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Ilhan Omar being interviewed in her office on Feb. 23, 2024. Omar sat down with The Minnesota Daily to discuss law enforcement, housing, drug addiction and student concerns.
Campaign Q&A with Ilhan Omar
Published February 25, 2024

Opinion: Secularism or suppression?

Secularism should not come at the expense of Muslims.
Image by Ava Weinreis
Western nations have taken the concept of secularism to new heights by using it as a tool of suppression.

France’s determination to take away all religious freedom for the Muslims within their country remains strong. In September, a top court in France upheld the government decree barring children in public school from wearing the abaya as well as the thobe — both garments are full-length robes Muslim men and women choose to wear. This ban has been presented by the French government under the guise of secularism.

A base-level definition of secularism is “a rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” Western nations have taken the concept of secularism to new heights by using it as a tool of suppression. The banning of the abaya is just one example of the blatant islamophobia embedded in Western institutions. 

In Sweden, a secular nation in its own right, an anti-Muslim protester’s burning of the Quran led to clashes in the streets. The police have allowed these hateful actions by deeming it an expression of free speech but have publicly denounced the reactions of the Muslim community. 

“I feel like burning the Quran is a symbol of just pure Islamophobia,” said Shanal Khawaja, a third-year student at the University of Minnesota. “Why else would you burn a Quran besides being driven by hatred? By saying it’s freedom of speech is erasing the meaning behind it.” 

Dismissing concerns about the repression of minority communities is nothing new. When governments ignore offensive actions like this, they continue to sow the seeds of hatred within the masses. 

The rhetoric surrounding these oppressive tendencies sets a dangerous precedent and furthers the narrative that Muslims are wrong and must be controlled. Emmanuel Macron, president of France, supported the banning of the burkini (a full-body swimsuit) in 2022, claiming to protect “republican values” from the threat of religious extremism. Critics of the burkini argued the swimwear symbolizes the oppression of women and could serve as a possible entry point to Islamic extremism.

“One of the worst parts about Islamophobia in the West, I think, is the level of condescension that people have,” said Nazish Khan, a fourth-year student at the University. “It’s not enough for them to oppress us, police us, scrutinize us and marginalize us, they have to pretend that they’re doing it for our own good.” 

It comes as no surprise the colonial tendencies of these nations have not subsided. The belief that Muslims, and Muslim women specifically, require saving is degrading and dismissive. This implies that Muslim women are unable to think for themselves and are being forced into following the religion. Yet, when Muslim women ask to retain their autonomy and wear what they want to wear, they are told “no” in the name of freedom via secularism. 

“People have all these rights and freedoms to harm us and to hurt us whether it’s psychologically or physically, but the moment we speak up, we’re considered barbaric or we’re considered extremists for being upset,” Khan said.

The lack of public attention and awareness is telling as well. The laws forcing women in Iran to wear the hijab have been highly publicized, with many people demanding change. This public outcry for freedom is warranted, of course, but the hypocrisy is evident. 

These bans all lead to the conclusion that Muslims do not have a place in the Western world. It doesn’t matter how long we have lived here or how patriotic we claim to be, our religious beliefs put us on the outskirts of society. 

“It makes me feel like a second-class citizen even though I was born and raised in America,” Khawaja said. “I have all of the quote-unquote ‘requirements’ of an American, but being a Muslim and being the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, you feel like a second-class citizen because you see these things happening and you don’t see your government denouncing it.” 

There is nothing louder than silence. France is a close ally of America, but there has been no rallying cry for Muslims in France as they are deprived of their rights. There is no way to change the rhetoric if no one speaks up. With all this hesitation to denounce something so obviously wrong, who’s to say America won’t start implementing more targeted policies as well to save Muslims from themselves?

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