Belgrade, 19 Oct. (AKI) - Banning immigrant Muslim women from wearing the niqab, the face-covering eyes-only veil is a denial of their fundamental human rights and a sign of intolerance, a Bosnian Muslim official and a leading Serbian expert on Islam, said on Thursday. Though the majority of Muslim women in the Balkans don’t wear the veil, most of the region's religious leaders and politicians were reluctant to get involved in the ongoing European debate on this issue.
"It’s the right of every woman to decide how she’s going to dress and what to wear," said Muharem Omerdic, the head of the religious education department of the Bosnian Islamic Community, representing some 1.5 million Muslims in Bosnia. "Preventing that amounts to a violation of basic human rights and a sign of intolerance," Omerdic told Adnkronos International (AKI). "In different societies, peoples dress differently, which is normal, and politicians should not interfere with that," he added.
Apart from the ongoing debate in Britain and France, Italy's prime minister Romano Prodi said on Tuesday that a wearing veil didn’t help Muslim women integrate in European society, but led to segregation. "You can't cover your face. If you have a veil, fine, but you must be seen," Prodi told Reuters television. "This is common sense I think, it is important for our society. It is not how you dress but if you are hidden or not," said Prodi.
But Omerdic said if Muslim immigrant women had to give up the veil in order to integrate into European society, "this leads to assimilation, not integration." He pointed out that in Bosnia women are free to wear whatever they want.
"In Sarajevo (the Bosnian capital) you would struggle to find twenty to thirty women wearing veil, but this is their free choice," he said.
Reacting to Prodi’s statement that it was important for people's faces to be visible, Omerdic said "it should be left to the people to reveal themselves, with or without the veil, and it is not the job of politicians to impose their views on the question."
Miroljub Jevtic, professor at Belgrade University’s political science faculty and an expert on religion, said the veil debate was a result of the "mistaken European perception of religion and misunderstanding of Islam.
"Whereas Jesus Christ was just a religious leader, and the Christian Church is separated from the state, Islam’s founder, Mohammed, was "everything – the head of state, religious leader and the supreme judge," Jevtic told AKI.
"Secularism is foreign to Islam and Europe should understand that," he underlined.
The face-veil is deeply rooted in the Muslim tradition and teachings and, "taken literally, those who renounce it are condemned to hell," Jevtic, who is a Serb and an Orthodox Christian, explained. Europe was "facing a difficult task, having to choose between granting religious freedoms and traditional rights to a growing Muslim population, or ultimately to abolish itself," he said.
"Denying such religious freedoms as the face-veil clearly violates the rights of Muslims, which are deeply rooted in Islam's teachings. Letting it develop freely, it is in the long run sentencing itself to Islamisation,” Jevtic concluded.
Belgrade mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic, the head of the 350,000 strong Islamic community in Serbia, remained unavailable for comments after two days of persistent attempts by AKI to reach him.