FRANCE: Hijab hysteria
Muhammad Omar Masry

Europe is in the grip of a phantom menace the threat of the hijab.

In an atmosphere of intense paranoia, this simple piece of cloth, worn by many Muslim women, has come to represent fundamentalist Islam intent on destroying European civilization.

Indeed, just as the elderly grandmother hobbling down the Champs Elysees with a white scarf tied around her head is perceived a threat to the sovereignty of France, so her similarly attired niece, a few hundred kilometers to the east, would be a threat to Muslim-majority Turkey.

While some would use this sort of injustice to advocate violence or support for Osama Bin Laden and his ilk, another approach is to harness the power of ridicule. If, for instance, the Turkish government wants to ban the hijab in state institutions such as universities because they see it as a threat to the Turkish Republic, then display your loyalty to your faith and your nation by taking that Turkish flag and wearing it as a hijab. If the Parisian school where you hope to teach seeks to ban your application for a job in the name of equality and liberty, challenge the authorities to acknowledge the irony that Catholic high schools in the country are publicly funded.

Nothing helps encourage fundamentalism and support for extremists more than a government"s clumsy attempt to suppress free speech and freedom of religion. In too many corrupt, autocratic Muslim countries, the only place where any sort of free speech is allowed is in a mosque.

Muslim women can be a force for moderation, whether running an underground resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, or seeking to build a modern Islamic identity in nations like Malaysia by intelligently combining Western civil laws with Islamic jurisprudence. To push to the fringe and castigate as extremists Muslim women who choose to wear a veil is to insult Western values, and hit the forces of moderation.

If the European Union seeks to serve as a model of civic society and cooperation for a common good, then it must engage its Muslim populations, male and female, in an attempt to find understanding, tolerance, and moderation. Attempting to disenfranchise one of the fastest growing faiths in Europe would not only weaken the accomplishments of the EU, but also discourage the admiration in which it is held by many in the Middle East.

I serve as a soldier in the US Army. I am also a Muslim. Time and time again I am treated with respect for my faith a sense shared by many other Muslims in the army. That includes the Sergeant at Fort Bragg who wears a veil while in uniform (brown in color, to match camouflage tones), and a Muslim captain from the controversial Ahmadiyyah sect. In my civilian life, I see American-Muslim women who wear the hijab by choice - sometimes, ironically, to the disapproval of their families.

If Western countries want to battle extremism, they need to arm their "fanatical" moderate Muslims: not with weapons, but by example, lending strength to the values they hold so dear. It may not be as sexy as a cruise missile, but it does our common humanity a whole lot more good.

Muhammad Omar Masry is a sergeant in the US Army stationed in Iraq.