Accepting her party’s nomination for what would be her fourth four-year term as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel announced that Germany must ban the niqab (full face veil) “wherever legally possible.” Smacking of political expediency, the timing of this announcement underlines her need to draw hard-right nationalists critical of her Syrian refugee policy away from the populist and far-right political parties gaining strength in Germany.
Yet Chancellor Merkel’s ban is one I support as an observant Muslim woman. In 2011, I argued that then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s legislating of France’s burka ban was a brave step. Merkel’s announcement, while politically opportunistic, is to be commended.
Any ban on wearing the niqab in public is one that defends secular society. In Germany today, secularism and the perceived integrity of the nation are strained with the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees, the rise in Islamist terrorism, and the looming threat from the so-called Islamic State. Germany is a fragile state within a fragile post-Brexit Europe. In this climate, niqabs become a direct challenge to national cohesion, connote a neo-orthodox expression of Islam, and are often associated with Islamist ideologies: ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and others.
Predictably, liberals, others, and The Council on American Islamic Relations, a prominent American Muslim advocacy group, have already launched a backlash claiming this burka ban violates the rights of Muslim women like me—a uniquely Islamist, and not Islamic, claim. Being de facto political totalitarianism, Islamism, also known as “radical Islam” or “political Islam,” centers on absolute domination of the individual, forcibly imposing a perversion of Islam through the concept of Islamic statehood.
While some Muslim women may not be in a position to choose within the confines of their family, in secular societies where women are free to choose their dress, rote ritualism and de novo rituals including the wearing of the niqab indicate neo-orthodoxy. Women who choose to adopt the niqab in secular society may do so in solidarity with today’s militancy du jour: Islamism. Wherever neo-orthodoxy flourishes, Islamism, not Islam, thrives near by.
Literal, inflexible interpretations of the veil are a hallmark of Islamism. Because so many Muslims are ignorant of the true dictates of Islam, and so many live under Islamist governments (Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, among others), rituals founded on cultural mores, rather than Islamic ideals, are co-opted as “Islamic.” These rituals then work to reinforce misogyny in some societies: the infantilization of women in Saudi Arabia as legal minors, their immobilization both within their society and internationally (banned from travel without the permission of designated male guardianship), and a strict gender segregation of the public space, all penalize women.
Problematically, these cultural mores come to pass as manifestations of Islam, when they are clearly counter in every way to the egalitarian spirit that Islam holds for both genders. Denying that these traditions are steeped in misogyny deprives Islam of its true identity. Certainly, living in these societies under such confines as I have in Saudi Arabia, women who must enter the public space do veil themselves, because they must. In this way, the legally mandated veil, whether hijab or niqab, also liberates: Women can leave the home if they are veiled to earn, to study, to work.
Merkel’s ban, therefore, like Sarkozy’s previously, does not confine religious freedom but instead rejects cultural traditions that truly repress women—whether in our mobility, or freedom to choose our dress, and our literal visibility and interaction as members of society.
Many Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries agree that face veiling is not required, according to a fascinating survey by the University of Michigan examining Muslim attitudes to female dress. Even among Muslim women, the face veil is not widely supported. Yet reaction to a burka ban can be guaranteed to reveal the enormous ignorance surrounding Islam, an ignorance of which both Muslims and non-Muslims are guilty.
Certainly, legislating dress, and thereby self-expression, smacks of draconian states like Iran and Saudi Arabia (where I lived from November 1999 to November 2001 and was forcibly veiled by law). How could secular democratic societies permit legislation of dress, you may ask? The answer: Dress can, and indeed must be, legislated when societal integrity is threatened and the resulting polarization fuels the development of parallel societies within nationhood. It is exactly within such fragmentation that Islamism takes root as a form of rebellion and rejection of the host society.
Germany is an intensely secular society, which not only tolerates, but celebrates diversity, though recently it has become more jaded where multiculturalism is concerned. Six years ago, in a rising anti-immigration climate, Chancellor Merkel declared multiculturalism as dead, giving way to renewed German nationhood and national identity.
Yet anti-immigration sentiment, however repellant, may have some basis in reason. In many European countries, secular pluralistic democracies have been exploited by insular, Islamist neo-orthodoxy. Following the ghettoization of some Muslims in Britain, Britain has struggled with homegrown Islamist terrorism. In France, where ghettoization and marginalization of Muslims is much more marked, lethal outcomes have been borne from such ghettoization, most recently in the Charlie Hebdo massacres and the Bataclan attacks.
Certainly, the opportunist exploitation of tolerant democracies by Islamism comes at the expense of the pluralistic Muslim, who is imperiled both by the actions of Islamist terrorists and subject to retaliatory xenophobia often triggered by Islamist attacks. Criminalizing wearing the niqab in all public places, sparked cries of Islamophobia in Sarkozy’s France and is likely to do the same in German, even as legislation to follow suit in many European countries—such as Belgium and France, as well as regions in Spain (Barcelona) and Italy (Lombardy)—is already either enacted into law or being proposed as legislation.
But here in Europe, Muslims, and German Muslims in particular, have a role to play in explaining the true meaning and nature of veiling in Islam.
From Islam’s origins, the word khimar, “veil,” did not necessarily connote face covering. In the Quran, Sura 24:31, referring to the “khimar” reminds Muslim women of the need to “draw… [it] over their bosoms” as integral to female modesty. Similarly, the verse of the veil commanded only the prophet Muhammad’s wives, as a mark of high distinction, to speak from behind a “hijab,” meaning a curtain (Quran Sura 33:53).
Traditions asserting “khimar” specifically meant “niqab” may have been exaggerated. Records show Aisha—one of the prophet’s wives and among the foremost teachers of early Muslims—provided great detail on the khimars in her day, yet no record exists as to how exactly they were worn.
Make no mistake, secular liberal democracies can overstep the mark. This summer, shortly after the Bastille Day attacks in Nice, France lost its bearings, criminalized the burkini and forcibly stripped a Muslim woman on the beach in a shocking assault. The event rightly triggered international outrage and despite strong local support, France’s highest courts ruled the actions to be a breach of democratic values, reversing the legislation. Hearteningly, despite being in a state of emergency ongoing since Charlie Hebdo, France found a way to reason with itself and preserve its vital democracy.
Germany must walk a similar tightrope, between asserting national identity and championing secularism while resisting temptations to demonize all Muslims. To walk this fine line, Chancellor Merkel will need the support of the German Muslim intelligentsia as well as the established German Muslim clergy. Merkel truly has an opportunity to strengthen Germany’s civil Islam and thereby Europe’s. Both communities have the chance to empower and embrace Germany’s Muslims who are as European and as German as they are Muslim; Muslims, who like me, observe Islam as they repudiate Islamism; and Muslims who value the shared nationhood secular liberal democracy affords them, a national identity within which pluralistic Islam can truly thrive.
Certainly in the short term, Merkel’s proposal will trigger intensely inflammatory reactions but as Germany and Chancellor Merkel tangle with the veil, public discourse surrounding Islam may in fact deepen and yield opportunities for European Muslims to save not only the veil, but Islam, from the Islamists.