Posts Tagged ‘France’
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.
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.
Is France’s military intervention in Mali a neo-colonial enterprise, dressed up in the conveniently nebulous language of the ‘war on terror’? France’s less than gleaming record in the region – with 50 military interventions, since the 50 years of independence in 14 francophone African countries – has left many questioning the official narrative of restoring order to the country.
In the midst of its economic woes, cynics might look at France’s intervention in Libya which brought home lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts and point to Mali’s significant natural resources. Others speculate that Hollande’s shaky political standing and the virtually unquestioned support bestowed upon any leader opining to combat Al Qaeda and its associates, offers motivations closer to home. Few things can ensure political consensus on the French political scene the way ’operation Serval’ has. A few renegades not withstanding – including former PM Dominique de Villepin who drew parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan – the Socialists, UMP and even the National Front have approved Hollande’s decision. But surely if the decade has taught us anything about defeating highly motivated guerrilla groups, it is that short interventions turn into protracted, bloody battles which can only actually be resolved at the diplomatic table.
So why has France decided to intervene and why now? Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been a longstanding concern in the region and the suggestion it has teamed up with criminal and militant elements in the lawless region in northern Mali is bound to create some concern. This is particularly true as these elements take advantage of the power vacuum which has followed Mali’s military coup in March 2012, to expand control over greater parts of the north, emboldened by the government’s unresponsiveness. Indeed, in October last year an EU official warned “”We consider AQIM the growing, and maybe the leading, threat against us.”
In the last few years, the northern region has become a haven for criminal activity and a key transit route for cocaine trafficking. A recent United Nations mission in the Sahel region described northern Mali as a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and rebellion. Until recently, Mali’s disaffected ethnic tuaregs, a nomadic people at odds with the Mali government, had teamed with jihadists to take control over an area the size of France, in a marriage of convenience which soon ended in infighting. Criminal activity has funded the purchase of weapons used to impose an extremist form of control, which has included public executions and the use of child soldiers.
This growing militancy in northern Mali has occurred alongside the demise of one of West Africa’s hopes, as the military overthrow of a democratic government has left the country as just another ’failed state.’ Given broader instability in the region, namely that of the indigenous militants of the Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, arms floating around following NATO support to rebels in Libya, and the predominantly Algerian AQIM, a small but dangerous group involved in the hostage crisis on an oil plant in alleged retaliation for France’s “crusade”, the implications of Mali’s instability are far reaching for the region. Popular support for French intervention among African leaders should be understood in light of the instability wrought by extremist elements and more cynically, to the Western aid which may also ensue.
On one hand, the extremist alliance at work in northern Mali, which includes AQIM, Mali’s homegrown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Dine rebels suggests an emboldening of jihadist elements in the face of West Africa’s struggling states. Though a military solution will likely defeat this threat, although perhaps not as quickly as the French might hope, Foreign minister Laurent Fabius having optimistically predicted the intervention would last “a matter of weeks”- it is unlikely to resolve systemic political instability. A military intervention looks a lot like a quick fix solution to a much deeper problem which involves a legacy of failed states, poverty, ethnic tensions and corruption. Northern Mali has never been properly integrated into the state, with poor social indicators across the board, leaving an alienated ethnical tuareg minority willing to forge insalubrious alliances. Oxford researcher in African studies, Harry Verhoeven described the problem, saying: “the jihadists are a symptom, veiling a deeper crisis of underdevelopment, failed nation-building and faltering public services delivery in Mali and the Sahel more broadly.”
Comparisons with Afghanistan have their limitations, but after 11 years of armed conflict, the realisation has dawned on many that the political stability of any nation cannot be secured through strictly military means. French President François Hollande has described the goal of the operation as “to ensure that when we leave (…) Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.” A unilateral military approach alone is unlikely to achieve any of these goals. Without addressing the endemic problems which contribute to the fragility of Mali’s state, France’s actions could simply be adding fuel to the fire.
Such was the global political upheaval of last year that many across the political spectrum were moved to ask whether 2011 would become as era-defining as 1968 and 1989. Even those uncertain about the aims and prospects for the Arab Spring couldn’t help but feel inspired by the youth-led demands for democracy and change, which stood in stark contrast to the seeming conservatism and apathy of their Western counterparts. Similar enthusiasm for the spirited rebellion of the young has been shown towards a number of anti-austerity movements such UK Uncut, Spain’s Indignados, Alexis Tsipiras’ Greek SYRIZA coalition and the youthful support for Hollande in France. Meanwhile, from one-off demonstrations such as SlutWalk to large-scale calls for social change like Occupy, social media has become an increasingly influential mobilisation tool for global protest.
Yet a celebration of the radicalisation of previously apathetic youth turns to profound concern over the rise of a ‘new European far right’, with the likes of Hungary’s Jobbik and Finland’s True Finns complemented by the electoral breakthroughs of Le Pen in France and Golden Dawn in Greece. There is much discussion of how what unites European youth is the relative hopelessness of the ‘jilted generation’, saddled with debt, ageing populations and high unemployment. The exodus of the young from crisis-ridden countries such as Ireland and Greece seems to indicate the depths of youthful desperation, although some see opportunity for new allegiances and communities of interest to be formed through the turmoil. For some, last summer’s English riots were an angry and incoherent reaction against the politics of austerity; for others, however, the nihilism of the riots suggested that the generation told they have ‘no future’ had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Do Europe’s youth need to unite together as particular victims of the crisis, or would such a perspective simply breed division between the generations, undermining social solidarity? Is it useful to discuss social movements and problems in generational terms at all? Are there grounds for apprehension in the rise of populism, or is there a danger of scaremongering? Is there potential for a European Spring, or is it more a case of hope springs eternal?
Speakers / discussants:
emeritus professor, English and American studies, Middlesex University; author,Riot City: protest and rebellion in the capital
writer; head of sociology, JFS Sixth Form Centre; contributor, spiked
writer; editor; campaigner; former senior editor, Prospect
DPhil candidate, Oriental Studies, Oxford University; journalist; regular panellist, BBC1′s Big Questions
researcher in the problematisation of happiness and wellbeing, University of Kent, Canterbury
journalist; former campaign coordinator and web editor, Hacked Off
Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, “PR jargon”, designed to shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject the term on grounds of the ‘freedom to criticise’ Islam. This particular argument is disconcerting in that Islam is regularly subjected to the sort of scrutiny rarely if ever, afforded to other faiths, and many of those who seek to counter islamophobia, myself included, have been equally committed to defending free speech. The term ‘islamophobia’ is many things, but it is not an attempt at muzzling critical inquiry.
Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. Chief amongst these, the late Italian writer and left-wing journalist Oriana Fallaci insisted that Islam is a violent and totalitarian creed; British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties as a form of collective punishment and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well – Gospel. Paul Hockenos argues that “the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way.”
There have been many attempts at defining islamophobia and debates rage over its Orientalist or Post-9/11 emergence and the appropriate response to it (legislation vs. education). However, despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.
A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran ‘says’ – Islam doesn’t speak – people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. Islamophobia is when influential figures like Tonybee or others define Islam in a public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. The reification of faith by public figures with prominent platforms, assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can’t. To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in a depraved hate cult.
What’s more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized minorities – South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail’s choice to use the term “muslim gang” to refer to rapists who plied young girls with alcohol and raped them, is one such example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion. While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed “imported cultural baggage”, commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly interpreted that to mean Islam. Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behaviour of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism.
The close imbrication of religion, race and culture in almost every part of the world makes disassociating them a complex affair. Take the case of Nouredine Rachedi, a young Frenchman who was returning home late one evening in Paris when two men approached him and asked him if he was Muslim. They then proceed to beat him so savagely, he was incapacited for three weeks with severe head injuries. Nouredine is clean shaven and was dressed inconspicuously. His aggressors singled him out on the basis of his ethnic profile, before determining his religious identity based on his verbal confirmation.
Islamphobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands for based on their being identified as Muslim. This represents the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, described by critical race theory. New forms of discrimination are complex and subtle, they largely avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.
The assumptions is, there are some cultures that are more backward than our highly evolved selves and that honour killings, forced marriages and blood feuds are reflections of an ‘islamic’ culture, which through the presence of Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Such pernicious assumptions are then reflected in people’s attitudes and behaviour towards Muslims. One recent study showed 58 percent of Germans in favour of restricting religious freedom for Muslims. According to recent findings by Faith matters, Muslim women face increasing harassment by EDL sympathisers.
The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam – assumed to be a hegemonic influence on people’s behaviour- is responsible for virtually all social ills from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all religions have plural expressions, with as many implications for freedom of expression, women, democracy or the use of violence for political ends.
The concern is that the racist essentializing of “Muslimhood” is ignored on the grounds that the term ‘islamophobia’ isn’t clear enough. I would wager the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end – such as when Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a “moderate cockroach” whose Islamic faith was “no different from the Islam of Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anjem Choudary”. Or when the American writer Laila Lalami ‘s husband was asked by an immigration officer “So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?”
Islamophobia is only unclear to those who see to obfuscate its meaning. It is the tendency to reify Islam - that is to assume the behaviour of given individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the theoretical underpinnings of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of that essentialised identity.
The struggle against Islamophobia is in fact the struggle for more accurate and less lazy explanations of phenomena, getting to the root of the issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on a theoretical body of ideas. There is no more one ‘Islam’ to blame for people’s behaviour, than there is one ‘Christianity’. That might seem like a truism, but whilst it would be comical to speak of the US nuclear arsenal as the ‘Judaeo-Christian bomb’, it has become all too common to speak of the weapons of, say, Pakistan, Iran or Libya as the ‘Islamic bomb’. Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we claim the muslimness of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular culture from blame when the men themselves refer to the young women using the sadly popular playground put down “slags”. We regularly see ‘Islam’ used as a catch-all phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues at hand.
Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting and insipid stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily Mirror, that Zain Malik of boyband One Direction, was “pimping Islam” on young girls through “boyband jihad”. Or the use of imagery to fan the flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday, did by superimposing the image of a woman in a burka against a caustic article entitled “Foreign-born population in the UK” of which ironically India, a Hindu majority country topped the list. Or the ease with which columnist and writers can refer to Muslim women as “shroud-swishing zombies” or “silly little misguided Muslim girls” (Julie Burchill; The Sun June 24th, 2009) dressed like “a Dalek in a full veil’ (John Gaunt;The Sun June 20th, 2008) or Dame Ann Leslie’s reference to Muslim women as ‘dressed in bin bags’ on last Sunday Morning Live.
Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising the danger this discourse poses in legitimising the Far-right, a growing trend across Europe where the National Front recently won two seats in the French parliament. In light of the Breivik massacre, it is acknowledging that far from being a lone sociopath, his actions were grounded, according to his manifesto, in an all too common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column within Europe and a threat to Western values. In fact, a report by the Cardiff school of journalism found that from 2008, stories in the media on Islam’s alleged incompatibility with dominant British values outnumbered those relating to Islam and terrorism. A consequence of this ‘theoretical’ islamophobia, the intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions.
According to a report from Amnesty International, “European Muslims are regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination against them.” Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief warns of the “existing notions of a collective mentality that is stereotypically, and often negatively, ascribed to all followers of various religions or beliefs. In extreme cases, such ascription of a collective mentality may amount to ‘de-personalised’ perceptions of human beings, possibly with devastating dehumanizing repercussions.”
Just as minarets or headscarves or face veils or beards have become visible markers of Islam and have become imbued with a significance beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in a way people don’t choose their ethnicity. The truth is we don’t choose the significance people attribute to our symbols – especially when we have so little access to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have choice in those concerning the symbols which people interpret naively or willingly according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural incompatibility.
John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has argued that “opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.” It is time the Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about religion in general and Islam in particular.
The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to ‘Islam’ and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.
Madonna: Opposing the FN while performing in Israel is like denouncing animal cruelty whilst wearing mink
Madonna has always had a flair for publicity stunts. This week, she sparked controversy by showing an image of France’s Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika across her forehead during a concert in Tel Aviv. Though some judged her decision to publicly berate Le Pen as risqué, few have noted the irony of her stance given her choice to perform in a country currently governed by members of the Far-right. The threat posed by Ms Le Pen, whose party has 2 MPs in the French parliament, pales in comparison with the actual damage the Far-Right have wrought in Israel. Discriminatory policies so far enacted include home demolitions, severe prohibitions on construction, settlement expansion, movement restrictions, and denial of access to land and water. And while Marine Le Pen has previously compared France’s Muslims to the Nazi occupation, Israel’s Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman upped the ante by calling for the execution of any Arab MPs who met with Hamas, comparing them to Nazi ‘collaborators’.
Madonna’s decision to make an ill-conceived political statement comes in the context of lobbying by Human Rights groups who’d sought to dissuade her from performing in Israel, citing the brutality of the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian land as well as its discriminatory, apartheid like system. In the first in a series of misjudgements, the queen of pop sought to silence her critics by offering them – presumably sardonically – free tickets to her concert.
Both Israel and France have seen a surge in the popularity of a Far-right themes in recent years, including hyper-nationalist and xenophobic ideas, disguised as a concern over immigration and ‘cultural identity’, partly fuelled by shared platforms whereby Israeli ministers have welcomed far-right European leaders. Parallels in the discourse have become increasingly salient, and the French National Front leader’s claim that immigrants represent a threat to France’s “national identity” seems almost tame compared with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai ‘s statement that “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”
Madonna’s decision to take a stand against the French National Front comes amid recent protests by the Far-Right in Israel calling for the mass deportation of African immigrants. Likud party member Miri Regev recently referred to African Migrants as a “cancer” in Israeli society and following a public outcry, chose to apologise to cancer suffers - though not to migrants… Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself referred to the Africans as “the infiltrator problem” who, like Arab Palestinians are said to represent a threat to the security and identity of the Jewish state, in a statement which could equally have been pronounced by Ms Le Pen concerning France’s Muslim population.
What is the significance of the imagery used by the songstress, in a country where Arab citizens face routine discrimination including calls they sign an oath of loyalty to the state? Where migrants can be detained for up to three years without trial or deportation? and where, in 2004, a member of the Likud party proposed “massive ethnic cleansing” of non-Jews as a “final solution” of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – Is the absurdity of opposing the Far-right from a country involved in ethnic cleansing somehow lost on Madge?
Madonna’s selective denunciation of Far-Right rhetoric is perplexing, particularly when anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment are often correlated. While her father was fond of holocaust denial and racial slurs, Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric reflects a broader shift in the Far-Right towards a less racialised discourse, focused on national identity and the alleged threat posed to it by immigrants and principally, Islam. The fact Islam is the religion of 6 million French citizens suggests ‘immigrants’ are not the only ones being targeted. This isn’t to suggest the FN has exorcised its anti-Semitic demons, far from it, but the evolution in the language and the focus of Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic diatribes is clear – the new enemy is Muslims. Opposing the Far-Right necessarily involves reflecting this evolving strategy and supporting all victims of their discrimination.
Marine Le Pen is a dangerous and deplorable voice in French politics who should rightly be condemned. However, she neither leads the country, nor currently has significant influence in devising discriminatory policies, unlike the Far-right in Israel. While both the FN and Israeli Far-right subscribe to a hierarchical conception of race expressed in what Pierre Vial calls “ethno-differentialism”, a vision which relegates those outside the accepted group to second-class citizenship, the Far-right in Israel actually has the power to implement its policies and has done so. Madonna’s publicity stunt may have seemed like a jibe to the FN, but her decision to perform in a country governed by members of the Far-right is a significantly greater validation of their legitimacy. Unless she plans to feature a picture of Netanyahu wearing a Klu Klux Klan outfit in her next concert – I, for one, will be boycotting it.