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Recently, there has been controversy around the veil worn by some Muslim women to conceal their faces. Many have viewed this as a conflict between Muslims on one side and the "Islamophobic" west on the other. Not so. The debate is being waged primarily within Muslim society and is part of the battle for the heart and soul of Muslim communities from Tunisia to Turkey, Indonesia to India, and right here in Canada.

To begin with, the veil is not required by Islam. None other than Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Islamic scholar, stated in a Friday sermon that "it is not obligatory for Muslim women to wear the niqab [full face veil]" He added, "The majority of Muslim scholars and I do not support the niqab in which women cover their faces."

Yet the practice of covering one's face as an expression of Islamic religiosity is growing.

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Mohammad Qadeer, professor emeritus at Queen's University, recently cautioned Muslim communities to "reappraise this custom, before a scare about terrorists or a bank holdup raises a public uproar against the niqab."

Indeed, just last week a jewel robbery in Toronto was carried out by a man dressed in a burka.

Women have the right to dress as they please -- but the rights of the individual have to be balanced with the rights of society.

Wearing veils -- whether as an expression of religious identity, or as a means of political defiance -- is not in the best interest of Canada's Muslim communities.

Historically, the Muslim world has seen many women in power -- the Fatimide Queen Sitt al-Mulk in 11th-century Egypt, Razia Sultana in 13th century India, for example -- who governed from their thrones, presided over meetings with their advisers, with their faces uncovered, as shown in paintings from those times.

From the times of the early Arab Umayyads and Abbasids to the Turkish Ottomans, the Indian Moghuls and the Persian Safavids, never have Muslim women been forced by decree to cover their faces as an act of religiosity and piety.

Tying religiosity and piety to face coverings is a 19th- and 20th-century phenomenon started by the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Due to Saudi Arabia's oil wealth, and the funding of Islamic schools around the world, the Wahhabis are managing to impose their irrational cult on Muslims in the Western world. The Wahhabis want everyone to believe that women should accept a second-class status. And they want women to believe that this segregationist ideology is something they've chosen for themselves.

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Choices can only be made if the individual is, realistically, in a position to exercise a free choice. But there's pressure within any minority community to conform. And so Canadian Muslim women are told they must not stand up to their organized disenfranchisement.

In the late 1990s, the city of Toronto commissioned Michael Ornstein of York University to study the growing levels of poverty among the city's racial minorities. His report, Ethno-Racial Inequality in the City of Toronto, was a bombshell.

Prof. Ornstein laid bare the simmering poverty among minorities in Toronto. He wrote: "Combining all the non-European groups, the family poverty rate is 34.3 per cent, more than twice the figure for the Europeans and Canadians.

"Non-European families make up 36.9 per cent of all families in Toronto, but account for 58.9 per cent of all poor families."

The statistics for Muslim communities ranged from 40 per cent to 80 per cent living in poverty.

If women in marginalized families are made to cover their faces, Muslim communities facing the poverty trap will find it increasingly difficult to get out of it. A veil over the face will close the doors to employment in professions where face-to-face human interaction is absolutely essential -- a police officer, a physician, a nurse, a school teacher, an airline pilot, a submarine commander, a judge, a lawyer, a bank clerk, an office receptionist or even a store clerk.

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In short, the veil creates another obstacle to the economic empowerment of a community that already faces discrimination based on skin colour and accent.

The Islamists who are pushing the veil are not fighting discrimination or solving problems. They're making it more difficult for us to progress.

A bright and prosperous future for Muslims in Canada can best be ensured when we are seen as fully integrated into the fabric of Canadian society. That doesn't mean giving up any part of our faith, which is constitutionally guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But it does mean that Islam must not be used as a tool to score political points for the Islamist agenda.

Tarek Fatah is host of The Muslim Chronicle on CTS-TV and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

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