You can read this on the Huff Post site, here
France’s distinctive take on secularism is once again making headlines. A sacred virtue of the Republic, it is unquestionable within the hexagon where political careers are built on its defence. But a recent case is causing controversy. The decision by France’s High court (Court of Cassation) to overturn the dismissal of Muslim nursery nurse, Fatima Afif for wearing a headscarf while working at a Paris crèche in 2008, has placed the spotlight on the increasingly politicised use of the term.
On March 19th, the court ruled that the private nature of the crèche rendered her firing a ”discrimination on the basis of religious convictions”, overturning two earlier rulings by an employment tribunal in 2010 and a court of appeal in 2011, and ordering the crèche pay her 2500 euros. Many French Muslims viewed the decision with muted optimism, hoping that the precedent set by the court would protect French Muslim women from misapplications of the law on laicite and unfair dismissals. In 2012, a report by Amnesty international found that Muslim women are routinely “denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf.” The report also found that legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment is not being appropriately implemented, despite contravening European Union (EU) anti-discrimination legislation.
But in a sign of just how politicised Islamic issues have become in France, within days of the ruling, Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls responded by expressing his “regret” at the court’s verdict, while former Prime Minister Francois Fillon took the opportunity to call for an extension of the law on laicite to all work places, including the private sector. Within days, the case had reignited the ”laicite debate”, fuelling endless discussions over French identity and the alleged intractability of Muslims.
From the late ’80s when the first case concerning Muslim women’s dress became a political issue, the reach of laicite has crept ever more worryingly into the private sphere. The 2004 ban on ”ostensible religious symbols” in schools, has been followed by the 2010 ban on face veils in “public spaces”. For its opponents, such legislation has bolstered various forms of anti-Muslim prejudice, apparent in a range of worrying developments, from discrimination in housing and employment, through to attacks on Muslims and their places of worship.
Many perceive the discourse on laicite as a cover for a stigmatisation of French Muslims who already face widespread discrimination and racism. A 2010 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found discrimination in access to employment, education, housing, and goods and services. A young activist currently lobbying MPs to reject any new legislation, told me that the discourse on laicite now allows for the expression of a respectable form of racism which specifically targets Muslims.
In his election pledge, President Hollande promised to be a figure of unity, decrying Sarkozy’s divisive policies, pandering to the Far-Right, and portraying himself as a president for “all French citizens”. According to one poll, 93% of French Muslims voted for the Socialist candidate, but many have been left disappointed.
In 2012, then spokesperson for the Socialist party, Benoît Hamon expressed surprise at support from socialist senators for the “anti-veiled nanny” law, as it has come to be known, describing it as ”collateral damage from the debate on national identity” initiated by the Right in 2009 and affirming that the Socialist party would not support such a law if it came to power. But within a week of the High court ruling, and following a petition by public figures calling for a new “law on laicite”, President Hollande added his voice to the clamour, venturing that “where there is contact with children, in what we call public service nurseries, in a crèche which benefits from public funding, there must be a certain similarity with what occurs in schools”, referring to the 2004 ban on ”ostensible religious symbols.” Worse news still for French Muslim women was his apparent willingness to consider an extension of the law to all companies “in contact with the public or undertaking a mission of general interest or of public service”, just as MPs on the Right are pushing for the law to cover all work places, public and private.
In response, 40 public figures, academics and intellectuals published a statement on March 28th, which gathered over 3000 signatures, opposing the law and calling for a commission on islamophobia.
Historically, the Left’s record is no more tolerant than the Right’s on Muslim issues. The Left overwhelmingly backed the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools and it was a French socialist minister who proposed the criminalisation of face veils. In 2010, First Secretary of the Socialist Party Martine Aubry voiced that unlike the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) which had put forward a Muslim candidate who wore the veil in regional elections, the socialist party would not have accepted such a candidate.
However a number of dissenting voices within the Socialist party have begun to make themselves heard, seeking to distance themselves from anti-Muslim rhetoric viewed as the legacy of the Sarkozy era. Among them, MPs Razzy Hammadi, Alexis Bachelay and Christophe Caresche have already spoken publicly, emphasising that laicite comes with responsibility, but also rights, including the right to freedom of conscience. Caresche denounced any extension of the ban on religious symbols to private companies, arguing that “French universalism, in the name of which republican principles are invoked, is less and less universal and more and more French” and warned that proposals put forward by the Right to extend the ban to all work places and even in public spaces, could produce greater exclusion.
Marwan Muhammad, from the Collective against Islamophobia in France says a grassroots campaign started by his organisation is beginning to change attitudes in France’s national assembly, including that of up to 20 predominantly Leftist MPs: “Public opinion is progressively realising the abuses occurring under the pretext of laicite and an increasing number of people are realising that you can’t ban people from workplaces or you risk affecting social cohesion. There is no French cultural exception which can justify racism towards Muslim women.”
As it stands, Muslim women who wear the veil struggle to find any type of employment, with few exceptions. The spread of intolerant attitudes using the cover of laicite was recently illustrated in the case of 15 year old student Sirine Ben Yahiaten, expelled from school for wearing a headband and long skirt, deemed “too religious” by her teachers. Some within the Left have expressed concerns that the instrumentalisation of laicite to create increasingly stringent guidelines prohibiting people of faith from exercising their religion, will contribute to ghettoization and marginalisation, as faith groups are pushed to forge separate schools and companies willing to accommodate their religious needs.
But with some polls suggesting a majority of over 80% would support a ban on the extension of religious symbols in places involving contact with children, it seems Muslim women’s struggle against employment discrimination is far from over. Having expressed his support for the new law, any backing down by Hollande now will be painted by his rivals as a capitulation to ‘Muslim radicals’ at a time when his popularity is already at an all time low. But with growing dissension within his own party and the government, the ‘laicite debate’ won’t be ending any time soon.
I participated in this debate/discussion on Sunday 26th of March, hosted by Nicky Campbell.
Among those taking part were philosopher AC Grayling, former Bishop of Rochester Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, Prof the Baroness Afshar from York University, Symon Hill from Ekkelsia, Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead Synagogue, Naomi Philips from Labour Humanists, writer and academic Myriam Francois Cerrah, Gita Sahgal from Centre for Secular Space, Pastor Mark Mullins from Strangers’ Rest Mission and Dr Audra Mitchell from York University.
You can read this on my Huff Post blog here
When news broke that Lord Ahmed had allegedly blamed Jews for his 12-week stint behind bars for killing a man through reckless driving, I tweeted my disgust with his blatant expression of prejudice. Many Muslims echoed my sentiments.
That’s why Mehdi Hasan latest blog “The sorry truth is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected the British Muslim community” has left me feeling uncomfortable.
A critical factor in Lord Ahmed’s statement was his audience. Speaking in Pakistan where radical groups regularly peddle anti-semitic libel, he thought his words would find resonance. Do I think he would have made that same statement to a British Muslim audience , even if he thought the cameras weren’t watching? No I don’t. Because regardless of the anti-Semitism of certain elements among British Muslims, anti-Semitic discourse is not considered acceptable and does not routinely go unchallenged.
On one hand, Mehdi is absolutely right to point out that anti-Semitic attitudes are not uncommon in Muslim circles and have become somewhat normalised, concealing the ugly face of hate behind objections to Israeli policies and spurious claims of Jewish conspiracies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the stumbling block in much Jewish-Muslim dialogue. As one interfaith activist told me, “we’re fine as long as we steer away from Middle East politics.” The single biggest issue which fosters animosity towards Jews, whom some erroneously fail to distinguish from expansionist Israelis, is the Israel Palestine conflict. This doesn’t make the intolerance any less inexcusable of course. The other significant factor fostering anti-Semitism is conspiracy theories, an unfortunate import from many Muslim majority countries, where opaque and autocratic governing structures lend themselves to an unhealthy fixation with the machinations of “dark forces”. Both tensions over the Middle East conflict, as well as conspiracy theories go some way towards explaining the existence of anti-Semitic attitudes. They certainly don’t excuse them.
On the other hand, I do not see such views as being tolerated, considered acceptable or even being ignored – on the few occasions I have witnessed anti-Jewish sentiment, I have seen it robustly challenged usually by the “mild-mannered and well-integrated British Muslims” Mehdi refers to. That said, I’ve also witnessed an elderly Muslim man remonstrating an over-zealous youth by reminding him that our forefather Prophet Abraham, whom we praise alongside Prophet Mohamed in all five of our daily prayers, was the Patriarch of the Jewish people. So while I support Mehdi for taking a stand against anti-semitism and urging Muslims to be as diligent in denouncing it as they are islamophobia, I reject the presumed community complicity implied by his reference to ”our dirty little secret”.
It’s disheartening to hear Mehdi’s been witness to so much anti-semitism, but it is important to recognise that his, like mine, is just one experience amongst many. More reliable indicators of Muslim-Jewish relations are the sheer number of cooperative initiatives and evidence of mutual solidarity. In 2009, following the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, British Muslims rallied together to denounce anti-Semitic attacks amid fears of a backlash against Jewish communities in Britain. In March last year when Mohamed Merah opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing seven, Jews and Muslims marched together in a show of solidarity against hate. The Gathering of European Muslim and Jewish Leaders regularly brings together over 70 religious leaders as part of an effort to develop good Muslim-Jewish relations across Europe. Such displays of camaraderie are not anomalous.
Mehdi’s presumption of group guilt undermines the valuable work being done by many interfaith groups – the MUJU Comedy Crew, the Joseph Interfaith Foundation and the Three Faiths Foundation, among others – in recognition of our shared heritage. It also unfairly tares the vast majority of Muslims who do in fact reject anti-Semitism and who risk henceforth being viewed with suspicion.
Commenting on a Gallup poll which showed that in the US, the single most powerful predictor of “a great deal” of prejudice toward Muslims is equivalent negative bias toward Jews, James Carroll wrote: “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are halves of the same walnut. That is surprising because Jews and Muslims are widely perceived–and often perceive themselves–as antagonists occupying opposite poles in the great contemporary clash of cultures.” The reality is that Jews and Muslims share the same struggle against intolerance and prejudice and many are united in opposing regressive legislation which affects the practice of rituals central to both faiths.
When Baroness Warsi stated that islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain, she referred to the way in which anti-Muslim sentiment is increasingly perceived as normal. It is a misnomer to argue that anti-Semitism has passed the same threshold in the British Muslim community. Any intolerance is too much intolerance and so I applaud Mehdi for highlighting the critical importance of standing against bigotry in all its forms. I just hope his somewhat rash generalisations won’t be used to validate anti-Muslim prejudice, and we can all move beyond notions of ‘the other’, in order to find ways to work towards the common good.
Is it time for Britain to separate Church and State and become a secular state? – read it here on the BBC website
Myriam Francois-Cerrah and Symon Hill approach the debate from different perspectives
As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked two contributors to BBC One’s The Big Questions to develop some of the issues.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer, academic and a Muslim. She believes that the UK today is largely a secular society and that this is already reflected at the level of the state.
She says that separating church and the state runs the risk of marginalising religious people and in some cases forwarding an anti-religious agenda.
Symon Hill is a left-wing Christian writer, blogger and associate-director of the not-for-profit Christian think tank Ekklesia which “examines the role of beliefs, values and faith in public life”.
He is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and believes that the church and the state should be separate.
A secular state?
Myriam: Britain is already a deeply secular country. The exception is the Church of England and the privileges it continues to enjoy, including unelected Bishops in the House of Lords. There is certainly public support for a reform of the House of Lords, and that is a good thing.
A moderate inclusive secularism is evolving in Britain, rather than a reactionary secularism, such as is found in France, which seeks to banish religion entirely from the public sphere.
Do we need to banish all Christian symbolism, rooted as it is in British history, in order to become ‘truly’ secular – I’m not sure we do.
What is critical is that the state evolves in a manner which reflects the changing makeup of its citizenry. Prince Charles suggesting he’d rather be referred to as “defender of Faith” rather than defender of ‘the’ Faith is one such example of this.
However I am deeply wary of the trend which seeks to hijack arguments for greater secularism, ie: more equal access to the state by all, in order to seek to marginalise religious people and their presence and voice in the public sphere.
This is an intolerant strand within the secularist movement which misinterprets secularism and seeks to redefine it to advance an anti-religious agenda.
Symon: I agree that Britain is in some ways a more secular society than it once was, but it is not a secular state. The monarch promises to uphold Christianity. The Church of England’s leaders can vote on legislation in Parliament. Religious schools are allowed to discriminate in selection and recruitment.
In 2010, the House of Lords narrowly passed an amendment to the Equality Act exempting employees of religious organisations from some aspects of homophobic discrimination. The amendment was passed so narrowly that, without the bishops, the vote would have gone the other way.
I reject all this, as a Christian committed to religious liberty.
I don’t support French-style “secularism” in which religion is marginalised and privatised.
Faith in schools
Myriam: I think we agree that the state is not yet fully secular. The vestiges of a Christian state in Britain are symbolic. The monarch promises to uphold Christianity, true, but in practice the future king Prince Charles has shown himself very committed to giving real value to modern Britain’s multi-faith identity (while being politically impotent!)
What does it mean to be a secularist?
A secular state is a neutral state – it should provide for the needs of all its citizens, religious or not.
It is the right of tax-paying religious citizens, as all citizens, to access facilities suited to their needs. Discrimination would principally be a problem if these were the only schools on offer, which clearly they are not.
I’m in favour of a broader selection process so children of all faiths and none can benefit from faith-based education.
You claim to oppose people being forced to adopt certain values and yet it seems you wish to do exactly that.
Liberal mores are not neutral – they are one of many ethical perspectives which a neutral, secular state must accommodate.
Symon: I’m pleased we agree on some things! For example, faith schools should not be allowed to discriminate.
You say that faith schools are not the only ones on offer. For some people, in rural communities, they really are. I went to a Church of England school as a child because it was the village school.
The religious teaching that I got there put me off Christianity and turned me temporarily into an atheist, though I later turned to Christ in spite of it!
Some of the vestiges of Christianity are indeed symbolic, but symbolism can be important. As a Christian, I am disturbed by what these symbols say about Christianity. During his life, Jesus took the side of the poor and marginalised. He reserved his harshest words for the rich and powerful and for religious hypocrites. In contrast, the monarchy and House of Lords represent privilege and inequality.
The radical, subversive message of Christ has been hijacked.
Myriam: The lack of non-faith schools available in rural areas suggests we need more schools to cater for different choices, not that faith schools themselves are problematic. I agree with you that the socially hierarchical Christianity represented by the royal family seems at odds with the message of egalitarianism promoted by both our faiths.
My main concern with a desire to do away entirely with Christian symbolism is that it contributes to the fostering of a sense of national identity and culture.
If Christianity can be inclusive and embrace the changing nature of British society, then I wouldn’t object to its continued presence in the public sphere .
Symon: National symbols tend to change over time. There are many people trying to cling on to symbols while forgetting what they represent. There are those who talk of the right to wear a cross, but forget that the cross represents the execution of Jesus by a brutal empire whose power he challenged. It symbolises resistance to oppression.
Yet there are right-wing lobby groups that talk up the idea of “preserving Britain’s Christian heritage” or insist that “Britain is a Christian country”.
They overlook the fact that the British Empire was claiming to be Christian while engaged in the slave trade and while committing genocide in Tasmania.
While Christian symbols are still attached to an outdated and reactionary idea of what it means to be British, Christian language can be misused as an excuse for homophobia and racial prejudice.
Myriam: Like you, I would like to see religion siding with the poor and disenfranchised rather than seeking to perpetuate privilege and an antiquated social hierarchy based on class.
But I hope to see more religion, rather than less religion in the public sphere in the future, including voices with which I may profoundly disagree.
A secular state – in other words, a neutral state – shouldn’t seek to impose a particular vision of morality beyond the very basic bounds of avoiding direct harm to others.
Today, religious voices are often ridiculed and derided as outmoded, with little value for the modern world. But this is throwing out a rich inheritance – we shouldn’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.
Religion is about fostering compassion, love and kindness towards others – it seems tragic that we as a society have virtually relegated religion to the history books.
A secular state and a rich religious life are absolutely not in contradiction, but I do hope secularism isn’t used as a Trojan horse to advance anti-religious intolerance, which fails to recognise the true value of religion and religious individuals to the greater good of our society.
My latest at Al Jazeera English, also on the Huff Post:
When Sarah approached her manager at a large media company about taking maternity leave, she found herself bargaining over the duration: “I knew I wanted six months to be with my son, but she immediately started talking me down, saying four months was plenty. I felt pressured to agree to take less time”. When Sarah returned to work, her manager informed her that she would not be entitled to “special treatment” and announced she’d been posted to a new job which involved travelling every few weeks, for months at a time. “I wasn’t sacked, but they made it impossible for me to stay. I’d specifically said I didn’t want a post which involved too much travelling for extended periods, but when I returned, that was the only job on offer to me.”
Stories like Sarah’s are increasingly common. A report released today by the group Working Families has revealed high levels of maternity discrimination for the third year running, reinforcing recent research suggesting this is a growing trend.
Despite this, very few women take any formal action. According to the most recent national research in 2005, of women who lost their jobs due to discrimination, 8% took action, while only 3% went to tribunal. The vast majority (71%) did nothing, a statistic advocacy group Maternity Action put down to women being “very cautious out of fear, they’ll be labelled trouble makers – a lot of women simply go quietly”. Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families stated “we have far too many callers who, even when advised about their rights, are reluctant to take action for fear of losing their jobs”. And as of this year, women taking a pregnancy discrimination claim to an employment tribunal will face fees of £1,200, deterring many more.
In 2005, the Equal Opportunity Commission found that 30,000 women each year were losing their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination. Today, campaigners describe increasing levels of unfair selection of pregnant women and new mothers for redundancy and described the discrimination as increasingly “blatant”. Figures show that one in seven women in a recent survey by OnePoll had lost their job while on maternity leave. The Fawcett Society believes in times of austerity, when employers cannot afford to take any perceived risks to profits and growing business, discrimination against women in the workplace is likely to rise. The downsizing and restructuring of many companies due to the economic recession has meant a hike in redundancies, with many pregnant and new mothers adversely affected and those in less skilled jobs perceived as dispensable.
In many cases, pregnant women or new mothers are made to feel they no longer have a place within the company, with attitudes towards pregnancy increasingly hostile. Just last month, Mark Thomas, the former chief executive of BBC Studios & Post Production, was accused of declaring that “female workers of child-caring responsibilities should not hold senior management positions”. Businessman Lord Alan Sugar, who’d previously stated that the way to get round the laws protecting pregnant women was not to employ them, has also criticised laws which ban interviewers from grilling women about whether they want children. And such attitudes are not restricted to a few renegades, with a government survey indicating that 24% of men thought that women on maternity leave should be made redundant before anyone else.
For Rosalind Bragg, whose organisation Maternity Action has also recorded a hike in discrimination, media coverage of pregnancy leave negatively affects women’s perception of their rights: “Media coverage of maternity leave increasingly represents this as a burden on business, and this has definitely influenced women’s approach to their maternity rights”. The consequence of these misrepresentations is women often feel unsure about their entitlements, and guilty for demanding their rights. She added: “Many women are unaware of the law prohibiting pregnancy discrimination and do not recognize their experiences as discrimination.” From the notion of ditzy mums ill-equipped to handle the pressures of work through to portrayals of ‘yummy mummies’* unabashedly enjoying iced Frappuccino’s while their employers foot the bill, feminist writer Glosswitch notes “almost all mummies – no matter who they are or what they’re doing – are perceived to be a bit rubbish.”
The very perception of pregnant woman betrays assumptions concerning their abilities and reliability. A 2007 study found that “visibly pregnant women managers are judged as less committed to their jobs, less dependable, and less authoritative, but warmer, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal women managers who are not visibly pregnant”. What’s more, research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests bearing children means women are “judged to be significantly less competent” and were “least likely to be hired or promoted”. Such perceptions are born out in the cases handled by charities like Working Families. One caller who was four months pregnant was sacked following her three month probationary period with her employer stating that she “would be focusing on other things and that she wouldn’t be capable of doing the job”.
Among the core concerns listed in Working Families’ report is “employer imposed changes to working patterns which undermine parents’ ability to combine work and childcare”. The organisation found many more employers in 2012 were too quick to turn down a request for flexible working, which combined with the impact of childcare tax credit cuts, disproportionately and negatively impacts women. Britain has some of the highest childcare costs in the world, in an economic climate which renders the cost of childcare relative to wages so disadvantageous as to push women towards non-remunerated work within the home - even when they’d rather be out working for a salary.
Among the incidents handled by the group was an employer insisting that a female staffer work a late night rota. If she did, she could not pick her child up in time from nursery and it would cost her between £60 and £80 in charges for every late night worked. Despite informing the employer that she was struggling to feed her children and was feeling “completely and utterly desperate”, her employer responded that it was “her choice to have children”. For many women, flexible hours are not simply a luxury, they are a basic necessity allowing them to remain in the workplace.
Liz Gardiner, head of policy for Working Families believes the government’s Children and Families Bill, which seeks to promote a system of shared parental leave, including extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, could help tackle pregnancy related discrimination. “Improving rights for fathers to take paternity leave, would make it harder for employers to view women of child bearing age as the problem”. She also believes it is high time an EHRC review was conducted to document what she deems a ‘hardening of attitudes among employers’. At a time when the UK ranks 18th of 27 countries on job security and pay for women, the ‘motherhood penalty’ perpetuates the glass ceiling and fails to recognise the true contribution of mothers to society.
I’ll be participating in the Al Jazeera discussion program “Head to Head” with journalist Mehdi Hasan, interviewing author Irshad Manji this Friday 1st of March.
Tickets to the event are free and can be reserved at email@example.com
(Please state how many tickets, and give the names of the other people requesting a space.)
I’ll also be speaking at the Unite Against Fascism Conference this Saturday 2nd of March alongside Ken Livingstone, Owen Jones, Daniel Trilling, Marwan Mohamed and others – more details here