France, secularism and burqa : a political issue, not a religious one

As soon as Nicolas Sarkozy said that Burqas were "not welcome" in France, the debate rippled across the World.

I mean THE debate. Not about the burqa, but about France itself : the country would be intolerant and undermining freedom of religion.

I faced the same misunderstanding from Muslims, Jews, Christians, and even atheists following my blogule "No to Burqa = No to Fundamentalism... Christian Fundamentalism included" ("Non à la Burqa = Non au fondamentalisme... Chrétien y compris").

I should say the same double misunderstanding :

  • classic misunderstanding : fundamentalism is about politics, not religion. Claiming independence from fundamentalism is about saving democracy, but also about saving freedom of religion... see my usual pitch about the fundamentalist imposture ("Universal Declaration of Independence From Fundamentalism").
  • cultural misunderstanding : France's very specific flavor of secularism, and the cultural exception (particularly compared to the US) regarding religion in general

Thus the key point in that blogule : in France more than anywhere else, wearing a burqa is a political statement. France should deal with the issue peacefully, on the grounds of the republican law. It is not and should not become a debate about religion.

So I fully agree with Sarkozy when he says that "Burqa is not a problem of religion" and "is not welcome on the territory of the Republic".

But I have a slightly different position when I consider his full sentences :

=> "Burqa is not a problem of religion, but a problem of dignity of women / Burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement" : yes and yes, human rights are definitely involved, but the cause of enslaved women will be even better defended if we act simultaneously at the political level.

Typically, some woman do wear the burqa of their own free will, and fundamentalists do claim that burqas defend the dignity of women because they are protected from the gaze of men.
We must naturally stand strong in the women's rights and freedom of religion debates, but we must also position ourselves on different planes to embrace the true nature of the subject and the true nature of fundamentalism.
Because burqa is not "a problem of religion", but a problem of politics. And a Burqa doesn't protect a woman from male gaze : integral coverings in general (burqa, niqab, masks hiding the face) withdraw people (male or female, of their own free will or not, those are yet other stories) from the watch of the Republic. Accepting this would mean accepting the most essential claim of fundamentalists : their strict set of principles supercedes the laws of the Republic. And in France, what burqas do is to put people beyond the reach of law in a secular Republic, which makes it even more offensive*.
Actually, Sarkozy didn't raise the burqa issue in Versailles out of the blue (chadri ?) : he merely reacted to many complaints by mayors and representatives of the Republic who noticed the incompatibility of such garments with the exercise of law (not to mention, of course, complaints of human right activists, women, moderate Muslims...).

=> Burqa "is not welcome on the territory of the Republic. We must not be afraid of our values, nor of defending them" : yes and yes, it is a matter of values. But let's be very careful not to fuel mutual hatred within the Republic and beyond.

Sarkozy is talking about a garment, but certain people can interpret his words a very different way : "territory" and "our values" resonate very well in extreme right circles, where xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia... and the ultimate theocon-neocon myth of the "Clash of Civilizations" rule*. Typically, radicals like peroxyde-blond Geerd Wilders, who enjoys full support from Israeli Jewish fundamentalists as well as from European Christian fundamentalists, wants to ban the burqa... but as a part of a more general ban on Islam !
Such hatemongers complain about "the Islamization of Europe" and the threats to "Western values", but Islam belongs to the West as well as to the East, North, South and Center. Besides, European culture owes a lot of its richness and diversity to Islam, Europe wouldn't be Europe without its citizens who happen to be Muslims, and France wouldn't be France without its citizens who happen to be Muslims.
Furthermore, let us not stress obsolete geographical divisions as moderates from all confessions and from over the world are reaching out to each other.
The second key point in my blogule was precisely that a ban on burqa, provided it were carefully and soundly planned and implemented, would undermine fundamentalism well beyond Muslim communities, and particularily Christian fundamentalism, also on the rise in Europe.
French Muslims overwhelmingly reject fundamentalism, and feel ostracized each time a few extremists deliberately provoque intra- and inter-religious tensions, or openly reject State laws.

Dalil Boubakeur, Rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, denounced the rise of communautarism, radicalization, and fundamentalism in France. But as the President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, he must also respect all the sensibilities represented in this institution. That's the reason why his critic of the burqa per se sounds rather weak : "wearing the burqa is not a formal answer to a prescription of Islam", and is "foreign to our traditions".

And when he praises Sarkozy, Boubakeur smartly manages to point an accusatory finger at the French Islamist minority : "this well balanced position, exposing a great secular conscience from the President of the Republic, can only fortify the recommandations issued by the Great Mosque of Paris and encourage French citizen of Muslim faith to integrate harmoniously republican values". In other words : if the vast majority of French Muslims applauds, a minority of fundamentalists does refuse the Republic - those are the enemies of both Islam and France.

Boubakeur also issued a clear warning to the President after his speech : "but you have to hope, Insha'Allah, that there won't be any ill-feeling, controversies, nor incidents".

The third key point I raised (the logical counterpoint of the second), was more direct : I really don't trust Nicolas Sarkozy on that one. He is the kind of man to fuel tensions instead of removing them, particularily when he has an opportunity to help fundamentalists and undermine the French secular system. The 2004 ban on religious signs for civil servants or in public schools passed well and calmed things down as expected because it was implemented under Jacques Chirac's watch, a man who, as Bush well knows, makes no compromise with fundamentalist imposteurs.

In France, everybody is fully aware of Sarkozy's reputation as a troublemaker, and his more or less direct promotion of fundamentalism is becoming a less and less hidden agenda.

He was the one who created the Council, thus offering an official tribune to Islamists... and putting outspoken moderates like Boubakeur under constraints. He was the one who, as tensions around the 2004 ban on religious signs were receding, and right before US Elections, dared publish "La Republique, les religions, l'esperance", a provocative essay recommanding the revision of the 1905 law, cornerstone of secularism in France. He was the one who pleased Benedict XVI and other Christian fundamentalists with his "laicite positive" concept (see "N'ayez pas peur"). He was the one who almost condemned French secularism in highly controversial speeches delivered in Latran or Riyadh. He was the one who seeked favors from then Fundamentalist in Chief George W. Bush, palled around with Tom Cruise and tried to remove Scientology from the lists of cults under watch in France...

Yet, if Nicolas Sarkozy obviously pledged allegiance to US theocons a few years ago and has ever since repeatedly attempted to undermine secularism, I don't think he is himself a theocon. More prosaically : hardcore fundamentalists aside, there's a lot of money to make for megachurches willing to open franchises in France... Besides, Sarko's ego is more complex than it seems : this man really loves to please powerful or famous people, wants to be recognized as an equal. He is surrounded by theocons, but also by celebs acting as entry points for theocons.

Now let's put aside this big question mark, and consider French secularism as it is or rather, as it was before Sarkozy. That would be the fourth point missing in my blogule, which was written in French and for a mostly French audience, very much aware of this oddity.

As others may not know, French secularism has proven an efficient yet fragile shield for both democracy and religions against fundamentalism.

People ask "What's wrong with France ?"

Is France intolerant ?
I'd rather say "intolerant to intolerance".

Is France extremist ?
I'd rather say "extremely moderate".

Is France persecuting Muslims ?
I'd rather say "preventing persecution of Muslims, victims of a few fundamentalists who want to cut them from their own country and from their own sound religion".

Regarding religion, the cultural gap couldn't be wider between France and the US : there's a religious persecution syndrom in the US and a religious neutrality syndrom in France, and that explains the way each democracy chooses to defend freedom of religion. Both systems have their pros and cons.

Freedom of belief and religion does mean something in the US. Many founders escaped religious persecutions. On the other hand, fundamentalism is very popular, creationism commonly accepted, and extremist cults are highly visible... In fact, many among the worst enemies of US democracy are US citizens who are tolerated in their own country but would be considered as dangerous extremists anywhere else, and not only in France.

In France, many US preachers would be charged for incitation to hatred, many US cults seriously restricted if not forbidden... and the Creation Museum closed for bold revisionism. Of course, people proudly parading in Nazi uniforms would go straigth to jail. And such ayatollahs as Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh would have to tone down a few notches or face the consequences.

Both the US and France have cornerstones for religious neutrality and for separation of church and state, with a common ground dating from the late XVIIIth century, thanks to people like the very francophile Thomas Jefferson :
- the 1789 US Bill of Rights. In particular Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof")
- the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In particular : "No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order", "The source of all sovereignty lies essentially in the Nation. No corporate body, no individual may exercise any authority that does not expressly emanate from it", and "Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These bounds may be determined only by Law". One could also mention the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights : "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law".
- the 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli : "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".
- ..

Separation of church and state is still a raging debate in the US, and fundamentalists are fighting every jurisprudence that secures it. Religion in general is a very big business and partisans of genuine secularism (ie no mention of "God" during inauguration speeches) are a minority.

By contrast, most French are ardent defensors of secularism, and most churches, temples and mosques are poor. Which by the way makes it easier for rich fundamentalist sponsors from overseas.

France put an end to a heated debate on secularism thanks to the December 9, 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and State, which goes beyond the sentence "the Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion". The Republic's unity was clearly under threat, and mutual hatred bloomed everywhere, with a peak of anti-semitism during the Dreyfus Affair (settled - and in the right direction - soon afterwards, in 1906).

But as History cruelly reminds us, anti-semitism survived in France, and World War II atrocities led to another set of reforms. If French census bureau doesn't collect any data about race, and if French laws strictly forbids databases based on religious beliefs or race***, it's because all humans are considered as one race, but also because the French police collaborated with Nazi occupants and kept files on many citizens, leading to their most tragic fate.

In 1958, France entered its Vth Republic. And the Article 1 of the Preamble of the 1958 Constitution clearly stipulates : "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs" ("It shall be organised on a decentralised basis" being added much later). "Secular" goes with "indivisible", and freedom of religion should not lead to any division.

There is also a cultural issue : in France, religion is considered as something personal, proselytizing as an aggression, and categorizing people as rude. Most French Muslims or French Jews don't want to be singled out as Muslims or Jews. They are true believers, but they want to be simply considered as French citizens. The first thing fundamentalist imams do is to negate Republican laws as a preamble to their own political constitution.

For decades, France enjoyed a relative peace without significant intra- nor inter-religious tensions, fundamentalism remaining well below the radar. But obviously, change has come :
- The first rifts within the Jewish community appeared as a minority took sides in favor of Israeli Jewish fundamentalists or at least in favor of conservative hardliners. The majority of French Jews distance themselves from Israel, and are as sick and tired of the confusion Jew = Tel Aviv Hawks bombing Gaza as Muslims are tired of the confusion Islam = al Qaeda. Yet, there is a French equivalent to an edulcorated AIPAC, but not to J Street. Yet. Regarding the conflict, a majority of French people, beyond Muslims, supports the Palestinian cause, particularily after Arafat gave up terror.

- If wahhabism had a tough time trying to buy its way into France (where moderate Islam has traditionally been sponsored by countries like Morocco), more recent and radical movements leverage on Islamist movements fighting against dictatorship in former French colonies, most notably Algeria. al Qaeda smartly outsourced part of its French operations to GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), now known as "al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Magreb". Clearly, George W. Bush's crusade in Iraq helped the most radical Islamists gain ground, particularily among the younger generation of Muslims, many of North African origins and living in derelict suburbs, where integration failed most spectacularly. Fundamentalists did their "best" to cut those from their parents, who embraced the Republic and integration.

- Christian fundamentalism had been pretty much silenced since Vatican II, until George W. Bush and Benedict XVI revived it. Recently, the latter even lifted the excommunication of four bishops ordained in 1988 by then Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the French leader of the very fundamentalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Among them, Richard Williamson, an outspoken Holocaust negationist.

- Over the past few years, hatemongers of all kinds have been multiplying provocations, including profanations of Jewish or Muslim tombs...

Fundamentalists are clearly waging a war on secular exceptions like Turkey and France. Both countries stand at key cultural crossroads, and see their institutional shields against fundamentalism repeatedly tested. Sunni fundamentalists are methodically working on the destruction of secular Turkey (and European Christian Fundamentalists applauding their efforts), but France sits at the top of the agenda for all breeds of radicals : the "Eldest daughter of The Church" lies at the heart of the EU, and boasts its biggest Muslim and Jewish communities.

Fundamentalists mean to destroy France's very foundations : liberty, equality, and fraternity within the "indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic". And if they don't succeed in amending laws, they try to play "religious freedom" against systems precisely meant to protect, fueling communautarism against integration, forcing people to take sides following their own agenda, to the point that even moderates can sound radical when they talk about them.

Even if French laws and Constitution were clear enough to avoid it, France had to pass a law to specifically ban religious signs in public schools and for civil servants. Islamic headscarves had almost become an obligation in certain areas, where young Muslim women couldn't (and still now can't) go out anymore without a headdress for fear of being violented, and not only verbally. A 2005 poll showed that 77% of French Muslim women wearing headscarf (we're talking the lightest form of garment) don't do it from their own will and wouldn't wear it if given the choice. A Muslim woman founded the association "Ni Putes Ni Soumises" (Neither Whores Nor Slaves) to defend women and particularily Muslim women. This fierce advocate for secularism is now Minister for Urban Policies.

Likewise, these days, France is compelled to position itself for or against burqa. The vast majority of French Muslims are against this import from Islamists, and a bill will probably be needed to specify a ban for burqa and niqab. Even if, unlike headscarves, there are only a few hundred cases in the whole country.

I know that, from a US perspective, such a ban can sound extreme, particularily after Obama's speech in Cairo (see "State of The World Union : The Obama Doctrine")****.

But you have to understand how the vital battle under way within the Muslim world impacts this very special country, where fundamentalism is spreading like fire at the expense of the silent moderate minority (particularily young women). Except for a few Islamist radicals, Muslim organizations are in favor of these laws because they are precisely seeking from the state protection from fundamentalism.

Of course, producing the law remains tricky and legislators have to be very careful : it's about bringing everybody together and certainly not antagonizing. And of course, France must do better at the root of extremism, which thrives on poverty and unfairness. The self proclaimed "country of human rights" does support dictatures overseas and tolerate inequalities and discriminations at home.

As you see, France is a strange country... but its laws are not meant against religion but in favor of a clear separation between politics and religion, to better defend democracy and religion from those who want to destroy both.

stephane mot - blogules 2009

* elsewhere, wearing the burqa can be about both religion and politics (fundamentalism rules), or simply about tradition. But even in the case of tradition, the same political statement exists.

** I know that's unfair because positive meanings have been twisted. Some expressions can be most unfortunate, maybe not as criminal as the "crusade" mentioned by W. after 9/11, but "Western values" has unfortunately become almost a moto for the "Clash of Civilization" imposture.

*** Furthermore, every database featuring individuals should be declared to a specific commission, and every individual has the right to have his record deleted if he or she stops subscribing to a service.

**** On the other hand, what sounds extreme to French people is a democracy where the President swears in on a Bible, finishing by the words "so help me God". It's OK when Obama's speaking, but when Fundamentalist in Chief Dubya speaks, the words resonated very differently. I know that JFK said ("considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word 'God' at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension"), but I had a dream : Barack Obama has a "Zapatero moment" for his second inauguration (see "So help me Rick Warren").

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