Friday, March 23, 2012

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

The birth of the Prophet (pbuh) and the birth of Pakistan (pbui) are announced with the same call in Lahore: a series of cannon blasts at zero dark thirty. Given the official religion of the country, I suppose you could justify some sort of celebratory equation between the two events. My own skepticism on this point, however, caused me to stir impatiently beneath the bed sheets while waiting for the cannon's boom to subside. It took awhile before the echoes died down and the bulbul resumed their warbling through the window bars.

The separation of Church and State is so basic to the American framework, it's hard for me to sit still when I see it breached -- including in my own country, and including in those off moments when I agree with the religious sentiment being expressed. Mixing religious faith and state endorsement allows the state not to safeguard religion, but to safeguard itself from people's ability to evaluate and decide their own identities and allegiances -- decisions that might lead to replacing the state. It indicates a lack of the state's faith in the strength of its own mandate rather than a commitment to religious tenets. For that reason, state religion is designed to force all sorts of uncomfortable public displays on citizens: prove your religious belief is strong enough and "right" enough for you to be a real patriot. Prove your identity as a citizen by "out-faithing" your colleagues, or risk state censure. How convenient that this public proof of religious commitment also affirms the state's legitimacy. Fine-grained discussion on questions of identity and allegiance are duly subjugated in favor of one-size-fits all public symbols, the meaning of which the state decides. You're either with the state-cum-religion, or you're not.

Now that I represent the American state, these uncomfortable public displays are more and more on my mind. The azan sounds, so I cover my head to be respectful to Islam. But it's not really me being respectful to Islam, right? Because (as I myself am no longer merely a person, but a symbol of the U.S.) the act can no longer be a matter of personal conviction, but of trying to convince others that the U.S. respects the official religion. And when I look around and see that some women have covered and some have not, I worry that my covering is saying more than 'The U.S. respects your officially mandated religion' but maybe instead is saying 'I agree with your approach to religion' or 'Women ought to cover' or 'It's okay to force this public display of belief on people'. But it's really not okay with me, is the thing. If my 8th grade self who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance due to its unconstitutional mixing of God and state saw me dutifully covering for Quran readings in public universities, I don't think she'd have anything good to say. How can I explain to her -- to anyone -- that I only mean the first thing when I cover my head and not all the other possible meanings that follow?


Awais Aftab said...

I can appreciate the dilemma you feel about the act and the message that it conveys. The same act can convey different impressions to different people, which can -- frustratingly -- make the original intentions of the person irrelevant.

In the past a blogger had criticized Angelina Jolie for covering her head,on similar lines to what you have feared in this post. Perhaps it'll interest you:

Katie said...

Thanks for directing me to that great blog post -- I think she made the point much more eloquently than I did.

anjum said...

Interesting post, enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

Out of all elements of U.S. foreign policy, this superficial gesture is the one that's bothering you? really?

Katie said...

Different elements of our foreign (and domestic) policy concern me, but, yes, this issue is highly personal to me. All over the world, nationalism plays out on women's bodies. How to join that conversation sensibly is a challenge.