( A woman wearing Niqab in France- Via AFP)
The cynical glee with which the Western media publicly flaunts — and generalizes — the practice of Islamic customs has become a disturbing pattern. The Hijab, Nigab, and Burkini have now become synonymous with Muslims, a perception that not just narrows the much more diverse reality of Muslims in Western countries, but reinforces a dangerous perception that all Muslims are a homogenous community; that they are all conservative; that all of them are Hijabi, Niqabi, or pro-Burkini. Such media misrepresentation is a dangerous farce that will only encourage Islamophobia, not defeat it, in non-Muslim societies.
The toxic debate about the Burkini ban on some French beaches was painful to watch — a zero-sum narrative on an empty stage that served only to deepen the divide between supporters and opponents of the ban.
Meanwhile, as the simmering outrage over France’s Burkini ban continues, history has been made in Denmark, where two female imams, including a non-Hijabi Danish woman, Sherin Khankan, led Friday prayers for the first time recently. This news from Denmark, however, has not attracted much attention, compared to the global fury unleashed by France’s Burkini ban, which the country’s highest administrative court subsequently suspended.
In America, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim woman from New Jersey, won a bronze Olympic medal in fencing. Ibtihaj was not the only Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal. Another black Muslim American woman, Dalilah Muhammad, won the gold medal in the women’s 400 m hurdles, albeit with a rather muted celebration of her achievement.
Ibitihaj’s achievement was celebrated roundly, and hailed by politicians and commentators globally, not only for the sporting honors she gained for her country, but also because she became the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing an Islamic headscarf (Hijab). Dalilah Muhammad’s gold medal was another superb achievement from a black Muslim woman. However, the media — and some members of the public at large — did not consider her achievement, as newsworthy as that of her Olympic colleague because she is a non-Hijabi woman.
Another sportswoman, Egyptian Doaa Elghobashi, made more headlines than Egypt’s synchronized swimming team by wearing a Hijab during the Olympic beach volleyball contest, while most of the other girls on the team are also Muslims.
One cannot help notice how Muslims have become the frontline for public scrutiny in a subtle, albeit intense fight in an increasingly divided Western world. A closer look at the political landscape in Europe and America makes it easy to spot two major opposite camps: the red and the blue camps. While the red one is raising the alarm about radical Islam and the lack of integration within some in Muslim communities, the blue camp plays the cool progressive by courting conservative Islamist Muslims and portraying them as mainstream Islam. Within this battle, there are other skirmishes: there’s the one mentioned above to ban Burkinis on some French beaches and another to ban the Niqab in a part of Switzerland. And while Olympic bronze medals in general are now a thing of the past, people are still talking about the Hijabi bronze.
Muslims’ attitudes towards divisive trends have also been disturbing. In fact, Muslims are divided between those who immediately adopt a reflexive defensive attitude in justifying practices such as wearing the Niqab, even if they do not agree with it on a personal level. On the other hand, other Muslims quietly agree with the bans on the Niqab and Burkini, but refrain from saying it loudly for fear of looking as if they are betraying their community.
As a result, slowly, but surely, Islam has been essentialized into a religion that is at best benignly conservative, and at worse, rigidly radical. Both the red and blue camp are using the Hijab, Niqab, and Burkini as weapons in their battles, enforcing consciously or sub-consciously the narrative of political Islam, which wrongly portrays itself as the most authentic model of Islam. Yes, the ban on the Burkini has been suspended, but it has left behind an unhealed and divided landscape.
That is neither healthy for the Western world nor for the Muslim communities in the West. In fact, it is profoundly disturbing.
It is indeed great to see Hijabi Muslim women celebrated for their achievements, and Burkini-wearing Muslims defended against an unjust ban, but we should also accept the right of others, including many Muslims, to voice disdain about the Niqab or Burkini. Freedom of expression goes both ways. Expecting that conservative Islam will be loved and embraced by all native Europeans is simply naïve; forcing respect for regressive Islamic patterns on traditional Western communities can be perceived as provocative.
Moreover, while defending freedom, it is crucial not to be an advocate of illiberal multiculturalism, in which Islamist Muslims can demand respect and understanding for their conservative, often illiberal attitudes, while non-Muslims’ illiberalism is damned as sick and unacceptable. It is infantilizing and reductive to portray Muslims as a collective bunch of victims who need more protection and less scrutiny. The notion that Islam is exceptional, and not necessarily liberal, has gained a sympathetic ear from the same people who were outraged at France for its illiberal ban on the Burkini. This hypocritical notion is not just untrue, it will ignite more resentment and anger among many non-Muslims.
The Western world needs a centrist approach to its Muslim communities that acknowledges and highlights their diversity, maintains the rights of conservative Muslims, and addresses the fears (even irrational ones) of local communities. The best way to fight Islamophobia is to show sympathy for local anxieties, celebrate and support Islamic diversity, and encourage liberal Muslims’ voices. Reductive emotional outrage, however, will never be part of the solution.