Hijab No Threat to Secularism: Greece
Sun. Mar. 9, 2008
IslamOnline.net & News Agencies
ANKARA Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis
defended on Saturday, March 8, the right of Muslim
women to cover their heads as per their religion,
refuting claims that hijab poses a threat to
"Human rights and the secular nature of a state are
not threatened by the headscarf. Nor are they
safeguarded by a ban," Bakoyannis told an
international women conference in Ankara, reported the
Turkish website newstime7.
"Rights and open societies are guaranteed by political
will, legal frameworks, policies on education and
access to information and new technologies; policies
on development, employment, entrepreneurship, equal
social and political participation."
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a
religious symbol displaying ones affiliations.
The Muslim head cover has been thrust into the
limelight since the 2004 French ban on hijab at public
schools and institutions.
Several European countries have since followed the
Ghent City, Belgium's third largest, decided in late
2007 to prohibit civil servants who deal with the
public from donning hijab.
Belgium's second city Antwerp banned hijab earlier the
Governments in some Arab and Muslim countries also
place restrictions on hijab.
Last month, Turkish President Abdullah Gul signed into
law a constitutional amendment easing the hijab ban on
campus, in place since shortly after a 1980 military
Bakoyannis, the Greek foreign minister, blamed
ignorant Western media for propagating misconceptions
about the status of women in Islam.
"There is a general misconception, based on false
readings of the Qur'an, that Islam treats women as
inferior to men," she told the conference, coinciding
with the International Woman Day.
"A roguish reading of the Old or New Testament
ignoring the historical context in which they were
written could easily support a similar conclusion
about Christianity," she contended.
"I strongly believe that in the so-called Western
world we have more stereotypes than we care to admit."
Greece's top diplomat insisted that Islam ensures
"Successful women from many Muslim countries with whom
I have met and conversed in various fora, reiterate
that for them, religion really means peace and
She cited Turkey as a living example that Muslim women
are as successful as their Western peers.
"Let us not forget that both Islam and Christianity
are based on the precept that rights and obligations
to our fellow human beings and to God are the same for
everyone. No exceptions."
Secularists have nothing to fear from women wearing
Separation of church and state should not preclude the
assertion of religious identity - as Turkey is
Madeleine Bunting The Guardian, Monday February 25
In Turkey, any day now, a female university student
will mark a dramatic moment in her country's history.
After years of heated debate, culminating in street
demonstrations in recent months, she will no longer
have to replace her headscarf with a wig or hat before
attending her lectures, thanks to a constitutional
amendment that received presidential consent last
week. However, she will know that her newly won right
is by no means secure; university authorities have
been threatening to break the law and enforce the
headscarf ban, while legal appeals are likely to end
up in the constitutional court.
For the group of young women students I met recently
in the London School of Economics, there is hope at
last. All wore headscarves, all had fled Turkey to
study in the UK rather than remove them. Their stand
had disrupted their studies, even earned them parental
disapproval, and they still faced in their chosen
careers - as lawyers and health professionals - plenty
more obstacles on account of their covered heads.
To the outsider, the furore around headscarves in
Turkey is barely comprehensible; indeed the
International Herald Tribune sniffily entitled its
leader last week "Much ado about headscarves", and
urged Turkey to get on with sorting out the far more
important issue of freedom of expression.
But Turkey's experience fits into a pattern replicated
across Europe, where relatively small issues can
unpredictably erupt and engulf countries in passionate
controversy. A shocked Denmark is counting the cost of
nightly rioting in immigrant neighbourhoods after
newspapers republished the cartoons of the prophet
Muhammad. Or look at Switzerland, where the recent
elections were determined by a proposed constitutional
ban on mosques having minarets - a political tactic
now being copied by politicians in Germany and
Holland. Or the outrage in the British media at the
Archbishop of Canterbury's dense musings on sharia.
Headscarves, cartoons, minarets, religious courts: how
did these become the staple of politics?
Their significance lies in being symbols loaded with
the freight of a long history of how European states
have painfully come to an accommodation with religion.
In this respect, Turkey's experience is undeniably
European; its model of the secular state was based on
a French import. What Islam is, inadvertently, doing
across Europe is exposing the precarious assumptions
by which the vast majority of Europeans believed they
had dealt with religion - they thought they had got
the genie back in the bottle. Throughout Europe,
there's an insecure edginess that talks of "secularism
in crisis"; the alarm calls issuing from the UK's
National Secular Society talk of "mounting fears" at a
The first assumption to collapse was that
secularisation was the necessary corollary of
modernisation. It was claimed that as countries
industrialised and modernised, religious practice
would wither away. It proved true of western Europe as
church attendance collapsed. But it is not true of
Turkey, where industrialisation has brought challenges
to the secular Europeanised elite from a new middle
class, educated and devout. Nor is it proving true of
Europe's ethnic minorities, both Muslim and African
Christian, whose religiosity is becoming more
The second assumption was that most European countries
had arrived at a degree of secularism defined as the
separation of state and religion. This was largely a
measure of wishful thinking based on "let sleeping
dogs lie", the outcome of a complex trade of
privileges and support between church and state
through centuries of negotiation. The UK, for
instance, does not have a secular state; along with
many other European countries, it privileges a
particular Christian denomination. Not even France or
Turkey - two of the most avowedly secular states in
Europe - achieve complete separation of religion and
state; the French state is responsible for the upkeep
of thousands of churches while Turkey has a ministry
of religious affairs that oversees imams and mosques.
What makes the debate across Europe so complex is that
every country's model of secularism has its own
idiosyncrasies. The headscarf ban in Turkey or France
seems an astonishing infringement of personal freedom
to the British, while the interventionist measures
both have taken to regulate Islamic teaching and
mosques is regarded by British authorities with a
degree of envy (it might make it easier to deal with
Islamic extremism) and a historic distaste for getting
involved in matters of religious doctrine.
Meanwhile, the UK's funding of Church of England
schools opened the way for Catholics, Jews and now
Muslims to insist on equal treatment - an outcome that
horrifies many Europeans. The argument in the UK was
that the state should offer some measure of
even-handedness - an argument now being used to
justify the establishment of sharia courts, to the
outrage of many.
The only way out of the UK conundrum would be to
embark on constructing a secular British state:
disestablish the Church of England and cut funding to
all faith schools. There is a lot to be said for this
option, but since it involves dumping half a
millennium of history and some good schools at a time
when national identity and quality education are
highly sensitive political battlegrounds, I can't see
any party wanting to take that agenda on.
Increasingly, you hear the exasperated mutter that
religion should just go away. Why can't it just keep
out of public life? The problem is that it is not
straightforward to separate faith and state. The one
always has interests to pursue in the domain of the
other; religious organisations are entitled to lobby
the political process as any other civic body is.
Meanwhile, the state cannot leave the faithful alone
if the religious practice is contrary to its own aims.
The government is currently embarked on a hearts and
minds strategy to combat Muslim extremism that takes
it a long way away from any notion of a neutral
Secularism in the UK has its greatest force in
describing the character of public life. In the second
half of the 20th century, the convention gained ground
that faith was like any other hobby - a private choice
of leisure time - enthusiasts could talk among
themselves but not bore others. Andrew Marr in the New
Statesman described this British secular tradition,
and concluded of immigrants to the UK: "The real prize
is to persuade them just to calm down." Above all,
believers are expected to keep quiet. It's not just
Muslims, a number of different religious communities
want no more truck with this privatisation -
evangelicals, African Pentecostalists, Sikhs, even the
Archbishop of Canterbury.
But that doesn't amount to the crisis of the
panic-mongers. Secularism, a cherished principle with
as many believers as non-believers, does not - should
not - preclude the assertion of religious identity. It
is a robust enough idea to hold the ring, as a secular
state has done in the deeply religious US and India.
Secularism can accommodate religious identity, as
Turkey is showing by modifying Ataturk's authoritarian
secularism. What remains to be seen across western
Europe is whether secularism is hijacked by a racist
far right to become a rallying cry, or whether it can
find its own way to adapt and modify its traditions to