Throughout time beard has represented many things both in the East and the West
Beards are biological as well cultural products. In the early civilisations, a beard was a sign of masculinity. In Ancient Greece and Abrahamic religions, a beard was considered a sign of manhood as well as wisdom. All the major Prophets of the Book and many Greek philosophers maintained a beard, including Plato and Socrates. Outside the realm of ideas, keeping or shaving the beard has also been a concern of military strategists. Alexander the Great is reported to have ordered beard removal of his troops because he thought the facial hair could be gripped by the enemy for manhandling and butchering his soldiers. Since then, the armies of the world have regularly published manuals and codes regarding the beard. In British armed forces, Muslims and Sikhs are allowed to keep the beard for religious reasons but a strategic trimming of some areas around the mouth may be legally required to stick the gas mask directly on the skin during risky operations. Those soldiers who suffer from Tinea Barbae and Pseudofolliculitis Barbae (two of the many skin diseases that can be aggravated by shaving) are allowed to keep the beard after they show a medical certificate.
The present-day ubiquitous clean-shaven hero of Hollywood is also a product of wartime. The World War I involved the use of chemical weapons and a proper application of the gas mask required smooth facial skin. Because it was linked with survival and victory, it became a fashion in the mainstream American culture. The rise of Hollywood in post-war America consequently helped aggrandise the smooth-skinned image of the American male. As a reaction to this image of the baby-faced solider, the followers of American counter-culture movements (hippies and beatniks) after the World War II and the Vietnam War started growing beards to indicate an opposition to the draft.
This image of the smooth-skinned saviours of America did not change much during the Cold War. The reason for this was perhaps linked with the availability of proxy Muslim warriors. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the mujahideen, sporting long flowing beards, were the retainers of the American dream of global dominance. They were so fundamental to American hegemony that President Ronald Reagan, in 1985, declared them as "the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers." After the Soviet forces were driven out of Afghanistan, these equals of America's founding fathers were declared not so equal. Because empires need enemies to unify their own ideas of the unified self, the mujahideen became the new enemy. The Western knowledge industry and media machine jumped on the bandwagon fuelled by a simple "the West vs. Islam" formula. In 1993, Samuel P. Huntington published an article in Foreign Affairs titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" and announced the arrival of the new enemy of America: the militant Muslim. By 1998, this abstraction was further corroborated by the media representations of Osama bin Laden, a man with a very long beard. After September 2001, the bearded Muslim was a security threat for the West, a figure to be watched and, if possible, contained at all times. Even an unfortunate Sikh, mistaken as a Muslim because of his beard, was killed by an Arizonian resident, Frank Roque, who was seeking revenge for the fall of the Twin Towers. When the police arrested him, he announced "I stand for America all the way." Apparently the Sikh beard was an automatic nullification of the Americanness of the migrant worker. By 2006, American Muslims had changed a lot of their cultural practices to ward off discrimination: they started shaving their beards. Recently Abdul Sattar Edhi, who maintains a long grey beard, was questioned by the American immigrant officials at the JFK airport for eight hours. Edhi revealed to the media that he was questioned about the way he looked and the reasons behind it.
Because the bearded, and therefore necessarily militant, Muslim is now a media stereotype, The News on Sunday decided to ask those Pakistanis who are maintaining a beard, in whatever shape or form. The first person we approached was a student of the National College of Arts, from Mardan, with a ponytail, a short beard and closely trimmed moustaches. He kept a beard, he explained, because he had seen, as a child, his Pathan elders keeping black beards which provided a good contrast to the colour of their pink rosy cheeks: "I am an artist and I am interested in colour combinations and contrasts. I think the black beard highlights the fair complexion."
A salesman at a bakery, who had been beardless for many years, explained his recent makeover with a mehrab on his forehead and a long greying beard. "I was not a pious Muslim and used to go to Thailand regularly for the kind of tourism the country is famous for. But a couple of years ago, everything changed. Both of my daughters got divorced within a period of some weeks. The shock of both daughters sitting at home, the loss of their jewellery, dowry, and everything else made me diabetic. I returned to my God, asked for forgiveness and grew a beard and started praying regularly."
When asked if he could be photographed, a roadside vendor of greasy parathas fried in sub-standard cooking oil, sporting a well-groomed salt-and-pepper beard and a white prayer cap, refused. His reason was that photographing living creatures was forbidden in Islam. When queried if it was allowed to feed people the kind of stuff he did. His reply was: "May Allah forgive me but the government should also stop the factories which produce such low quality stuff. Why do you always go after the small fish and give tax breaks to those who damage the greatest possible number?"
At Hafiz Centre, Lahore, a great number of bearded men run thriving businesses selling the latest gadgets available anywhere in the world. Surrounded by laptops, wireless keyboards, geographical position systems, they practice moderate version of Wahabi, Deobandi, and Brelvi Islam. For them, the greatest civilisational divide of the contemporary world (between Western modernity and non-Western traditions) does not seem to have any meaning at all. They are equally at home in cyberspace and the mosque. The conflict may exist only in the mind of the simplistic analyst trying to compartmentalise their world. This combination of reformist Islam and commercial rationality, argues Francis Robinson, the author of The 'ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia, has the potential to achieve what the Protestant combination of religion and worldliness was able to do for Northern Europe.
The beard, then, is many things at once in East and West. The Western media and political analysts have to display more complexity than is usually shown in their analyses. Even the so-called intellectuals are not immune to the seduction of rushing to easy conclusions as exemplified by Henry Levi, the author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Again and again, he refers to the Pearl's captors as bearded men as if it was enough to use this shorthand of stereotyping to indicate the complex person behind the beard. If beard was the only thing to go by, we should all be afraid of Richard Boucher because his beard resembles those maintained by the members of Jamaat-e-Islami. On matters concerning millions of living, breathing human beings, we should heed the warning of Peter Hoeg, a Danish novelist: we can only come to a conclusion about something that we do not understand.
Published in The News on Sunday
dated July 13, 2008