Beards and hijabs - yet again

 Monday, November 22, 2010

Dr Muzaffar Iqbal

On November 9, 2010, a women in Islamic dress entered the Valero Fas Mart in Fredericksburg, Va, USA. She wanted to buy something. When she approached the cashier to pay, she was asked to remove her hijab if she wanted to be served. The cashier said the reason for that demand was that the store security cameras would not be able get a clear image of her face. Her face was already visible. She said so, but the cashier insisted that she must uncover her hair so that the camera can see the hairline. She pulled her scarf back slightly to expose her hairline. In spite of this attempt to avoid confrontation with the cashier, the Muslim customer was told to leave the store without being served.
She went home and reported the case to the CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. The CAIR sent a letter to Valero Fas Mart; its Legal Counsel Nadhira Al-Khalili asked the company to investigate the incident, reprimand the cashier, provide the Muslim customer with a written apology, and institute sensitivity and diversity-training for staff there. The CAIR also urged American Muslims and other people of conscience to contact Valero Fas Mart and urge the company to address the Muslim customer’s concerns.
Within twenty-four hours, there were numerous emails, letters and faxes that reached the company. It responded to this outburst: the employee was suspended, an apology was offered to the Muslim woman who was refused to be served, and Valero Fas Mart asked the CAIR to help the company in training its staff.
This was one, out of numerous cases of human rights violation filed by the CAIR since that defining day called 9/11. Not all cases have been as successful as this was. The CAIR can also do very little or nothing about the general Islamophobia that has been successfully enacted throughout the world. All men with beards and all women in hijabs are now deemed at least potential, if not actual, terrorists. One passes through airports, market-malls, stores, and other public places with that verdict written on the invisible air.
The basic question for Muslims is of course obvious: what is to done about this hatred that the Western media has generated against them and their religion. One response has been to take off one’s Islamic identity and live a life of a closet Muslim; another has been to walk past these invisible yet very real walls of distrust with dignity and certitude as one goes through security lines at airports or sits next to a passenger in a plane even though the person on the next seat might be thinking: when will this person blow up the plane.
And sitting next to such a person in a plane who has consciously and unconsciously imbibed all the suspicion and hatred against Islam and Muslims, a Muslim hopes and prays that this short journey will be a worthwhile opportunity for that person to actually meet a real Muslim in blood and flesh and perhaps open his or her heart to the possibility that Muslims are just as humane and decent as anyone else and, perhaps, all that I have heard about them is, after all, mere fiction.
This possibility does not exist for those who have already given up their Islamic identity. Their meltdown may provide a false sense of security while passing through public places and airports, but there is no opportunity for them to be what they really are deep down in the true sense of their religious beliefs: a witness upon people.
“Witness upon people” is the grand title given to Muslims in the Quran by none other than the One Who created them and Who is the turner of hearts and the Opener of doors. It is this distinguishing characteristic of a Muslim that one parts with when one takes refuge in a false sense of security and protection by being other than what one really is.
There are millions of Muslim men and women who have refused to give up their spiritual and religious identity even after the successful scattering of germs of hatred against them by the Western political leadership and its pseudo-intellectuals. These Muslims face hardships of various kinds and various consequences, just as the Muslim woman who walked into the Valero Fas Mart in Fredericksburg, Va on November 9, 2010, but their certitude comes from a source that is far beyond the reach of those who have created this massive Islamophobia.
Then there are those who have given up on being Muslim in public space, who have decided to melt down and shy away from their identity into that anonymous generic person who cannot be discernibly characterised in any fashion and who cannot be affiliated with any religion as he or she walks the roads of the world; these are people without any apparent identity.
Beards and hijabs are not merely signs of one’s Muslim identity; both have deep textual foundations which make them an imperative for all believers. While it is true that one’s faith need not be written on one’s face, it is equally true that one’s outward appearance is a mirror of one’s inner state. Everything is a signifier and everything indicates a deeper level of reality that discerning eyes can see. Thus, one wishes to herald those who carry their Islamic identity with dignity in this season of Islamphobia. There is a self-dignifying quality to the courage displayed by these men and women, especially those who do so in hostile environments. It is not only indicative of the strength of their faith, it also encourages others to be conscious and aware of their religious commitment and identity.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: