U.S. Administration Wrongly Advocates the Islamist Interpretation of Islamophobia
The State Department issued a report denouncing what it called “a spike in anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and Asia.” It said that “Muslims also faced new restrictions in 2012 in countries ranging from Belgium, which banned face-covering religious attire in classrooms, to India[,] where schools in Mangalore restricted headscarves.”
The State Department report confuses religious persecution, which is to be condemned, with politicization of religions, which is a matter of debate and includes strategies of which the U.S. government should not be a part. If countries ban the right to pray, broadcast, and write about theology — any theology — this would be against human rights. But Belgium and India do not ban religions per se. In fact, they are more tolerant regarding diverse religious practice than most of the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Obama administration is not criticizing secular European and Asian governments for deciding to ban prayer or theologically philosophical dissertations, but rather criticizing these countries for banning the hijab or niqab in public places.
The administration understands the wearing of the hijab as a religious injunction for all Muslims. This is not the case, as senior theologians have decreed, including al Azhar, and the niqab is not a universal Muslim obligation, as one can see in 53 Muslim-majority countries. It is a matter of choice. The organized groups calling for a systematic imposition of the niqab are Islamist forces. This translates politically into an official endorsement on the Obama administration’s part of the Islamist political agenda under the camouflage of religious rights.
The Obama administration, by using the charge of Islamophobia against countries that oppose the political agenda of an ideological and political faction comprising those known as Salafists and Khomeinists, has become a partner with these factions against secular, liberal, reformist movements who do not abide by the niqab rule. It is one thing to defend religious communities and something else to defend the agenda of ideological factions. The niqab is part and parcel of the ideological agenda advocated by the Islamists, not a tenet held by all Muslims. If the Obama administration is worried about the Islamist agenda not yet met by European and Asian countries, it should claim so, but the administration cannot claim defense of a religious injunction to all Muslims while the latter have no consensus on the matter.
It has been noted over the past few years that U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East, the Arab world, and Muslim-majority countries has come increasingly under the influence of pressure groups, identified also as “lobbies,” implementing the doctrinal and political agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Khomeinist regime. The State Department has been made to believe that the Islamist agenda and the beliefs and values of all Muslims are one, which is a grave mistake.
The Obama administration should have learned from recent lessons as well as those from the past. First, it should have learned that popular majorities in the countries of the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, are not necessarily followers of Islamist principles. Rather, strong oppositions representing a vast swath of civil society are demonstrating vividly against the Islamist regimes produced by the Arab Spring.
The issue of hijab and niqab is one of the many that divide Muslim-majority societies. The Brotherhood and the Iranian regime claim that the veil should be a matter of the female’s uniform –not only in the region, but also for the women of Muslim communities in the West. This is the reason their lobbies are portraying the hijab and niqab as an obligation to all Muslim women — and thus a collective religious right above all other considerations in secular societies, including gender equality and public security matters. Yet the veil, as simply an expression, cannot be imposed on all Muslims, nor can it be extrapolated to be understood as a fundamental right to all members of society.
We therefore recommend that the U.S. government and other governments around the world make a basic distinction. The rights of prayer and its offshoots are universal to Muslim communities; such rights should then have consequences in and on Western and other non-Muslim countries. But the matter of hijab and niqab is a political right, not a religious one. And as a political right, it follows the limitations placed on it by the laws of the land. Even political rights can be obtained given hospitable circumstances, but the United States should not be siding with one political faction against another in an ideological debate in the Muslim world and among Muslim communities in the West and Asia.
If Washington espouses the agenda of Islamists, it becomes part of the industry of Islamophobia — that is, to create fear about religious persecution in order to support the political agenda of authoritarian Islamist factions.
Dr Walid Phares is a professor of international relations and the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East. www.walidphares.com.