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July 19th, 2010
11:01 PM ET

Secular Syria's veil ban

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

On Sunday, Syria’s minister of higher education, Ghiath Barakat, issued a ruling outlawing the niqab — a full veil that like the burqa shows only a woman’s eyes — for both teachers and students at Syrian universities, according to news reports.

Why? Syria’s population is, according to Boston University's World Religion Database, 93 percent Muslim. What does its government have against public displays of Islam? A lot more than you might think.

In a revealing March interview with Charlie Rose, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that the greatest challenge facing his country was warding off religious “extremism” — “How can we keep our society as secular as it is today?”

In France, secularism typically means sweeping the public square clean of the detritus of religion. In Syria, it means something very different — giving a public platform to a variety of moderate religious and warding off religious "extremism" in the process. But this decision to create niqab-free universities brings Syria a tiny step closer to France, whose lower parliament last week approved a ban on veils that cover the face.

Secularism has come under fire in Syria from many sides in recent years, but most notably from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. This decree is a shot back — a reassertion of Syria as a secular state.

Whether the decree will hold up or whether it will be undercut — as Turkey’s 1980s ban on the hijab in universities was in 2008 — remains to be seen. For now, it's an important reminder that the Middle East is not cut from one cloth, and neither are its Muslims.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Islam • Middle East • Politics

soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. amit narain sinha

    I am not for caste system. There is a concept here in India that is "dharam chakra parivartan" or the beliefs of people change with every generation or with time. When I say that we do not need to apologise what i mean is that we will sort out the problem ourselves in due course of time and a new meaning of truth is already being sought by free thinking hindus. The hindu languages already have no gender bias and I support the ideal of meritocracy. What needs to be understood very clearly is that the systems of other civilizations may or may not be the perfect solutions for our needs here and we need to take a dispassionate look at our own problems and find our own path to salvation. The hindu way of life is only now emerging from 1000 years of islamic and then pseudo christian or british administration. And I think that the free thinking hindu who believes in eclectic religious beliefs will be resilient enough to find a way to do away with the caste system in due course while understanding that it was one of the lousy things foisted on our way of life to protect it from the evils of Islamic and Christian oppression of the last 1000 years. Hindus do not believe in incest and we would like to know that if god created adam and eve then who did their children marry?

    August 21, 2010 at 11:29 am |
  2. Reality

    More on Islamic Brotherhoods:

    The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hyprocricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam – Ali

    July 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  3. Mike

    NO! NO! NO! Absolutely NOT! What an idiotic idea and an insult to all Americans. When will the people in America realize that Islam is NOT a religion, but a political movement to rule the world. Wake up America!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  4. Michael, Chapel HIll

    Caste system does not allow lower caste people marry high caste. In poor villages, it does not permit lower caste people to wear decent dress, go to school, build house or to do anything that the high caste hindu does.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • sr

      Whatever you said only happens in villages where the change has yet to happen. In non-rural areas, nobody can even recognize or tell apart a person based on his caste. A lower caste person might be driving a bmw and nobody would even know he is lower caste. An upper caste person might be his servant and nobody would know that either.I wish people would realize one thing. After being beaten, invaded and stolen for centuries (robbed of intellectual, philosophical and material wealth) India was left beaten, battered and angry. It has to do with poverty at this point. If everybody had enough, then there would be no animosity towards a certain set of people and the level of greediness would be low. Change is happening but it is not happening at the rate you want. It is like asking you to run 100 miles in an hour and chastizing you for only being able to run 10 miles. If there are no laws in place to stop the atrocities, then you should complain. I have seen more marriages between people belonging to higher and lower castes than I saw of caucasians marrying blacks (in my 30 years of life). Why are Americans so obsessed with finding faults with other people. America has segregation up until the 60s.... shockingly many many years after they got Independence.

      I really hope that caste system will be a thing of the past in India and I believe it will happen one day. I hope it will happen before the missionaries take over.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  5. Nana

    LISTEN TO ME O MY FELLOW MOSLEMS and POLICITIANS - The idea of building a mosque on ground zero will create another calamity, a BIG ONE!!!!!! We can build a big mosque anywhere but not on ground zero. PLEASE DO NOT PROCEED WITH THIS STUPID PLAN, PLEASE.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  6. Goreczky

    the caste system only limits to who you can marry right?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  7. LouAz

    Lower yourself ? You, like most catholics, believe that you are better, holier, superior in every way to all of mankind. ALL !
    I don't think so ! Get off your high horse.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:13 am |
  8. notfrench

    Funny how in France and Quebec/Canada, this whole burka/niquab banning is a human rights issue.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  9. Sue

    Why are people writing about India and the caste system? This article has nothing to do with any of that. Comments should be related to the article. This is not just a forum for you to vent about anything you want.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  10. Nelson

    Actually Tom, unfortunately, there is no proof either way for the existence of god. I choose to interpret the overwhelming lack of evidence as a pretty good indicator of his/her absence. That, in the light of the many, many scientific breakthroughs which disprove the biblical story of creation and the timeline of ancestry from Adam to today, leads me to the logical dicesion that it is most probable that there is no god.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  11. Jamal

    Well done Syria! This so called terrorist state is on the right path.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  12. Art H

    Just like Syria, another neighboring FORMERLY strictly secular state of Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) has now been pushed into an Islamic orientation by the stupid invasion of Iraq by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other cronies.

    Under Saddam, the country never was allowed to show overt Islamic leanings, with a huge prioritization of modern education and policies. Sure it was a dictatorship but that is par for the course in that part of the world. Hopefully we can get out of that country without much more loss of blood and treasure and focus more of our attention on the hot-bed of terrorism, which is the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:53 am |
    • Colin in Florida

      Art H, I think you have forgotten the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.

      And surely you cannot argue the world the world was a better place with Saddam Hussein alive. That would be like saying at least the trains ran on time in Italy, so Mussolini was obviously a good thing.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:28 am |
  13. lance corporal

    in practice islam may be the worst of all religions and that is really saying something as religions are in general abusive organizations harming humanity, well except the flying spaghetti monster of course......

    July 20, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • Eric G

      I can provide as much evidence proving the existence of the flying spaghetti monster as I can for a god. On a side note, I can provide more evidence proving the existence of the tooth fairy than both of the previously mentioned dieties combined.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:06 am |
    • lance corporal

      the tooth fairy left me money when i was a kid, the guy in the flowing beard has his minions begging for money on the tv and street corners always trying to get in my wallet, the tooth fairy has never once criticized my s e x life, hmmmmm

      July 20, 2010 at 10:52 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.