After more than six months straining to convince itself of the immense, nationwide danger of a phenomenon that involves fewer than 0.1 per cent of France’s Muslim population, a parliamentary committee yesterday recommended the banning of the full veil in many of France’s public places. There is nothing eccentric about asking why they are getting so bothered.
As usual, when France confronts such debates, a panoply of intellectuals, politicians and artists gasp their indignation over an alleged assault on ‘our values,” wheeling out their rhetorical big guns to denounce the “philosophical scandal” of refusing to show one’s face publicly.
We have been systematically treated to five justifications, all hammered home with the aim of getting the full veil banned for good: the feminist, the theological, the humanistic, the securitarian and, finally, the prophylactic. None of these justifications has been convincing. For a start, the vast majority of women concerned have clearly actively chosen to wear the veil, sometimes in the face of opposition from their family. Moreover, many see their veils as a means of expressing independence, even sometimes as a vehicle of feminine empowerment.
In the 70s, Muslim women who had recently arrived from north Africa were often kept behind suburban doors by the heavyhanded control of their husbands. Sometimes they were forced to wear the veil, but we hardly gave a damn. But, paradoxically, once the veil had emerged as a voluntary item during the 80s, visibly flaunted in the street by a new generation of determined young Frenchwomen, concern began to rise. Pseudo-feminist rhetoric cannot conceal the fact that it is indeed the voluntary veil which is being fought, and not the imposed article. As to the second, theological justification, it is almost laughable to see members of the government and the president himself arguing that such a veil is not truly Muslim, as if more knowledgeable than the Muslims themselves about the orthodox prescriptions of their own lifestyle. A peculiar facet of so-called French secularism sees government ministers assuming the fashionable role of imams.
Others will opine that one cannot be a true citizen if one hides one’s face, because one is thus refusing human interaction. Yet some people wear dark glasses out of shyness or pure obnoxiousness, and nobody would think of denying them their right to humanity. The security-based objection, requiring one to bare one’s face in order to have the right to pick up one’s children from school, for instance, or if so required by a police patrol, is legitimate in the abstract, but only if one conveniently forgets the fact that in practice, the new generation of women — among the many we have surveyed — do not in fact refuse to comply.
It is no coincidence that the debate on French national identity is occurring simultaneously, for they are tactically complementary — picking on Muslim women, or Muslims in general, or all immigrants, as scapegoats, so we can avoid facing our current symbolic crisis. The French are confronted every day with the declining influence of their language, art and cinema — moreover the “grey panther” generation is realising that their own children could not care less, deeply enmeshed as they are in the globalisation of culture.
To compensate for such losses, people over 40 are to be heard chanting mantras about the importance of French universal values and pointing fingers at those guilty of threatening them from inside France. In fact, they are thus digging into a deep narcissistic wound, their helplessness facing globalisation and the waning of the “French exception,” driving them blindly to trash our most sacred fundamental values while pretending to defend them.
Whatever form the committee’s recommendation takes in law or decree, it will probably not be enforced, but a symbolic gesture, and a symbol of capitulation. The French Republic has become so weak, so morally corrupted, that it is ready to kick over its most cherished principles: liberty, equality, fraternity, on the part of the political elite, out of cynicism and petty tactics; on the part of the general public, out of irrational panic, even hatred for Muslims. The worst about all this fuss is that we are completely off target. Women donning the full veil are not against modernity but represent rather its sophisticated product, just like westernised Buddhists. The veil, surprising as this may seem, is good news for modern values. This deep western social movement is no threat to modern values, but rather vindicates the latter under unexpected aesthetic guise.
It is a massive blunder to fight this new, ultra-modern Islam. And it is not only France that is heading towards a colossal error of understanding, politically capable of spinning into historic proportions, but also Europe, the U.S., and all the other post-industrial countries, blinkered by Islamophobia, who turn out to be incapable of catching up on their own deep cultural changes and recognising their own best interests. It is a kind of collective, generational jet lag.
(Note: Raphael Liogier teaches at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques d’Aix-en-Provence and edits the Observatoire du Religieux www.world-religion-watch.org )
© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010