Praying vs. baring in public

Cultural Insights — By on November 14, 2007 at 1:44 pm

Interesting essay in the recent issue of Time Magazine. Carla Power examines a key difference between Western and Muslim societies, notably that Westerners are uncomfortable with public prayer while Muslims are uncomfortable seeing bare skin in public. She writes:

Reams have been written on the differences between Islamic and Western societies, but for sheer pithiness, it’s hard to beat a quip by my former colleague, a Pakistani scholar of Islamic studies. I’d strolled into his office one day to find him on the floor, at prayer. I left, shutting his door, mortified. Later he cheerfully batted my apologies away. “That’s the big difference between us,” he said with a shrug. “You Westerners make love in public and pray in private. We Muslims do exactly the reverse.”

At the nub of debates over Muslim integration in the West lies the question, What’s decent to do in public–display your sexuality or your faith? The French have no problem with bare breasts on billboards and TV but big problems with hijab-covered heads in public schools and government offices. Many Muslims feel just the opposite.

As my friend suggested, Westerners believe that prayer is something best done in private, a matter for individual souls rather than state institutions. In the Islamic world, religion is out of the closet: on the streets, chanted five times daily from minarets, enshrined in constitutions, party platforms and penal codes. Sexual matters are kept discreet…

So here is a sweeping generalization, but perhaps a useful one: Western societies are cultures of personal revelation and exposure, while Muslim cultures are traditionally structured around protecting honor and propriety. On our shrunken planet, the two codes bump up against each other, throwing the other into relief.

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