The call to prayer came at five o’clock in the morning. The minaret, from which the chanted reminder that good Muslims start their day with a prayer echoes just across the street from our hotel room. Four more times during the day Muslim faithful and multi-faith tourists will hear a similar call to prayer – and even lapsed Christians will be moved.
It was in 2002 in Istanbul, the great crossroads city lying between Europe and Asia since shortly after time began – and one of the few able to live up to its postcard and publicity image. Almost every street corner in the Sultanahmet – the old city – carries a piece of ancient history. Mosques great and small dominate the landscape, some with multiple minarets others, like the one across the street, a single tower reaching for heaven.
Each morning the city seems to lie in light mist drifting from the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. It is on such a morning that with my son Andrew I set forth on a tour of exploration with the towering minarets and dome of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s largest, our target.
At the entrance to this magnificent place of worship we are requested to remove our shoes in respect for Muslim traditional beliefs. And we do, without hesitation. We are visitors and we willingly observe the standards of good behavior our courteous hosts ask us to observe – as a mark of respect. The Muslims of Istanbul did not dictate our form of dress, tell us what we could or could not wear, or make any unreasonable demands. They just asked us to observe what was to them an important, traditional, facet of their faith. We did not find it a difficult decision to make.
And it seems to me that a similar decision, to ask a woman to refrain from wearing a niqab out of respect for ceremonial traditions of the Canadian family she wished to join, is a reasonable request and easily adhered to without her breaking faith with religious or gender-equality principles.
I don’t expect to win too many converts to my point of view because the niqab debate has been going on for years and is still creating calls for national debates on the other side of the Atlantic. In England recently a lone female Muslim told a crown court judge she intended to wear the niqab while testifying at a trial in which she was charged with intimidating a witness. The judge ruled the full-face veil would not be worn while she was testifying – but could be worn in the courtroom before or after she testified. On the witness stand justice demanded she remained unveiled.
Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy has this suggestion for future debate in the UK: “What does need to happen,” she says, “is an internal debate within Muslim communities, questioning people who push the rhetoric that the veil is obligatory in Islam – or even those who say it’s recommended.” These conversations are necessary, she says, but when talk turns at a national level (as it has in the UK), to a call for a state ban on full-face veils – a measure passed into French law in 2010 – “it’s completely counter-productive.”
Our political leaders – all five of them – Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair, Elizabeth May and Gilles Duceppe – would do well to take note and get the Canadian debate on the niqab off the election agenda, where it has no place, and into the hands of the Muslim community.
And before you snort in derision at asking Canadians of Muslim faith for unbiased guidance on such a touchy subject consider this: the vast majority of Muslim women in Canada – in all the western democracies for that matter – do not wear the niqab. It would, as Tehmina Kazi says, be interesting to hear what Muslims who “push the rhetoric that the veil is obligatory” say to justify their implacable position, and how most Muslim women (and their men-folk) insist it is only a “recommended” form of attire – and a recommendation they choose not to follow.