Sunday, January 18, 2004
The New Jacobins... posted by Richard SeymourI don't know what it is about the French, but they seem to know how to annoy everyone. They aggravate the Right by not going along with wars, and the Left by circumscribing religious freedom.
Some have suggested that this is an argument to be had with religious nutters, a brave secular attack on the ancien regime. I hate to tell you this, but it ain't. Jaques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin are not operating in defense of the Republic, they are operating in a climate where the high vote for Jean Marie Le Pen has legitimised and sanctified racism and Islamophobia.
And note that this campaign isn't just coming from the secular liberals, it comes directly from the racist right. Le Pen's FN has demanded that "Muslims drop their veils".
This isn't like school prayers in the States. Prayers are an enforced ritual to inculcate obedience and conformity. I know this, because we had to have prayers in our school in Northern Ireland (good Protestant prayers, not like the mucky Paddy prayers they were having in the Catholic school down the road). But to choose to wear a crucifix, a hijab, a skullcap or a Scientologically Clear smile, is a personal choice. It reinforces identity in the school environment, rather than detracting from it.
I don't want to claim that parents aren't perhaps involved in imposing some kind of burden on their children by forcing (some of them) their kids to wear religious garb or ornament. But it remedies nothing of this to simply ban it in the school context, if anything a zone of much greater authoritarian control, given that it is an arm of the state devoted to churning out industrially sanctioned produce.
Some will say "well, it can't be Islamophobic if they're doing it to all religions", but that reflects a lack of attention to the debate. Chirac, for instance, raised no small amount of hell in December when he decided that there was "something aggressive" about the Muslim headscarf. Presumably, he was thinking of those Algerians and their destruction of the French Empire.
And the French government has the nerve to speak of Muslim opposition to these moves as attempts to "stir up racial tensions" . What is this "tensions" business that we keep hearing about? Surely we aren't talking about individuals on the verge of a heart attack on account of spotting someone else in a headscarf? Otherwise how do they manage to get through their shopping with all those old ladies about? Perhaps what is meant here is "racism". Yes, of course, Muslims must be desperate to stoke up racism against themselves. What greater proof of their irrationalism could there be?
But why stop at religious symbols? Couldn't it therefore be argued that any symbol reflecting one's personal beliefs has no place in a school? Are we to return to scrubbed 1950s school children wearing the same bland uniforms, lining up meekly for their morning caning session? No politics, no music, no culture. As if the 1960s had never happened?
Those who claim to be standing up for the freedom of Muslim women should pay attention to what Muslim women are actually saying.
Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights have written to the French President insisting that it is the right of all Muslim women to "practise their religion freely". They further note:
"We commend the 1989 decision of the Conseil d'Etat, ruling that the Criel school principal who suspended three Muslim school girls wearing headscarves had violated the freedom of religion of the girls, guaranteed to them by the French Constitution. We further commend the Conseil's 1995 decision, affirming that simply wearing a headscarf does not provide grounds for exclusion from school and reversing decisions that had expelled school girls in such situations."
French Muslim women have taken to the streets demanding that the state leave them in peace to practise their religion.
Sarah Whalen notes that the veil is neither compulsory under Islam, nor is what is being described strictly a "veil". Veils cover and obscure the female face, and nothing in Islam requires this, although sometimes veils are worn. What Islam does require, through combined readings of the Holy Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith (narrations about the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his companions), is modesty in dressing for both men and women. And throughout much of the Muslim world, this means loose, comfortable clothing and a headcovering of some kind for both sexes.
In other words, every signal from Muslim women is that they regard this as a devastating infringement on their right to choose, that they would rather the state did not proscribe their habits of dress, and that they would rather secularists did not feel the need to 'liberate' them all the time.
A liberal secular constitution does not mean intolerance for religious beliefs - quite the contrary. It means a secular state beholden to no particular religious orthodoxy and therefore welcoming to all. If it has stopped meaning that, we may all be in some moral peril.