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Separate but equal?

Interview | Islam expert Patrick Sookhdeo on efforts to radicalize Muslims in the West

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

Patrick Sookhdeo grew up in a Muslim family in Guyana (South America) but converted to Christianity in the United Kingdom. He directs the Barnabas Fund, which helps persecuted Christians around the world, and advises NATO and the British military on Islamic terrorism.

WORLD: A controversy has been brewing in Minneapolis-St. Paul over an attempt to get the government to enforce a Muslim American Society fatwa against taxi drivers transporting passengers who carry alcohol. Are there other such cases of the MAS or similar groups trying to impose Islamic rulings in the United States?

SOOKHDEO: Such incidents occur repeatedly in the UK, where one accommodation of Islamic law has followed another. That is not yet the case in the United States for the most part because the Muslim population is small, diverse, and rather spread out. But as the Muslim population grows, several elements are working for its radicalization. Within the United States, groups like the Muslim American Society (MAS), The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and others are working to advance Islam and to establish their own positions as religious authorities.

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They are testing the limits of the larger non-Muslim community and its laws to see how much accommodation it will allow to Islamic law. There are examples of this across the United States, from the Girl Scouts to local school districts, community centers and public swimming pools, and governmental rules. And as we've learned in the UK and across parts of Europe, if autonomy is gained in one sphere, its hold is consolidated. Later, it will be extended and further concessions will be demanded.

WORLD: So a minor matter like a Minneapolis taxi driver requirement can be the beginning of a slippery slope toward a separate system of Shariah law?

SOOKHDEO: I think it can be considered as the beginning of a slippery slope. In the UK early demands were for the provision of halal food in schools and prisons, chaplains for hospitals, prisons, and the military, permission for female police officers to wear the hijab. Recently a demand was raised for the state recognizing Shariah family law. So obviously the stakes are raised ever higher.

WORLD: Is a Muslim woman not being allowed to wear a veil the same thing as a Christian not being allowed to wear a cross, or a Sikh a turban?

SOOKHDEO: In general, the veil is different to the other two symbols. While all can be seen as an identity marker, the veil is a much more radical statement of isolation and separation, as it hides the identity (face) of its wearer. It is important to note how far the debate has moved, and how the symbols of veiling have changed. For example, a recent article from the Arabic press implied that wearing the hijab was the minimum requirement for modesty, and the niqab (a veil covering the entirety of a woman's face except for her eyes) was normal. Not too long ago the hijab was little seen in most of the Muslim community, and it made for a dramatic symbol.

It is worth noting that the principle of religious freedom being advocated for by Muslims in Western societies who demand the right for women to wear the niqab or other veil is very often not extended to women within Muslim communities who do not prefer to be veiled. These women are often shunned and ridiculed within their own communities.

WORLD: Should Muslim women be able to have ID photos for driver's licenses with their faces covered?

SOOKHDEO: Photo IDs for driver's licenses, identification cards, and passports are meant, of course, to identify the individual. Without a representation of someone's face it is largely useless. Further, it would undoubtedly require something more intrusive in its place: a retinal scan, fingerprint, or even an implanted chip. By every measure of privacy and desire to keep governmental obtrusiveness to a minimum, such options are worse.

WORLD: What should integration for Muslim immigrant communities in the West look like?

SOOKHDEO: There would be equal rights and duties for Muslim individuals as citizens, but no special privileges for the Muslim community as compared with other religious communities.

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