal in central India, Hussain’s organisation is passing out food, milk, and sanitary napkins to the migrant workers walking home.

“We are happy at the tremendous and extraordinary social work done by our youth, elders, and women during the lockdown. We are proud of them and want the entire Ummah to emulate this practice to the extent that it becomes a part of their identity. Muslims must be seen as the benefactors and saviors of humanity and assets for the country.”


Saturday, 23 May 2020

Can Qur'an be Insulted?

Verse 41 and 42 of Surah Fussilat explains that Qur'an is Aziz and Hameed. Falsehood cannot touch it from any angle and it's Worthy of All Praise.

Friday, 22 May 2020

The Monologue of The Believer from Surah Al Mu’min

During the time of Moses (pbuh), there was a secret believer in Pharaoh’s general. Surah number 40, Ghafir, also known as Al Mu’min (the Believer of Pharaoh’s people) details the monologue of this believer.