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Barack Obama and the Veil: The President vs. The Supreme Council of Al-Azhar, A Pinnacle of Muslim Orthodoxy

I am back again to Barack Obama's speech in Cairo. And here's what I wrote about it in early summer. Among other topics, the president focused for a long moment on the hijab (and, in case you want to buy one, here is a link to Hijab Girl, a salacious hook, if you don't mind me saying so.) 

And here is what Obama said on the topic word for word:

“[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it… I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…”

That's all he said then. My judgment on this is that these women are, indeed, less equal, just as orthodox Jewish women who wear a sheytl (wig) are less equal. And I won't dare to project what the fate of both these social statements--which is what they really are--will be, let's say, in half a century. But I do have a guess.

I would think that people who have thought seriously about veiling (from that chic little coverlet to the physically onerous burqa in places our soldiers are fighting precisely on behalf of actually enslaved women) would resent the president's dismissive remark--"I reject the view of some in the West..."--about this deep civilizational conflict within Islam. What does he really know, after all? Even less than his ignorant speechwriters, who had him assume in his first White House Ramadan greetings that tarawih, the full reading of the Koran during the month-long observance, is practiced by all Muslims. The tradition is, as it happens, not observed by the Shi'a, who are politically very significant to the U.S. since up to 80% of their ranks (out of as many as 200 million) live in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and India. This is as mortifying a mistake as Obama's blunder in Cairo, where he spoke of a particularly humiliating late 18th-century peace agreement between the emperor of Morocco and America--particularly humiliating, that is, to us.

There is something alarmingly narcissistic in his devil-may-care attitude to facts and in his speaking foreign words without a hint of meaning to his worldwide listeners, let alone a straight-forward translation. In one of his three Ramadan pronouncements, he told his public that the Koran begins with the word Ikra. But what does ikra mean? He didn't let on. I knew because koreh is "read" in Hebrew. What was the purpose of this coy intimacy between him and his particular audience?

The hijab, the niqab, the chador, the burqa… These are the best known of the great variety of veils--from those that cover hair and face to those that hide even wrist and ankle--designed, some exquisitely designed, for women in the world of Islam. OK, I confess: There is no exquisitely designed burqa, which is why the captive females of Afghanistan all look very much like water buffaloes.

President Obama's indiscriminate endorsement of these curtaining contraptions is an intrusion into an active debate in the Muslim world, a reckless intrusion. It is a debate of tremendous valence, especially for Muslim women but also for Muslim men. In fact, for the prospects of Islamic civilization generally. David Landes argued in his book that the degrading symbols of exclusion for Muslim women are themselves intrinsic to the social and economic backwardness of Islamic (and especially Arab) societies. Another scholarly volume by Dan Diner, Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still, puts the status of women in the middle of the depressing narrative, although it concentrates on the fear of ideas as expressed in the hostility to the printing press for hundreds of years. (Another instance of the battle against science was the career of the mechanical clock, invented in the early 14th century. The first public clock installed in Islam appeared in the mid-19th century--not in the Arab world, by the way, but in Ottoman Istanbul.) And then, of course, there are the annual volumes of the United Nations Arab Human Development Report, prepared by nationalist Arab social scientists, no less, that point to the mortifying role of women as a major cause, perhaps the major cause, of the retarded intellectual development of that swath of territory from the western Sahara to the deserts beyond Baghdad.

Now, if Obama is a true friend of the Muslims (and of the Arabs, especially), he wouldn't do that empty and finally false cheerleading that results in nothing but the emptiness of the smug.

Of course, there is an intellectual debate among Muslims and Arabs themselves about the veil. I've read five or six books and many articles in what is now a real controversy. The last volume I read is just out, written by a Muslim female sociologist, Marnia Lazreg, a professor at Hunter College. Questioning the Veil, published by Princeton University Press, makes a rigorous intellectual argument. But it also has the verisimilitude of personal experience and emotional struggle. I cannot believe that, if the president had read this book, he would have cheered the wearing of the veil as if it were a simple matter in the psychological growth of young Muslim women. By the way, Questioning the Veil will be reviewed in the coming weeks in TNR by the eminent University of Chicago Law School philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

I don't know what she thinks of Lazreg's meditative study. But in the last few weeks--and almost as a response to the president's insolence in sticking himself in the middle of an intra-Islamic debate--there have been two arguments against the veil coming from authoritative Muslim sources.

The latest of the two, reported by Bloomberg on October 8, was an appeal by the Canadian Muslim Congress to the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ban face-covering veils. The founder of the group, Tarek Fatah, argued that this veil per se oppresses women and also that it compromises security.

The more important development was a decision by Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, Egypt's top Muslim cleric, to ban women from wearing the niqab--a more restrictive garment than the hijab, to be sure. Tantawi is the country's senior cleric and head of the Al-Azhar mosque and the Al-Azhar University where the president made his June 4 address in which he defended the wearing of the veil and implicitly criticized President Nicolas Sarkozy for opposing it in France. The minister of higher education in Cairo has already announced that he, too, would bar the covering from Egypt's other public universities. Tantawi's ballsy initiative cannot be seen as other than a retort to Obama's intrusion into the intra-mural debates within Islam.

And why in the world should Obama be doing any of that?