THE SPINE JULY 20, 2010
One of President Obama's weirdest causes is his defense of the hijab or the niqab. Not that I want to take the veil away from any Muslim women... anywhere. Still, he is president of the United States and might just want to limit his special pleadings to truly significant ones. Anyway, he didn't. He tried out the trope in Cairo last year and followed it up during the Ramadan fest at the White House.
These turned out to be not very successful interventions.
As we learn from this morning's newspaper, even Syria has turned its back (or Bashaar Assad, his) on Obama's pleadings. So here you have a dictatorial regime deep in alliance with Shi'a fanatics of Hezbollah in Lebanon and, more significant, under the thumb of the Muslim fundamentalists in Tehran forbidding the wearing of the veil by women at universities in Syria. The ferocity of Assad's tyranny might lead you not to grasp the intricate antagonisms of the religious and the "secular" in Muslim societies.
Assad is a Ba'athite (like Saddam Hussein was) and seeks to direct his country towards modernity, at least in an engineering sort of way. He is also a member of the small minority of Alawites, a schismatic Islamic sect, on the outs with everyone. So the dictator fears any popular mobilization of people. And the most popular are the Sunnis to whom religious extremism has always been popular. The veil is now popular than ever. Hence the interdict. Believe me, it will not be defied.
This is another instance of Assad saying to Obama: "Go fly a kite."
Europe didn't listen to Obama either. In fact, there is an epidemic of bannings that are basically ugly.
France was the first to prohibit the wearing of the niqab, a full-face veil that is not popular at all, even in the quartiers where you might think they would be.
The chador and other head scarf styles are now in peril in Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Spain.
As I wrote before, I'm now in Spain, in a town with a modest but recognizable proportion of Muslims. At night, the central square is apparently deluged with these immigrants. Sharing the public space, so to speak, by time. I do not know the inner life of any of these men or women. A neighbor tells me that the women who wear veils--here, most of them do--are isolated and self-isolated. There are isolated and self-isolated people in homogeneous communities everywhere.