Syria’s niqab ban is part of a clash within Islam itself

with thanks : Guardian

Far from the heated debates of Europe, Syria has banned the niqab in classrooms, adding another layer to this complex story. Quietly, away from the fanfare that accompanied the French vote on banning the niqab in public, and calls by Philip Hollobone to impose a ban in Britain, the Syrian government has instituted its own, more limited, ban, removing teachers who wear the full face veil from teaching in public schools.

At first glance, such a move might seem puzzling: Syria, with dozens of religious sects and a nominally secular government, has managed for decades to use a light touch, at least when it comes to personal faith.

But the rise of religion among the population has shaken the leadership: with overt displays of faith on the rise and a rare terrorist attack in Damascus two years ago attributed to Islamists, the government appears to be moving against hardline religious ideas.

The niqab ban in public schools is a fairly blunt instrument but, on such a small scale, it may be intended to send a message. Egypt, too, has instigated a similarly limited ban (for university exams), a move opposed by Islamists but upheld by the courts.

But Syria’s struggle with Islamists and visible symbols of Islam is part of a wider clash, a clash within Islam itself. Political Islam is gaining ground across both the Arab world and Muslim-majority countries. What happens in this debate matters profoundly, because the same debate is taking place within Muslim communities in the west.

The debate, crudely put, is over the space between the personal and the political. Secular-minded governments have tried to keep faith out of state institutions; Islamists want their faith to guide those institutions. Personal space has also increasingly been politicised, with a rise in the wearing of the headscarf and the veil in Syria and in most Muslim-majority countries.

For the Syrian government this increased religiosity is a serious challenge to its secular, authoritarian rule. Those who look to faith to guide their lives want it to guide their leaders too. Islamists comprise the main opposition in the region: if there were free and fair elections tomorrow, the Islamists would win.

Yet even as defenders of secular rule find their arguments weakening among the general population, from the other direction even Islamists are being pressured to be more conservative. This pressure comes fromSalafism, an austere, less flexible version of Islam that has rapidly gained ground over the past three decades.

Salafists tend to retreat into enclaves against what they perceive as the corruption of society. They often see organised politics as usurping divine authority. It is important to recognise that while Salafism is still a minority view in the Islamic world, its influence is felt widely. Islamists, wary of criticism from austere Salafists that they are too compromising on political authority, have sometimes reacted by moving to the right, to shore up their position as a viable opposition.

This is a complex, unfolding argument, with deep roots, but it is one we are scarcely attentive to in the west. Yet it matters, because the same currents affect Muslim communities in Europe and North America. What shape Islam in the west takes, how liberal, how participative, how beholden to faith identity Muslim communities become will be affected by this debate. (And not only Muslim communities: a rise in faith identity will be felt across the political spectrum.)

The French niqab ban is part of this argument, but it is far from clear that either ban will influence the debate in a positive direction. Syrian feminists have welcomed the ban, claiming it protects human rights and the secular public space. Much the same has been said about the French ban. Yet it is hard to see how the politicisation of what should be a personal issue can do anything other than give cause for alarm.