DOHA: A public forum in the Gulf State of Qatar has joined in the bitter European debate about Muslims who wear the niqab, or face veil, branding it “a barrier to integration in the West.
The controversial discussion – latest in the series of independently-produced Doha Debates – was attended by the Emir s wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, as well as students from across the Arab world.
In a surprise vote, fifty-seven percent of the audience said the niqab hindered integration in the West, appearing to support comments from Western leaders such as Britain s Tony Blair, who has termed the veil “a mark of separation.
It is believed to be the first time that a public gathering in the Arab world has entered the European debate over the niqab and voiced such strong reservations about its use in the West.
British Muslim Peer, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, said that he had no wish to ban the veil in Britain, but he had strong concerns about the image it projected of Muslims.
“People can wear whatever they like . but my worry is that a person wearing the niqab will become a symbol of Islam and will exclude me and many others from representing my point of view.
Echoing his sentiments, Reem Maghribi, founder of Sharq, an English-Language Arab culture magazine, said Britons were “fearful of the unknown and that the Sept. 11 and July 7 events have turned Muslims into “the other.
“If Muslims are to represent themselves and their religion as pragmatic and peaceful then certainly fighting for a right that is not required by Islam and that instills fear in others . is hindering integration.
Arguing against the motion was Ayshah Ismail, a British teacher from Lancashire who took up wearing the niqab last year. “The veil is not a barrier but an excuse for those who want to use it as a barrier, she said, blaming the controversy on ignorance and media hype.
She denied that it had affected either her integration into British society or her ability to communicate.
The Doha Debates are a forum for free speech in the Arab world and are now in their third series and are broadcast around the globe on BBC World.
The program, recorded at Qatar Foundation headquarters in Doha, will be broadcast on BBC World on Saturday March 10 (12:10 and repeated 20:10 GMT) and on Sunday March 11 (01:10 and repeated 08:10 and 17:10 GMT). The Doha Debates are sponsored and commissioned by the Qatar Foundation, but independently produced.