The enigma of a black beard in the West

This text could simply begin by nagging upon all the strange looks and comments one with long black beard might receive in the West. In fact, it even does not need to be long. Although this has been partly a lived experience of mine over the past six months that I’ve grown my beard, I decided to do the exact opposite.

In the next few lines, I try to list some of the possible motivations behind growing a beard which might trigger us to pause for a while, next time we encounter a bearded man and buy some time before rushing into any hasty judgment; a moment of wonder. Here I am discussing Black beards since, to my experience, beards of other colors are not subject of such an ambiguity in the West.
Black Beard as:

– A trendy fashion
Growing a beard might be a trendy fashion. Well, let me rephrase that: growing a beard, of any color, might be a trendy fashion; as simple as that.

– An ebullition
Emotional outbursts might come in different forms. Growing a beard might be sign of an emotional outburst; an ebullition. In a societal context, minorities of different sorts might experience several ebullition periods due to their submissive position vis-à-vis dominant position of the majority. Such an experience may occur in very ordinary contexts, and herein you might bear the feeling more frequently if you are easy to spot. Let’s take a Middle-Eastern with black hair in a mix of white Swedes. This would put the person on display and potentially more subjected to the submissive status. Appearance has an identity touch. The way we look is deeply intertwined with our inner identity. Growing a beard might be a way to surface this feeling, a way to oppose the unreceptive ambience, a way to not dilute the basal identity elements i.e. appearance: “Yes, this is me. I am different.”

– A religious identity-element
Some followers of many religions grow beard, namely Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. This practice might be underpinned by different reasons e.g. sign of a pious living, endorsed by a Prophet, etc. At the end of the day, growing a beard might count as an identity element for some followers, especially if they reside outside their society of origin. Therefore, growing a beard might become a practice to emphasize their identity. Humans languish without identity.

– A flag of fanaticism?
There exist fanatic figures that have beard. However neither all bearded men are fanatics nor are all fanatics bearded. Indeed, fanatics come in all sorts of color, shape and race. The term fanatic might easily be attributed to a thought or behavior but it is difficult to depict a fanatic appearance. However, black beard as a flag of fanaticism is perhaps the perception many in the West have; a perception full of prejudices lurked beneath the surface and rarely challenged. A perception which West-centric media, among several contributing factors, has perhaps played a role in shaping through selective projection of others.

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“Je Suis Raif” – Meanwhile in Saudi-Arabia

Free Raif

 

Paris, January 11, 2015. The streets fill with hundreds of thousands of protestors in a huge outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo and the principle of free speech. It is a dreary, gray day and the crowd’s somber clothing reflect the general atmosphere in the capital mere days after the fatal shootings. Over 40 world leaders walk arm-in-arm in what appears to be a moving act of solidarity, among them Saudi-Arabian ambassador Dr. Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh. Nothing in his appearance betrays that just two days previously, 4500 kilometers away on a hot public square in Jeddah, a crowd was also forming, yet not with the purpose of protesting anything. They had come to witness the flogging of Raif Badawi, 31-year-old Saudi citizen who was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes simply for openly criticizing his country’s regime.

Badawi is, along with numerous other Saudi activists and writers, suffering the effects of a relentlessly strict application of Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam. One of few nations to have abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Saudi-Arabia is a very precarious home for those with deviant political or religious ideas, something Raif Badawi knows only too well. As a young activist, he founded the website Free Saudi Liberals, a forum for public debate to which he also contributed articles. In 2012 Badawi was arrested for insulting Islam through electronic channels. Though he was initially charged with apostasy which carries the death sentence, his verdict was altered to 10 years in prison, 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, as well as a fine of 1 million riyal (equal to about €234,000). His wife and three children have fled to Canada where they have gained political asylum. Looking back at the Paris rally, the fact that the Saudi ambassador was sent to march for freedom when his country cannot even grant its citizens basic rights makes the whole act ambiguous to say the least.

Let’s take a closer look at what it was about Badawi’s texts that was so offensive to the Saudi government.  The Guardian has made available translations of his main pieces, and it is striking how eloquent and wonderfully unequivocal they are. One of Badawi’s main concerns is the lack of freedom in a country where a narrow interpretation of Islam penetrates all spheres of life including politics, science, education, culture, and social relations. Here are some of Badawi’s thoughts on the need to separate state and religion:

No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress. This is not a failing on the part of religion but rather that all religions represent a particular, precise spiritual relationship between the individual and the Creator. …However, positive law is an unavoidable human and social need because traffic regulations, employment law and the codes governing the administration of State can hardly be derived from religion.

States based on religious ideology … have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.

In another piece Badawi ridiculed the event where a TV preacher denounced astronomers, claiming their research undermined the beliefs of Sharia:

Actually, this venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me and my dear readers – namely, the existence of the so-called “Sharia astronomer”. What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes.

The Free Saudi Liberals website was shut down permanently following Badawi’s arrest. He received his first set of 50 lashes on the 9th of January for his writings and has a further 950 to endure.

The coinciding of the Charlie Hebdo rally and Raif Badawi’s flogging has led activists to adopt the phrase “Je suis Raif”. Besides campaigning directly for Badawi’s release, it carries the message that we must not forget all the other Charlies whose voices are currently being silenced. Just another example close to Badawi is his lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, who is currently serving 15 years in prison for his human rights work.

Recent developments in Badawi’s case do allow some space for optimism. Although he has received his first set of lashes, further flogging has been postponed several times, reportedly due to medical reasons. It is to be hoped that this is an underlying sign that international pressure is starting to affect the Saudi government. For example, on February 10, Prince Charles raised the plight of Raif Badawi with the Saudi king during a six-day tour of the Middle-East. King Salman, who acceded to the throne, as recently as January this year, has the power to free prisoners by granting a royal pardon. Meanwhile Nobel laureates, politicians from several countries and a long-standing campaign by Amnesty International have all called for Badawi’s immediate release.

For more information on what you can do to help, visit Amnesty International‘s website.

Text: Margit De Boer
Photo: Flickr – Amnesty Finland

La belle province: an ugly side of Québec

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In Québec, the issue of national identity and the system known as reasonable accommodation, adjustments made in society to accommodate certain rights based on e.g religion or disability, have for a long time been issues for controversial debate. This was especially apparent between September 2013 and april 2014, when the Canadian province of Québec carried out a heated debate on the issue of one controversial bill. A frenchspeaking province of 8.2 million with a Catholic heritage, Québec is part of a country that is often seen as liberal and a friend of progressive values. To this, an openness to multiculturalism should follow and, in many ways, Québec measures up. For example, Montréal is the world’s largest bilingual city and a large part of Québec immigrants settle there, which suggests acceptance and flexibility. But the unifying project that Bill 60 was said to be was in fact a shift towards intolerance rather than a society in harmony.

Bill 60, known as the Québec Charter of Values, was proposed by the Parti Québécois (PQ), the separatist party that ruled the province in a minority government in the fall of 2013. The bill promoted secularism, a society in which state and religion was fully separated, and consisted of different elements affirming religious neutrality. The bill suggested public institutions should remove all religious symbols, and the focal point of the public debate quickly became about the article forbidding government employees from wearing objects with religious connotations. This included conspicuous headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which indicate a religious affliction. The rule would apply to all public servants, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, police and administrators.

However, symbols of cultural significance (in this case Catholic), were protected by the charter. For example, the crucifix hanging over the speaker’s chair in the Québec National Assembly, or a cross worn by a government personnel could still be displayed (as long as it is not ”larger-than-average”), while the kippah or turban would be banned. The attire under the most scrutiny during the debate was the hijab, a veil worn by some muslim women. The debate was most heated around this particular symbol, both religious and/or cultural, and pro-bill advocates often used the muslim veil and headscarf in the rhetoric promoting the bill. Hostility towards muslim women escalated during the final months before the election and charges of verbal and physical abuse increased by 300% in Québec compared to the months before, according to the Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia.

The backdrop for Québec secularism comes from a movement in the 1960’s, when the political role of the Catholic Church was taken away, and church was separated from state. By supporters, the Charter of Values was seen as an extension to the movement of the 60’s, merely reaffirming these values. This time, emphasis is put on culture. Québec culture is filled with Catholic symbolism, and Catholicism and Catholic cultural identity is clearly favored in this quest for secularism. Therefore, it is a distorted secularism. Supporting the bill is not supporting state secularism or religious neutrality. It is to support one cultural identity: the idea of common Québec values connected to a homogenous francophone secular Catholic community. In other words, it is marginalizing all people who are committed to a religion different than the one Québec was founded upon.

In light of all this, with the PQ being a separatist party as well as a promoter of discriminatory values, the separatist movement and the idea of a sovereign Québec is somewhat stained. With the two being connected, and with the nationalist, identity-driven campaigns by the PQ, the independence movement has lost a lot of appeal. Comparing it to recent events in Scotland, Québec is a whole other beast to tame. The idea of Scottish sovereignty is more connected to political and economic independence and unlike many other parts of the world, including Québec, the campaign was free from the issue of culture, language and traditions.

In the beginning, the bill had a great deal of support, and as public debate went on it divided the province in half. Finally, the Liberal party defeated the PQ in the April elections and with this, the charter was rejected. Nevertheless, the debate still lingers. Of course the question about the place of religion and multiculturalism in society is not limited to this part of the world. Nevertheless, concern of state targeting certain values and beliefs is very real. Especially, since the current liberal provincial government is now apparently working on a ’moderate’ version of the original Charter of Values.