Reformers Challenge Radical Islam

The recent burkini battle gathered publicity and solidarity, while testing secularism in France.

In Canada, protests by Muslim parents against music education are testing Toronto's accommodation with conflicting cultural and religious values. Such confrontations give extremists opportunities to lower the bar on demands for Islamisation. In this context, Muslim reformers provide some antidotes.

Although the burkini debate appears to be a flippant issue, Islamic dress is a core symbol and proud banner of the Islamist extremist movement. Isam Al-Aryan, a past leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, predicted that women's Islamic dress would be a "sign of resistance to Western civilisation" and herald the Islamic revival.

In Iran, "mal-veiling" is a crime that can lead to arrest, a fine, or confiscated car. A female Iranian MP said women's black chador was more serious for Iran than the nuclear program. It was recently reported that Iranian police closed down 800 shops and another 3000 were given warnings for selling "unconventional" women's cloaks, some with English nonsense phrases printed on the back.

In the West, a court case in the UK illustrated a significant attempt to lower the bar for strict observance of Islamic dress. Spurred on by her allegedly Islamist brother, 14-year-old Shabina Begum sued her Muslim majority school when they refused to permit her to wear the jilbab, a full length Islamic dress, instead of the school's Pakistani style shalwar kameez. At the same time, she refused to attend a nearby school where the jilbab was allowed. Having lost her case in the High Court, she won in the Court of Appeal under the UKs Human Rights Act. During a bitter, drawn out case, her school appealed and she finally lost in a verdict by the Law Lords in 2006.

Western societies are generally tolerant of Islamic dress, although a convincing case has been made for banning the niqab face covering in public areas for security reasons. Even Islamic State has banned the burka from security centres after a fully covered woman in Mosul killed five of their fighters.

In his Cairo speech of 2009, US President Obama supported Islamic dress, and recommended prosecution for those who would prevent women from wearing the hijab. At the same time, he overlooked punishment for anyone who attacked or intimidated those who refused to wear it.

Extremist demands in a different cultural sphere have emerged as another testing ground.

In Toronto, some Muslim parents are demanding their children receive exemption from mandatory music classes on the questionable grounds their religion forbids listening to music or playing an instrument. Parents rejected compromises, such as clapping out the notes of the national anthem instead of singing. Even the children's presence in a room where musical instruments were being played was considered anti-religious and sinful.

More than 130 parents signed a "Petition for Accommodation of Religious Beliefs of Muslim Students." However, the document implied a false consensus and was unrepresentative of the many Muslim parents who accepted compulsory music classes.

In addition to lowering the bar to demands, such testing grounds assist the extremist agenda by gaining publicity, promoting recruitment, and diverting debate from the overarching issues of politicized Islam or Islamism, and its militant manifestation.

The 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks was a reminder of the publicity it handed extremists, but minor conflicts over the burkini and music also provide opportunities for coverage.

Muslim reformers are in a position to counter extremist ideas within the Islamic community. They include Raheel Raza, who believes the burkini debate distracts attention from more important issues, such as honour killings, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Raza's organisation, The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, is committed to opposing extremism, and advancing enlightenment and diversity. Swiss-Yemeni Elham Manea, human rights defender and academic, has warned Muslim women to recognize extremist forces, both Sunni and Shia that promote strict Islamic dress code.

Professor Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former Dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, declared that the arts, particularly music, promote love, tolerance and compassion, which may safeguard young people from extremist ideology. He has also called for a more progressive interpretation of religious texts that would retain Islam's rich history but forgo the "heritage of fanaticism." These reformers' voices deserve to be amplified.

A version of this article was originally featured in The Australian.