Islamic tradition and raised the difficult question of how to reconcile the two, if indeed reconciliation would be possible at all.
The hijab is often seen as a symbol of the oppression of women within Islam, and there have been countless news stories over the years which seem to justify that perception, for example the 15-year old Egyptian girl who rejected the pressures from her family to wear the hijab and shot herself.
In Sudan, 35-year old Amira Osman Hamed may face a whipping if convicted for refusing to wear the hijab, reflecting a policy which rings of the Taliban’s punitive stance on religious principles. The media, with its characteristically sensationalist manner, amplifies these stories to a point where many believe that this is indicative of all Muslims – a world where Islam and extremism are one and the same thing.
A tweet I received some time ago summed up how easily misconceptions about the Muslim world can arise when a person’s knowledge comes from the mainstream media: “Please tell me what middle eastern country allows women the vote, allows them to walk without the burka, or doesn’t stone them?”
Arab women are able to vote in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Mauritania, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere. A minority of Middle Eastern countries currently use stoning, and while obviously barbaric it is also very rarely employed.
Overall rates of execution in the Middle East are considerably lower than America, where the death penalty is still endorsed by much of the population despite numerous cases of the execution of people wrongly convicted.
As for the idea that women are forced to wear the burka in public across the region, in some Middle Eastern nations it is actually prohibited, a sign of a growing secularism which views the garment as a symbol of fundamentalist Islam largely rejected by the population.
Nevertheless, the simplistic view of Islam as a religion of oppression and extremism inevitably becomes embedded in the psyche of many people in the West who, with little or no first hand experience of Muslims and their traditions and fed on a diet of “Islamofascist” terrorism propaganda, develop a misguided hatred of the Islamic world and bigotry towards Muslims.
Fear of the unknown leads to irrational hostility and intolerance, and concepts such as multiculturalism become a tinderbox from which endless protracted debates on cultural integration versus cultural assimilation flare up and invariably spiral out of control.
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