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Islam: the great debate

Last update - Thursday, May 6, 2010, 13:39 By Nadia Mattar

Her name is Najwa Malha, and her case has sparked a heated debate in Spain. A 16-year-old Muslim Spaniard of Moroccan origin, Malha has been expelled from her school in suburban Madrid for wearing the hijab, under a school policy that bans “the use of caps and any other article of clothing that covers the head”.

Malha chose to wear the hijab of her own accord last February, against her father’s wishes. Although her teachers warned her about the school rules being violated and the threat of expulsion, she refused to remove her headscarf.
Malha’s case is just the latest in a series of incidents in the last decade that have brought the issue of religious symbols to the fore across Europe. In 2004 France was the first European country to pass a law banning all religious symbols in public schools, including the hijab.
Most recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that his government wants to prohibit the wearing of the niqab and burqa in public, as French society apparently “cannot accept women imprisoned behind a screen, deprived of all identity.”
Following France’s example, Belgium is on the verge of making illegal any clothing that covers the face, though the wearing of the hijab is subject to the regulations of individual schools or institutions, as in the Netherlands and in Spain.
Germany is more tolerant towards Muslim students who choose cover their heads, but not towards teachers. Eight of its 16 federal states have already pushed a legislation banning Muslim teachers from wearing the hijab in the classroom. Meanwhile, Denmark and Italy are also discussing a ban on the burqa and niqab.
In contrast, the United Kingdom – which seems more tolerant to cultural diversity than elsewhere in Europe – does not have any laws prohibiting the hijab or any other religious clothing, and each case is treated individually.
In light of all this, one big question looms its ugly head: is Europe afraid of Islam?
The hijab issue is often misunderstood and surrounded by irrational interpretations. For some the headscarf is a symbol of fundamental Islam that subjugates women; to others it’s just an indication of Muslim faith.
Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Islamic garments such as the headscarf and more so the veil cause fear in a Europe of Christian tradition, and this fear only leads to restrictions in freedom and senseless scaremongering.
Why are so many European governments considering a ban on the niqab and burqa when only a very limited number of women wear them? What is the motivation behind this?
Although debate is necessary, such harsh measures only prove that Europe’s fears are on the increase. Meanwhile, Muslim people continue to face difficulties integrating their culture and religion into new societies that want to assimilate them. But imposition by force only leads to radicalism.
If we really want to stop discrimination against Muslim women, is it not better to think that their education and integration into the labour market are more important issues than their clothes?
On the other hand, it would be unfair to say that Malha’s case is a direct attack on her faith. Whether we like it or not, schools have their own rules and impose limits that pupils must accept. It’s about instilling a sense of discipline, which will help them to make good decisions when they start their adult lives.
In the meantime, Ireland stays in a discreet position. With a Muslim community of no more than 40,000 – a small number compared to other European countries – the debates have yet to substantially affect Irish society. But when the controversy arrives, will Ireland be prepared to face this issue?

Nadia Mattar is currently on an internship with Metro Éireann

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