August 23, 2006
Barbuphobia: Clerics, Beards, Pre-Judgment, Piety & Stuff
Egyptian author Mona Eltahawy confronts her own presumptions about Les Barbus, presumptions derived from her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia. By les barbus, I refer of course to a nickname used elsewhere for those conservatively pious, sometimes Wahhabi, Muslim gents who tend to sport long beards. They are often presumed -- can we say profiled? -- to harbor intolerant or reactionary social and religious views (not to mention explosives). The author herself concedes holding such statistically valid presumptions presupposing judgmental viewpoints on the part of conspicuously beadred Muslim men. But she soon comes to discover that such presumptions aren't always a reliable guide to each individual, especially after encountering a new person of the barbus type who turns out to be worth getting to know as a three-dimensional being in his own right, during meetings they had in and around a conference in Copenhagen on modern Muslims .
As I read the article, I noted a cultural distinction. Being male and coming from a society where religious authority usually knows its limits has allowed me, even in my most secular anti-religious phases, to rarely feel particularly queasy about the overtly pious, nor perturbed by their outward badges, even if hypocritical. Further, having known and been raised, befriended, and educated by religious people of many faiths, including experiencing the requisite humiliation from a nun or two, I find that although accurate presumptions of viewpoint can frequently be made based on the outward uniforms of religiosity, one can never be too sure. (It is a safe assumption that a nun in a habit (that's a Catholic hijab) is anti-abortion, for example, but don't assume it's a sure bet; nor is a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a beard necessarily going to be a champion of Israeli maximalist nationalism, even if it is statistically probable that he is more likely to be so than others.) Hence I am less patient, and I believe others should be as well, with presumptions regarding attitudes.
Still it is worthy to note from Mona Eltahawy's engaging recollection that the "profiling" of those who wear the badges of piety is not restricted to French schoolgirl headgear policymakers, or to British airline passengers, or to our American um, well Americans, but also profiling is done by those who are themselves from the same or similar society, and may even harbor their own deep sense of faith in the same religion as the bearded ones.
This social stress inside Muslim societies is part of contemporary reality, the helpful outcome of which, by the way, is not likely to be moved forward by people like Irshad Manji (who was at the same Copenhagen conference) or Wafa Sultan. (Manji writes that "for the first time in my life, I heard the message that in Islam, unity isn't uniformity." She grew up in, where, Canada? Didn't get out much, I guess, must be the cold.)
I note ironically that I recently had a conversation with someone who reacts to the bearded ones with the same kinds of presumptions Mona Eltahawy writes of. It was interesting that the same person was also significantly annoyed that a Middle East Muslim background led to being subjected to inane profiling questions when flying to the USA not too long ago. All the more reason for reserving final judgment until all the facts are in.
Trust me folks, profiling is not totally stupid, nor even inherently abusive, but when it comes to making a final determination on an individual, it barely makes it as a crude tool, if that.
And as a side matter: I do wish journalists would stop making overly copious references to the beards and other clothing on such people. The facial hair is usually pretty clear from their photos, and irrelevant otherwise. You know, comments along the lines of "The bearded Hizbollah leader reiterated his opposition to total disarmament" -- which is almost never followed by "while the clean-shaven Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised further vigilance. In other news, the white-hatted Pope called for peace in honor of the late head-veiled Mother Teresa and praised the probably bearded Jesus as a model peacemaker, while the mustachioed Syrian Prime Minister accused Israel of new war crimes. Where stands the turbaned Ayatollah Sistani is unknown, and the moderately bearded Iranian President commented only on uranium sourcing. The willfully bald Dalai Lama nonetheless added his own voice for a cease-fire."
Such things tell more about the reporter's presumptions than the incidents being related.
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"The bearded Hizbollah leader reiterated his opposition to total disarmament" which is almost never followed by "while the clean-shaven Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised further vigilance. In other news, the white-hatted Pope called for peace in honor of the late head-veiled Mother Teresa, while the mustachioed Syrian Prime Minister accused Israel of new war crimes. No one is sure of the stand of the turbaned Ayatollah Sistani , and the moderately bearded Iranian President commented only on uranium sourcing. The wilfully bald Dalai Lama nonetheless added his own voice for a cease-fire."
OMG, "wilfully bald" just sent me over the edge. That whole para was so hilarious that I may have just peed in my pants.
Posted by: Baraka at August 23, 2006 05:27 AM
Excellent post mate, excellent.
I was surfing around last night and ran across some online silliness asking why Ahmadinjad wears suits if he is anti-western. The implications being the non-suit wearers are anti-western.
It's fairly superficial and extremely ill-conceived, if understandable profiling based on poorly framed expectations.
That said, it can be hard to avoid.
A certain bearded profile (with the carpet burn on the forehead, the short pants, etc) can make one nervous, when in the 'wrong context' - I actually rant into this in myself on vacation last week when someone with something like that profile came into the beach club with a student style backpack.
For a few moments I felt that thrill that said, "Well, I finally get to be in the news and annoy the consular officials by annoyingly getting blasted to pieces on their watch."
As it happened, he had a beer and did some plumbing work.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 23, 2006 05:37 AM
About the carpet burns, this has been on my mind for quite some time. How do you get them? is it really natural for a forehead to bruise like that from a light touch a couple of times a day, or do you have to smack your head down real hard? How come some people get them, while others - just as pious - don't? Is it more common with Shi'a, and their little Kerbala clay thingies, or not?
I need to know.
Posted by: alle at August 23, 2006 08:45 AM
It's seen in North Africa as well.
I'd say a factors contribute:
(i) skin type
(ii) praying habits
(iii) own desire
Certainly some darker skinned folks (ranging from Med. wheaty to African browns) develop more clearly noticable and lasting if not permanant skin discolourations from relatively trivial skin abrasion. As, for example, the touching of the forehead to carpet. You be surprised how readily such discolourations occur.
Certainly it also seems to me some people's praying habits are more ... enthusiastic ... than others. That must contribute.
Finally, some people seem to like ostentatious signs of their piety.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 23, 2006 09:19 AM
carpet burn thing is called a 'raisin' (zebeeb) here.
The late president sadat's zebeeb developed over the years, perhaps as a way of assuring the shaab that despite his visit to Jerusalem he was as pious as they were. An old joke has it that the cleaners assigned to clean up after Sadat's assassination found his (plastic) zebeeb in the stands among the bullets and the blood
Posted by: simon at August 23, 2006 09:30 AM
It's odd, I always call them "Mullah-barbes", using the French for "beard", though I have no clue why.
Islamists are fairly recogniseable here not so much from their beards (though they are generally "stragglier" than the average full-beard of the more moderate Bedu) but from the shorter dishdashes they wear.
I've never seen any marks on anyone's forehead though.
Posted by: secretdubai at August 27, 2006 04:54 PM