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. Randy

    Sigh. And so we see yet more countries prove themselves unable to distinguish between secularizing government and forcing secularism down the throats of the people by crushing religious expression. Increasingly nations see all freedom as dichotomous to regulation: every behavior is either required/banned by the state or made a civil right. Increasingly lost, and indeed not even comprehended, is the concept of a "no man's land" between government regulation and civil rights. There is supposed to be a vast area in which no one can force you to do something or prevent you from doing something. This is liberty as its fathers and mothers conceived it, and it is rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth.

    Prohibiting religious expression in public (as opposed to religious expression *by* the public through government) is oppression. Lecture me all you want about the evils of Christianity or Islam, or of religion in general. Sermonize all you like about how, in the secular society of your choosing, the religious will perfectly free to express themselves as long as they no one ever sees it. Pontificate to your heart's content on the unique danger posed to society by the wearing of a veil, and how the danger of such expression makes its suppression right, just and patriotic. The bottom line is this: governments are micromanaging society to the degree IS TELLING PEOPLE WHAT CLOTHES THEY CAN WEAR.

    A government is telling people what clothes they can wear. Give that a good long ponder.

    Such regulation cannot be jibed with sincere belief in liberty. Period. A government -and I don't care what country it governs, what legacy of political philosophy it celebrates, or what imprimatur of Reason it claims, a government that tells you what you can and cannot wear something on or over your head is an oppressor. It is an enemy of liberty. It is a foe of free action and expression.


    July 20, 2010 at 9:38 am |
    • independentlyowned

      Putting the religious aspect of the biqab and burqa aside, it's plain dangerous to not have all citizens show their faces in public. If a woman wants to drive, she needs to have a picture with her face showing so that she can be properly identified. We don't know who's under those veils, and it could very well be someone with ill intentions who's trying to sneak by unnoticed. Why is the government spending so much money on technology for invisibility cloaks for soldiers when all they need to do is wear a burqa?

      July 20, 2010 at 9:49 am |
    • Randy

      Yeah, you're right. Who cares about sissy things like freedom? Covering the face is DANGEROUS and must be stopped. It's only by the most improbable good fortune that, in all the years of women wearing these things, the Earth didn't just spontaneously combust! This ban may have come only just in time – one more day of people freely expressing themselves and it might have been Armageddon.

      What a relief!

      July 20, 2010 at 9:56 am |
    • independentlyowned

      Well seeing as women have been wearing burqa and niqab in countries where women have no rights or freedoms whatsoever, it's not as if they'd be capable of doing any harm if they wanted to. But in countries where women do have rights, different story. And yes, soldiers on both have worn burqa to pass through hostile towns unsuspectingly during the war. Obviously freedom is a major issue here, but I thought there were enough comments on that.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:00 am |
    • LouAz

      And Governments also tell you that you cannot fiddle little boys and girls, cannot beat your wife or children, cannot threaten people with bodily harm, cannot murder some person because "he insulted you", cannot park in certain No Parking Zones, cannot pass another car going up a hill on a two lane road, cannot dump your bodily waste in the public street, river, or land, and tries to get you to wash your hands after using the potty. Are these "cannots" some infringement on your being, or psche, or spiritual essence ? No, they are reasonable common sense rules for lots of different people living in close proximity to each other. These type of rules are common to "civilization". Many of us have choosen to live by these rules because they allow a great freedom from marauders, murders, thiefs, rapist, pedopriests, and self centered monobeings like yourself that think you get to do anything you want because YOU are special. Just as government has told you you cannot walk around NAKED in public, it is soon to tell you you cannot force you spouse and/or female children to wear some covering over their face so you can feel good about your subjugation and control over them. Get it ? You control yourself, within civilizations boundaries, but you will not bully females in the name of your god or gods. "We" as a society are just not going to put up with this slavery of the mind and body that you think your god gives you.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:02 am |
    • Randy

      "Well seeing as women have been wearing burqa and niqab in countries where women have no rights or freedoms whatsoever..."

      Um...really? "No rights whatsoever"? Where do you get that from? Even if you know nothing of Syrian society -for which no one can really blame you- you at least must have read the article. These headdresses are being banned from public universities, which the women are attending. If your implication is that Syrian women attending universities do so because they are forced to do so rather than because they have a legal right to do so, that implication is quite misguided.

      Although you now have created the impression that you have absolutely no clue what you are talking about, I am sure you can rectify the situation by continuing to speak from complete ignorance. Eventually you'll say something that makes a grain of sense, and your reputation for sagacity will be restored.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:07 am |
    • Nelson

      I like your point of view about liberty. It does seem quite out of line that a government should tell someone what not to wear.

      Still, I believe that the viels worn by these women are not there simply as a fashion statement, but rather to subjugate them and reinforce the idea that women are the source of immorallity. Women should show their faces and hold their head up high while doing it. There is no benefit to covering women up or supporting the ideas that force women to do so.

      You're right though, this shouldn't be legislated. It should never have been an issue in the first place. Ultimately, the decision should be made by the women to discontinue the use of the viel.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:12 am |
    • lance corporal

      wow, the fox news turn around, transparent as ever

      July 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  2. spacee

    Well ya know, the number one cause of divorce is marriage...

    July 20, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  3. a miller

    it's hijab, not jihab.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  4. iknow01

    everyone of us will have a muslim member in their family soon. talking arrogance about the largest and fastest growing religion of the world (Islam) is not admirable. Satan is the biggest enemy of man and Islam is the biggest enemy of Satan... Don't let Satan deceive you.
    love to all.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:34 am |
    • Nelson

      Satan does not exist and neither should religion of any name.

      July 20, 2010 at 9:55 am |
    • lance corporal

      dream on propagandist

      July 20, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  5. Tom

    @Nelson the Ahteist: IF your statistic is true it proves of course that there is no God.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  6. Jessica

    Wow, Syria is making strides to be more secular...and the Texas GOP is doing it's best to not be secular, and force christian values on everyone. It's kind of funny when you think about it.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  7. Michael, Chapel HIll

    If anyone is a cast Hindu he/she is sure to support CASTE SYSTEM. Caste System, in a way, is worse than slavery. There is no real upward mobility for a lower caste individual even if they have wealth or education. But a slave could go up in the society because it is not based on birth alone. Inspite of the financial help given by the Govt, most of the lower castes stay the same. Maoism is spreading in the midwest India is the result of exploitation of the lower casts. The assertions against Christianity is also flawed. The lower caste people got educated only because of the British Missionaries who started the first printing press, school etc. Education was denied to the lower Caste by the upper Caste. Even now it continues in rural India. In very society, the rich, the goodlooking, the aggressive make way for themselves. Only the means are different. I India it is Caste System; here it was slavery. 'Holier than thou,' attitude caters to someones own pride though it may be far from reality.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  8. Nelson

    Perhaps you'd like to know that Atheist have a much lower divorce rate than those of the religious mindset.

    I guess information like that isn't something that a man such as youself would like to openly acknowlege.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  9. independentlyowned

    I like that the niqab has only been banned in schools, because it is a way of saying that it has no place in the academic forum, because educated people should know the oppressive qualities inherent in it.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:14 am |
    • t

      I don't like the niqab either however my only concern is you may have girls who wear it on thier own due to thier own beliefs now not being able to get an education.......

      July 20, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  10. lance corporal

    women ARE our equals and they should be our partners and friends, I have heard many muslims attempt to justify the burqa etc and never once heard anything that made sense, christianity also places a woman below a man as does judaism and many other religion, personally I think god is too large a concept for us to DEFINE and our feeble attempts get in the way of understanding and I am certain that ANY religion that holds down ANY human group is completely bogus. and I have heard all the rationalizations as to why your not actually keeping women down but uplifting them with your weird rules so please just keep them to yourself, if you make rules you don't know god

    July 20, 2010 at 9:06 am |
  11. RDKirk

    Keeping a woman's face concealed goes hand-in-hand with keeping her out of public society and closeted away in the home with no public identity. In any society, when women are allowed public lives–to work, to study, to teach in the open–the need to see her face and establish her public identity becomes clear.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  12. Michael R.

    I have a very deep faith however it seems that organized religion is really destroying this planet. I myself do not go to church because there are none in my area which I feel really teach what I believe in. In fact, maybe that's part of my faith. It was not even 400 years ago that people were being burned at the stake just for being a certain 'type' of Christian. I think the central theme of most organized religions is control and fear. Kind of like governments.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:58 am |
    • JennyTX

      Well said, thank you.

      July 20, 2010 at 9:01 am |
    • lance corporal

      check out a UU church if you ever want that sort of church community, spot on comment, these definitions of god get in the way of understanding god

      July 20, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • Nelson

      The idea that there is a god gets in the way of undrstanding the real world.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  13. Joe

    Religion should be kept in the home and not shoved down everybody's throat! The worlds problems are caused by.....RELIGION!

    July 20, 2010 at 8:56 am |
  14. JennyTX

    The world would be a more peaceful place if religion were truly personal and truly optional–not imposed on anyone by anyone.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  15. Dave

    Oh I thought maybe they did it because they found women hiding crib notes in their veils.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  16. Val

    Why does this guy Stephen Prothero keep writing a sympathetic view of Islam. Islam most of all religions currently a number of extremists that they do not condemn. Twice now I have read a story by Stephen Prothero putting Islam in a good light. Stephen Prothero are you some kind of idealist, naive person?

    July 20, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  17. farout NL

    ^ ROFL. i never quite looked at it like that, but that's a pretty awesome theory.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  18. Danram

    I certainly don't say this very often at all, but ... "Good for Syria!"

    July 20, 2010 at 8:30 am |
  19. neozyklon

    What is Jihab ? Jihad + Hijab = Jihab ? lol. THis article is riddled with errors. But we get the point and the point is very clear..Syria is trying its best to fend away extremism in their society, for which they should be send kudos. Isn't this the country that was on the axis of evil of G W Bush ? 'If I don't like you, you are evil' – GW ..

    July 20, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  20. Jaba

    Yet another reason why taking out Saddam was stupid. The Baathists are secular. I take a secular dictatorship over a democratic theocracy any day of the week.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:17 am |
    • Danram

      Please. Saddam was one of the worst tyrants in modern history. He was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, he kept his people crushed under an iron boot of fear and intimidation, and even if he didn't have any active WMD programs ongoing in 2003, it would have been only a matter of time before he started them up again. Once he had died, his two sadistic sons would have continued to rule for decades. Now, at least the Iraqis have a chance to build a better future for themselves. The world is a better place with Saddam dead & gone.

      July 20, 2010 at 8:33 am |
    • lance corporal

      saddam was a garden variety dictator, no better or worse than the many many MANY that have and do exist in the last century to now, jaba is right, you people still clinging to defending bush are just nuts, EVERYONE who can put together 3 or more braincells know the invasion was wrong and done for all the wrong reasons, I served USMC, my family fought in the revolutionary war and every one since then and I can say with out dishonoring my or their service to this country that the Iraq war was the most blatant abuse of power and abuse of our troops ever carried out, take the blinders off fool!!

      July 20, 2010 at 9:49 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.