Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Enemy flags

In 1989, when the 'foulard' controversy first arose in France, the bicentennial celebrations of the revolution provided a political, intellectual and moral context for those who wanted to suppress the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. Ernest Cheniere, the headmaster who precipitated the row by expelling three Muslim girls for refusing to remove the garment, justified his decision in terms of a need to defend the republican principle of laïcité, the separation of civil and religious affairs. These girls were not poor students, not did they have disciplinary issues. They simply insisted on wearing their headscarfs. But according to Cheniere, this was a form of proselytism inimical to the Republican tradition, consecrated in a 1905 law establishing the separation of church and state. In fact, he later claimed, the wearing of such garments was part of an "insidious jihad". Sizeable sections of the left intelligenstia supported his claim, as when philosophers writing in the left-wing Le Nouvel Observateur asserted that since the school was the foundation of the Republic, the destruction of the school (by admitting the wearing of religious garments) would undermine the values upon which the nation was built.

The Conseil d'Etat ruled against Cheniere and there were numerous legal challenges. But Cheniere was not just any headmaster. He was a headmaster with political ambitions that went beyond who did what with the petty cash tin. In 1994, as an elected deputy for the department of Oise, representing the right-wing Raillement pour la Republique, he raised the issue again, launching a bill to ban all 'ostentatious' religious clothing. This failed at the time, but it is notable that such was the language used to justify later restrictions aimed at Muslims. In 2003, after Chirac had been elected in a presidential contest between himself and Jean Marie Le Pen, it was Socialist deputy Jack Lang who would bring it up again. Sarkozy was the interior minister at the time. A committee was convened to consider banning conspicuous religious garments in the schools.

The feminist writer Joan Wallach Scott, discussing the affair in The Politics of the Veil, notes that it was at this point that the media focused on the story of two girls, the Levy sisters, who had converted to Islam and chose to wear the hijab. What was interesting was that they were under no social pressure to convert. Their parents were atheists, and the father didn't approve of their conversion. But, seeing the hysterical media response, he suggested that his children might decide for themselves if they wanted to abandon their faith. He expressed astonishment at the attitude of the 'Ayatollahs of secularism' who wanted to boss his kids about. That this was the chosen symbol for the media campaign was telling. It would seem to indicate something about the complexities of faith, and of identity. It would seem to tell against the simplistic wisdom according to which the 'foulard' (or 'le voile' as it was increasingly called) is imposed by a patriarchical family. It certainly doesn't support the spurious racist conspiracy theory that Islamist troublemakers are simply using the garment to create "Muslim ghettos" and advance a state of conflict with "the West". But that isn't how it was received, and the ensuing debate corroborated the ultimate decision to ban the headscarf in French schools - a net loss for personal liberty, and for secularism at that, which was cheered as much by the far left as by the far right. It didn't maintain the state's neutrality as regards religion; it essentially said that Islam is incompatible with the Republic. It increased the state's interference in personal affairs. The justification for such interference was that the headscarf was too conspicuous a symbol of Islam, and therefore a kind of proselytism - not just for Islam, it was claimed, but for jihad. As Scott puts it, the garments are seen as "enemy flags" in the Republic.

This kind of 'laïcité' is therefore a curiosity. A particularistic universalism; an aspect of exclusionary nationalism that supposed internationalist embrace; a form of reaction and authoritarianism that some revolutionaries are willing to support; a harrassment of women of colour that so-called feminists endorse, etc etc. That it takes as its cue the legacy of Jules Ferry and the Third Republic - the high tide of French colonialism, the civilizing mission and kulturkampf in Northern Africa - is to be expected. Today's civilising mission is directed just as much against the indigenes.

It's worth noting that as this discussion has been reheated again and again, some British liberals and conservatives have looked across the Channel with envy. That such low politics, such vileness and stupidity, could be expressed in such grandiose language is a prospect that leaves these people breathless. Thus, from the liberals, Tories and 'decents' to the most reactionary elements in British politics, Sarkozy's broadside against the burqa has been a ralling cry over the last week or so. Now, Sarkozy was only last year on speaking terms with the Roman patriarch and floating the idea of "laïcité positive" in which religion might re-enter the public sphere. He was talking about his Christianity and his godliness as though he were the American that he obviously wants to be. But he is also someone who made his name with inflammatory attacks on Muslims in the banlieues back in 2005, which he promised to "karsherise". He knows perfectly well that from Le Pen to the left-republicans, there is a broad coalition of French voters that is deeply hostile to Islam. So, here he is baiting the burqa. And here we are, surrounded by the dim and the devious who cheer him on. And, as a speaker at the recent launch of 'Kafa' - a campaign against Islamophobia - noted, such racism toward Muslims is the cutting edge behind which every other form of racism follows. Islamophobia is correlated in the polls to other kinds of prejudice such as hostility toward asylum seekers and 'economic migrants'. The BNP are certainly using it in this way, and their supporters and voters largely seem to get this. The people who don't get it, or don't want to get it, are those who think you can flirt with 'progressive' Muslim-bashing today and not wake up with a more racist and fundamentally nasty society tomorrow.