Contrasting Attitudes to Islam

In a presentation to a federal parliamentary inquiry this week, the Islamic Council of Victoria has argued that the freedom to wear the Muslim veil is a true test of a society’s tolerance. The Herald-Sun reported yesterday on the ICV’s submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia. The daily quoted Islamic Council youth worker Mohammed El-Leissy as saying that most Australian Muslims aren’t anti-Christmas, nor are they supporters of the introduction of sharia law in Australia.

The report also featured a fascinating guide to variations of the veil. It has many names - including abaya, niqab, burqa, chador and dupatta - and is widely worn across the world, but nothing encapsulates the tension between traditional religious and cultural practices and modern Western social values quite like the Islamic veil.

Coincidentally, an Al-Jazeera report this morning on the continuing debate in France on the Muslim veil serves to illustrate the Islamic Council’s contention. France’s dominant party, the right-wing UMP of which President Nicolas Sarkozy is the leading figure, has just hosted a conference on how Islam is to be practised in a secular society. The conference - controversial even within the party’s inner sanctum - featured several Christian clerics and a rabbi, but no Muslim respresentatives. Debate centred on street prayer (in the absence of mosques, many Muslims pray in public) and full-face veils. Proposals were considered that would extend a ban that comes into effect in France on April 11 on veils that hide the face in public.

The UMP is feeling the pressure of a resurgent National Front, the extreme-right party presided over by founder Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine. Between five and ten per cent of French people are Muslim. France’s republican constitution emphasises the strict separation of church and state. Yet paradoxically many French public holidays - like Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost or Whit Monday, the Assumption, All Saints' Day and of course Christmas - are of Christian origin.

Submissions to the federal inquiry close on April 8.

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