- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Democracy has no dress code, according to some reformers in the Muslim world.

Many Muslim men in the Middle East and South Asia cut dashing figures in their flowing robes and headgear.

Even the British diplomat T.E. Lawrence looked cool - at least as played by Peter O’Toole in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” - as he raced on the backs of camels across the hot desert dunes.

More recently, a vice president of Afghanistan during a visit to The Washington Times made a curious remark about Western men in suits and Muslim men who prefer more traditional dress.

“Democracy is not just for you in suits and ties,” said Mohammad Karim Khalil, who wore a dark suit but no tie, as he spoke with editors and reporters.

All other men in the room, including the vice president’s entourage, came buttoned up in standard business dress.

In Washington, many if not most Muslim businessmen and diplomats opt for Western business attire.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for example, was noted for his silk neckties by Hermes and tailor-made suits from London’s Savile Row during his 22 years as ambassador from Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Islam.

The necktie, nevertheless, remains problematic for many devout Muslims.

“A colleague suggests that a necktie is a sign of the Christian cross,” an unidentified Muslim asks on the Web site pakistanlink.com. “Therefore, a Muslim should avoid wearing it. Is there any truth in this?”

The Web site corrected the questioner by explaining that ties have no religious symbolism whatsoever.

“Neckties have nothing to do with the Christian cross,” the Web site replied. “They are part of the Western dress. … Christians, themselves, do not consider the neckties as the symbol of the cross. The Christian priests and clergymen do not wear neckties. They wear round collars, and then wear crosses around their necks.”

Pure silk ties can present a different sort of problem. Some authorities have no objection to men wearing neckties of a silk-rayon blend or those made of cotton or wool.

The prophet Muhammad forbade his male followers from wearing silk or gold but allowed women to adorn themselves with silken gowns and golden jewelry.

“It is better to avoid pure silk ties, in obedience to the prophet, peace be upon him, who told us that men should not wear gold and silk,” the Web site said.

A question on another Internet site, Islamonline.net, tried to parse the subject.

“Are men allowed to wear silk neckties because it does not touch their skins?”

Nice try.

Islamonline.net explained, “The prohibition of gold and silk to males is part of a broader Islamic program of combating luxuriousness in living. … Woman has been exempted from this prohibition out of consideration for her feminine nature.”

In Iran, religious authorities are stringent about dress codes.

“For the first time in years, men are also being arrested for sporting short-sleeved shirts, shorts or fashionable hairstyles,” the Scotsman daily newspaper reported.

A practice by Iranian authorities of deriding neckties as “donkey tails” presents still more problems.

Calling a Muslim a donkey is an insult, apparently rooted in ninth-century Islamic teachings that associate the beast of burden with Satan, who according to this tradition slipped onto Noah’s ark by holding on to a donkey’s tail.

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