Teacher's Ramblings

A potpourri of education, politics, family matters, and current events.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

A Liberal Muslim Woman Speaks On Differences

Not between Muslims and others, but rather on Europe and North America. At the root of it is secularism:

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As a young Canadian Muslim who has called for reform in Islam, I've been traveling throughout North America and Europe over the past year. Last week, I toured France and Spain. God help me.

I didn't expect a warm reception from fellow Muslims. But now, I'm also not sure that liberal Muslims like me fit comfortably in a secular European crowd. I say this even after the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, who police officials say was shot and stabbed by a Muslim extremist. Mr. van Gogh had exercised his right to criticize Islam - a right that I, as a modern Muslim, defend unequivocally.

What then gives me the sense that even modern Muslims can't be modern enough for Western Europe? It's precisely that, from Amsterdam to Barcelona to Paris to Berlin, people incredulously ask me one type of question that I'm never asked in the United States and Canada: Why does an independent-minded woman care about God? Why do you need religion at all?

I'll answer in a moment. To get there, allow me to observe key differences between the debate over Islam in Western Europe and North America. In Western Europe, the entry point for this debate is the hijab - the headscarf that many Muslim women wear as a signal of modesty. By contrast, the entry point in North America is terrorism.

Some might say that difference is understandable. After all, Sept. 11 happened on American soil. But March 11 happened on European ground, yet the hijab remains the starting point for Europeans. Meanwhile, it makes barely a ripple in North America.

This difference speaks to a larger gulf in attitudes toward religion. To a lot of Europeans, still steeped in memories of the Catholic Church's intellectual repression, religion is an irrational force. So women who cover themselves are foolish at best and dangerous otherwise.

Not so in North America. Because it has long been a society of immigrants seeking religious tolerance, religion itself is not seen as irrational - even if what some people do with it might be, as in the case of terrorism. Which means Muslims in North America tend to be judged less by what we wear than by what we do - or don't do, like speaking out against Islamist violence.

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