New Statesman: Why is David Cameron using British Muslims as the scapegoat for his government’s failings?
You can read the original piece here
In a video message to British Muslims to mark the beginning of the Muslim month of fasting yesterday, David Cameron drew a parallel between Muslim values and British values, as he affirmed the important contribution of Muslims to society, as part of “one nation”. His point about Muslim values and British values overlapping seemed a timely and important one, particularly considering recent tensions in Birmingham and elsewhere.
But just 24 hours later – and in a perfect illustration of government doublespeak – the PM has decided that Muslim communities apparently aren’t part of the “one nation” as much as they are quietly complicit in support of Islamic State (IS), guilty of normalising hatred of “western values” and, despite radicalisation happening primarily covertly online, primarily to blame for that too.
In brief, Muslims – not just the violence-preaching minority – are a problem community. Ramadan Mubarak to you too, David.
The PM’s speech at a security conference in Slovakia today has echoes of his 2011 Munich speech, in which he announced a shift in counter-terrorism strategy to an assertion of “muscular liberalism” as a means of challenging ideas, not simply violent acts, deemed to be in contradiction with the ever nebulous “British values”. Despite much critique of the strategy and little in the way of success, it has endured, largely down to an ideological commitment to its survival among some of Cameron’s more hawkish advisors.
Today’s speech comes in the light of serious questions being posed over the departure of 17-year-old Talha Asmal and an entire family for IS controlled-territory. According to the Munich-style rhetoric repeated today, the root of their departure is to be located nowhere in Britain or its policies (domestic or foreign) and entirely within the realm of “ideas” – or “islamist ideology”. Because Muslims don’t live in Britain, they live in Islam. Or Islamism. Or whatever.
The truth of course is that while ideas play their part, material conditions have far more influence in determining people’s behaviour than ideas per se – something the government seems determined to ignore.
In his speech, Cameron stated that “we are ignoring the fact that the radicalisation starts with the individual” – but the reality is that individuals are enmeshed in structures. They are not floating atoms, they are part of a broader fabric that contributes to their sense of self and belonging – or lack thereof. That is partly the fabric of their local communities, but also, the fabric of broader society. To focus purely on individual motivations – or ideology – is to try and disculpate broader society from its responsibility to its citizens. It essentialises Muslims as somehow the pure product of their religion and conveniently glosses over government failings, not least most recently in how a family known to the security services, with a close relative already fighting in Syria, was allowed to leave the country with young children in tow.
“The cause is ideological”, Cameron repeated, adding that non-violent views – or a pervasive “extreme Islamist narrative weight” – a phrase so poorly constructed it could only have been designed to obfuscate – paves the way to violent radicalisation. Those familiar with the defunct, yet decidedly resilient in Westminster circles “conveyor belt theory”, will recognise its hallmark. An indication that Cameron continues to be taken by narratives of radicalisation which have been debunked by everyone from former MI5 officers to leading terrorism experts.
And the reason the government is so poorly informed is that it has made the ill-advised decision to ignore local communities in favour of unrepresentative and ideologically-driven think tanks with little claim to authority beyond the fact their founders were naïve enough to join a pseudo-revolutionary Islamic group at university. Credentials indeed. The consequences are dire – a misplaced counterterrorism policy and a growing chasm between government and the very communities it should be working to build trust and cooperation, further alienating the very pool from which recruiters seek out marginalised youngsters. Hole in one!
But it gets better – or worse, as it were. It is those same communities that then become targets for hate as a consequence of the PM’s claim that they somehow quietly support IS. A study released just two days ago by Teesside University shows that Muslims in Britain are becoming the target of hate crimes in retribution for terrorist attacks around the world. You couldn’t design state-sanctioned prejudice better than to tar an entire community with alleged complicity in the “evil” of our time. Who exactly, in the mainstream Muslim community, condones IS? Name and shame them. There is nothing more insidious than an unfounded generalisation, which sows seeds of doubt without ever naming the culprits.
The allegation is all the more dumbfounding when you consider the sheer number of Muslim-run initiatives to try and tackle IS propaganda, such as the campaign launched last year by leading UK-based Shia and Sunni imams who united over sectarian divides to film a video message urging young British Muslims against fighting in Iraq and Syria. Or the recent open letter by 120 of some of the world’s most senior Muslim scholars to IS, in which they meticulously blew apart its ideology through recourse to mainstream Islamic theology. The initiatives are there for those who bother to look.
It isn’t just the 24-hour disparity in government tone that makes today’s speech so jarring. With what moral authority does the government lambast Muslims about British values, when it ignores them in our international dealings? The PM was right to denounce IS as a group encouraging child marriage and women’s servitude (“to live in a place where marriage is legal at nine and where women’s role is to serve…”), but he seemed to miss the irony of the statement given Britain’s key ally Saudi Arabia’s propensity to condone those very same actions. Not to mention their shared love of beheadings. What weight is to be given to a discourse on human rights, the rule of law and tolerance as “British values” when the man embodying their official representation recently invited General Sisi, responsible according to Human Rights Watch for the “most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history” to the UK? Or when the same government pushes for policies which result in refugees fleeing war being left to drown?
These inconsistencies aren’t lost on those who see in the discourse on “British values” just another means to cement an increasingly official form of prejudice. One aspect of discrimination is double standards, whereby expectations are higher of stigmatised groups than of dominant groups. The “British values” Cameron advocates are – polls indicate – widely shared by British Muslims. Accountability, fairness, the rule of law. Which means Muslims won’t settle for a patronising Ramadan message slipped under the table, while the same community is rendered a national scapegoat.
Franco-British Council: Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London
This is the transcript of a speech I gave at the Franco-British council event on the Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London
My cop-panelists were: Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty) Andrew Copson (BHA), and pere Matthieu Rougé.
Transcribed by Sophie O’Flaherty, FBC Intern:
Panel 3 Freedom of Speech and Religion in the Public Domain
I am going to come at this as a journalist and also with my political scientist hat which is my other life in academia. I personally am always a little wary of the eulogising of so called ‘founding documents’ which I think are typically reimagined to accommodate modern sensibilities and thus designed in so doing to ignore the deep inequalities, some of which Shami mentioned, which were often less a sort of afterthought a little error in there and more actually part and parcel of the very constitution of who represents a true human being or in contemporary modern political language who is a true citizen. I am wary because it allow us to think of ourselves as arrived rather than working towards the very ideals which we claim to be celebrating, and it also means that those exempt from its application are often ignored and assumed to be undeserving of those rights and that somehow the removal of those rights is assumed to be because of this premise of this conception of ourselves as having necessarily integrated these values as somehow undeserving or justifiably removed from their application. So I am genuinely more interested in those who are seemingly excluded from these rights, the hundred thousands of immigrants left to drown in our seas, terrorism suspects extradited for torture, I did say ‘terrorism ‘suspects’, citizens that are stripped of their nationality both in this country and in France for given crimes, as if somehow there is something you could do that could deprive you of those rights that you were not constitutive of them in the first place. And that reminds me that perhaps we should view such documents as less an achievement and an indication of our presumed greatness and more a mile stone on an ongoing journey. To come to today’s discussion I thought I would speak to each question in a few lines mainly to deconstruct what I perceive as quite a problematic underpinning to a few of the questions.
I will start off with this idea of the secular settlements of Europe which to me speaks to the increasingly popular idea of Europe under siege from scary Muslims, and unsurprisingly perhaps I have a bit of an issue with that. The truth is and I am going to quote Professor Olivier Roy, who I had the honour quite recently of interviewing, who argues that laïcité in France has shifted from a critical judicial principle designed for the management of diversity, to what he calls an exclusionary ideology and I am going to quote professor Roy specifically on what he understands by that and he says, I quote “we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen that his or her beliefs not be known, a demand of cultural normative ethical homogenisation by the state, that is what I call an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered dominant, but normative and official and we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system of beliefs on people.” I think this leaves a particular issue for French Muslims and one he talks about in the interview that I did with him in terms of what we call a double bind that is that French Muslim citizens in particular, but people of faith more broadly are called to hide all aspects of their faith and we will talk a little bit about the extent to which that has become ever more intrusive, but they are once called to hide all aspects of their faith but then when terrorist attacks happen they are called to speak as representatives of that faith so at once you are unable to speak as a person of faith in your day to day as you go about doing normal good things within your society as a citizen, but when a terrorist attack happens you are demanded by the state, by society to speak from within that essentialised conception of your identity. So that is one of the issues I think that is very problematic, and I think it inherently problematizes the idea of French Muslims constructing them as the polar opposite of French culture, they are this sort of intractable minority that can never be fully integrated, hence the obsession in French national debates, you cannot switch the TV on in France without having another debate about Islam and integration in France. So there is a sense of Muslims being this inherent challenge to French culture, when in truth French Muslims have been part and parcel of French culture, part and parcel of constructing French culture for generations now and maybe it is about time we stopped asking them to justify that.
Do religions have a legitimate right to be exempted from special treatment?
I do not actually think that is the issue, rather than exemption I think maybe an inclusive conception of society might be more beneficial. I think more often than not we assume that religious folk want differential treatment when actually what they want is to have the same treatment and not be the victims of prejudice. Take the Rushdie affair, which people always refer to as the landmark issue in Europe, the protest that happened in England during the Rushdie affair were calls for the application of the same blasphemy laws which existed in this country until 2008 I believe to all citizens, including Muslim citizens. So they were the calls to the application of the same rights for all citizens, they were not calls for an exemption or for some sort of special treatment, in fact it might be nice not to have special treatment for a lot of people of faith, because it is not that special most of the time.
Freedom of expression and the protection of religious feelings
There are huge national differences on the conceptions of freedom of expression, I often come into discussions on this and if people are not familiar with the French setting its worth pointing out that there are pretty significant restrictions on free speech in France already, some of which might shock an Anglo-Saxon audience. I am not convinced that religions are the issue that pose the greatest threat to the freedom of speech in France or here in the UK for that matter. Just last year a French court fined a blogger and ordered her to change her headline to reduce its prominence on google for a negative review of a restaurant, it is also worth pointing out that Charb did face threats from Muslim extremists but do you know what he also faced? Threats of criminal prosecution, for some of the things he said. So I think free speech is certainly an issue I am just not convinced that it’s the big bad Muslims that are the problem. I would rather ask whether the ideology that Professor Roy refers to, and specifically the political instrumentalisation of the concept of laïcité is not being used to overrule the civil rights of religious citizens, when a Jewish man in a Kippah come to a polling station and is turned away under the guise of laïcité, you need to question whether the civil rights are being applied to all citizens equally. Similarly now we have French citizens who are excluded from public spaces, from schools, from universities, from hospitals, from using public transport, I call that a civil liberties issue, and essentially to me the real civil rights issue is the profound racism that exists in France today, where there are huge inequalities when it comes to access to housing, to access to power even access to funding religious organisations it is worth pointing out there is still a Christian bias in that sense, a Christian citizens is two and a half times more likely to get a job interview in France than an equally qualified Muslim citizen according to a study by Stanford University not that long ago. I think there are numerous indications from human rights organisations including Amnesty International that have pointed to a climate of what I would call pervasive discrimination against Muslin citizens in particular. To come back specifically to the issue that everyone wants to talk about and this is the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I would make a lot more about the fact that, this discussion is usually framed as Muslims being offended by cartoons. Actually a lot of Muslims were offended by images but a lot of Muslims did not rock up to the offices and to a Kosher store and shoot people. I will end that by saying that actually and I think on this one the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it right when he says that the Muslim crowds did not react to Mohammed caricatures as such, they reacted to the complex figure or image of the West that was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures.
Thank you for your time.
New Statesman: The absurd hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists” exposes the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice
Muslim children are being watched closely for signs of radicalisation. Anything from not celebrating Christmas to shunning art and drama is now grounds for suspicion, and reason enough to invade the “private space” of British Muslims. Nurseries are duty-bound to inform on toddlers they suspect of being at risk of becoming “terrorists”, in a sick reworking of genetic justifications for black criminality that somehow presuppose an inherent dispositions towards terrorism in Muslim kids. Just this month, primary schools – key centres of trust and care in the community – were turned into centres of racial profiling in which nine- and ten-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire devised “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age” (the BRIT project, which was behind the questionnaire, has since removed any references to radicalisation and violent extremism from its website).
It is hard to comprehend how calls for children to be racially profiled, for mass and intrusive surveillance and a criminalisation of some of the most basic elements of religious practice – such as a “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol” – could seemingly come to pass with so little uproar.
As a parent I spoke to from Buxton School, one of the institutions targeted by the recent questionnaire scandal, put it: “If these children were adults going for a job, this sort of information about their ethnicity, religious identity and views, etc, would not be disclosed and would be protected – why is such data now being collected about young children who might not even know what they’re saying and yet, who may now be profiled based on information collected when they were in primary school? Who is monitoring how this information is being used?” (Buxton School has since disassociated itself from the scheme.)
Even universities, traditionally bastions of free speech, are now expected to refer students “at risk”, with notions of what constitutes “risk” expanding to include “non-violent extremism”, a term so nebulous universities themselves have voiced concern over what exactly it is they are supposed to be monitoring.
The conclusion many Muslims are reaching is that the perception of a tacit complicity of the Muslim community in terrorist activity has gained such traction that the sorts of measures that might see Orwell turn in his grave – formal as well as more tacit restrictions on the basic freedoms of over 2.71 million Muslim citizens – now pass largely unobstructed. Dehumanisation has reached such depths that society is increasing willing to accept a two-tier system in which Muslims simply do not benefit from the same levels of freedom as everyone else.
In a leaked document in March, the Home Office made clear its focus is no longer violence, but has now expanded to include viewpoints – in other words mere ideas – it considers unacceptable.
As the space for dissent shrinks, the arts take on a critical role in vocalising increasingly unacceptable ideas and challenging the status quo, a vital space to humanise those overwhelmingly depicted in terms of a societal threat – Trojan horse, fifth column, potential radicals. Even the language employed to describe vulnerable young people ensnared by violent cults betrays a sense of complicity in their own exploitation – the use of the term “Jihadi brides” in reference to young women groomed for a life of sexual slavery, a term about as sensitive as referring to the victims of the recent child sex grooming scandals, as “loose women”.
A recent double play in particular, Hurling Rubble at the Sun/Hurling Rubble at the Moon by the British Pakistani poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad, explores the far right and Muslim extremism, laying out the complex and intertwined ingredients which come together to produce violent ebullition. More than anything, Mohammad’s play allows the audience to explore the motivations for violence, without dehumanising its perpetrators, and in so doing, the space to acknowledge the centrality of psychological and human factors, so often ignored. It also highlights the absurdity of a hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists”, recentering factors common to all those vulnerable to messages of violent empowerment, be it through gangs, cults or religious supremacy.
Given the seemingly inescapable lens of “Muslim terrorism”, which Muslim artists themselves struggle to escape, the simple fact of producing a story about Muslim experience which isn’t about terrorism appears a form of resistance in Ambreen Razia’s debut drama, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl at the Ovalhouse Theatre.
Razia’s play isn’t about extremism. Nor should a young Muslim playwright have to explain why young girls join extremist groups, as Razia was called upon to do in a recent BBC interview. What Razia’s monologue does present, however, are the limitations of life through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.
Her character, Shaheda, doesn’t end up heading for Syria. Instead, after being filled with no less evocative lies, she ends up pregnant and stuck in her Hounslow bedroom. Her vulnerability to the suave ways of a local reprobate is less about the strictures of her heritage and more about her inability to understand what her expectations of love can or should be. In other words, in transcending the particularities of her Muslim-ness, the audience finds universally recognisable challenges faced by young people today. Like Shaheda, long before they’re “jihadi brides”, these girls are lost schoolgirls, desperate for affirmation, love and recognition.
And so while Razia’s play isn’t about young girls drawn to IS fighters, it does offer insight into the kind of apathy which may lead young, ambitious girls to be drawn in by narratives of cosmic love. Whether running away with the local bad boy or the IS pin up, thwarted aspirations, counter-cultural teenage notions of love and heroism and a desire for more than the limited paths perceived ahead are powerful human motivations, often lost in stale political debates.
As the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used to narrow the space for dissenting voices, be they opposition to foreign policy or anti-systemic views more broadly, art feels – as it has so often been – like the last, shrinking space in which increasingly unacceptable ideas can be truly be aired and possibly heard.
You can read the original piece here, on the NS site.
Jadaliyya: Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Professor Olivier Roy, Head of the Mediterranean Program at the European University Institute discusses the development of the concept of laicite in France, from its emergence as a tool for the management of diversity, to its rebranding as an ideology of exclusion. In this interview, he questions the notion of national identity as a politicized concept and identifies a profound crisis of identity at its root. He also outlines the double-bind faced by French Muslims, called at once to hide their faith, but then speak as representatives of it during periods of crisis, thus leaving them open to accusations of communalism. Roy calls for a return to a notion of secularism which allows for the free expression of religion in the public sphere without compromising a core institutional separation between the state and religion. He also identifies the racist function of secularist rhetoric, both on the Right and among French feminists, unable to see past secular prejudice, a common struggle shared with French Muslim women. The interview took place on 9 April. It was originally conducted in French and translated into English by the interviewer.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah (MFC): In a recent interview in Le Monde, you say, “Laicite has become the expulsion of religion from the public sphere to the private sphere.” Is the secular Republic necessarily hostile to the practice of religion in the public sphere?
Olivier Roy (OR): You must look at the origins of laicite in France, it comes from a violent conflict between the Republic and the Catholic Church, the Republic was anti-religious, it was called “anti-clericalism”—at the same time, it affected the Catholic Church, not protestants or Jews at the time. But the law of 1905, the founding text of laicite in France, is not an anti-religious law, it is a law of compromise, the law of 1905 does not exclude religion from the public sphere, it speaks only of religious practice, it forbids itself from defining religion because the state must be neutral and separate from religion, so the law notes that people have a religious practice and organize it in the public sphere. Of course, the Republic has the last word—for ringing bells, processions, prayers in the street—you need a permit (authorization)—there are conditions, you must respect public order, but it is not forbidden at all—the law of 1905 says the representatives of the state must be neutral but not that citizens must be neutral—avoid wearing a cross, a robe, etc.—it is not a law to exclude religion from the public space or to define who the good religious person is.
However what do we note today is that there is a demand for the exclusion of religion from the public space. It starts with schools, forbidding the headscarf, here there could be an argument about minors who cannot affirm a personal choice, but we are now hearing about forbidding headscarves from universities. When I was a student there were nuns who were students who wore the catholic veil, there were priests in robes, but now we speak of excluding religious symbols from public spaces and private work spaces, such as in the Babyloup affair (a nursery worker who was fired for wearing a headscarf at a private nursery). In the last election, a man with a kippa on his head was threatened with exclusion from a voting office because he went to vote with his kippa on—this is illegal. Today we have a laicite which wants religion to only be in the private sphere—this is new and it is against the law of 1905—this is why I say laicite today is anti-religious, it is not a laicite of compromise, which allows for religious freedom it wants to exclude religion from the public sphere and it reflects a phobia of religion.
MFC: Does this logic of exclusion not apply more so to one community than to others?
OR: It started against the Muslim community with the issue of the veil in Creil in 1989, but I would say there are two forms of laicite here. One is selective and the other is universal, the former is that of the Right and Far Right—which affirms France’s Christian identity but which targets Muslim symbols, but the Left today, it is anti-religious in general, even if it all began with the Muslim sign, the left is anti-religious in general. The Rabbi of Toulouse was asked by a Communist Party member to remove his kippa when he came to vote; in Vende, the municipality was attacked by a socialist for establishing a Christian nursery. On the left, it goes far beyond Islamophobia to a more general rejection of religion, and an anti-clericalism which is profoundly anti-religious and which is increasingly vocal among activists. Beyond an Islamophobia which stretches from the Left to the Right, there are two genealogies of Islamophobia, one which is from the Right—rooted in identity politics (identitaire) and the other on the Left, which is laic (secular) and for the exclusion of religion.
MFC: Why and how does a value or a judicial principle, turn into an ideology?
OR: In the beginning, the law of 1905 was simply a judicial principle, it was not understood as a set of norms and values. Why? Because at the time, the believers and non-believers shared the same values—on family, on homosexuality, morality, modesty, etc.—there was a common set of ethics, culture. As Jules Ferry said, a laic teacher was not meant to say anything which might shock a religious head of family. What’s different today is the moral cleavage which emerged in the 1960s, that is not related to Islam but to religion in general. From the 1960s, there is a secular ethic which diverges significantly from the religious ethic – sexual freedom, gay marriage, IVF, etc.—this is why the laicite, which was a principle of neutrality turned into an ideology affirming values – under the principle of tolerance, the idea that one must accept blasphemy, homosexuality, feminism, etc., which has never been central to the Catholic Church. There is a disconnect between the dominant culture and religion, which means that communities of faith feel themselves minorities in the contemporary western world and that’s why they ask to be protected from the majority—there are two tendencies among people of faith. The first is “reconquer,” demanding that the state take into account Christian values, such as forbidding abortion, or if deemed impossible, requesting an exemption, such as a believer not being made to perform a gay marriage, undertake abortion, etc.—today there is a clear disassociation between secularized culture and religions, and when I say laicite has become an ideology, rather than accept this diversity, laicite is demanding that the believer share in these secular values—this is the tension. For example, take the Charlie Hebdo affair. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” can have two meanings: one of solidarity, opposing the attacks and terrorism, but the second meaning refers to an approval of Charlie—and many believers cannot say that they approve Charlie. They condemn the killings but cannot necessarily approve of Charlie’s images—it is what the Pope said, he was very clear, when he said he was against blasphemy, not that it was a question of law, but he opposed blasphemy, especially gratuitously. There was a very strong reaction in France among secularists who thought it scandalous that the Pope speak in this fashion. Today there is a laic intolerance. From the principle of the separation of state and religion, we have moved to the idea that everyone must share the ideals of the Republic but which are in fact very recent values and which are a consequence of profound social changes since the 1960s. Laicite no longer accepts diversity.
MFC: We often say “the Republic says” or “laicite says” but terms do not speak, people do. Is there not an issue of the lack of representation of the individuals in question within the institutions devising the terms, which is at the heart of the matter here?
OR: Yes, certainly, we have moved from the principle of secular Republican political integration where everyone can be a citizen, to a principle of cultural assimilation, which means everyone must share the same values, and this is new, because the law of 1905 by definition recognized that the believer is different to the non-believer, it recognizes the specificity of religion, but it treats everyone in the same way, the believer and the non-believer, everyone is a citizen, but today, we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen, that his/her belief not be known, a demand of cultural, normative, ethical homogenization by the state—that is why I call it an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered not just as the dominant system of values, but normative—and which is official. And here, we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system on people. On all believers, Muslim or other. The problem is that the Republic defines itself according to a culture, but culture is much more complicated than to be reduced to a certain number of principles or basic norms—eating pork is not part of French culture—there is pork in French cooking but it is not normative in French culture. Here there is an abuse of language by the proponents of an uncompromising laicite (pure et dure).
MFC: Where did this transformation come from?
OR: I think it comes from a profound crisis of identity, the term identity is new—today we speak of French identity, Sarkozy had launched this term as a theme of reflection—if you look at texts forty, fifty, one-hundred years ago, no one spoke of French identity. Some people spoke of French culture, of the French Republic, of many things, but not identity, the idea that a culture could be reduced to an identity, no one thought of this. Why? Because I think there was a strong link to the Republic—or to the monarchy for those who were royalists—but there was a strong connection to the state. Nobody questioned the existence of something called “France.” Today there is a serious crisis of political identification. We have two profound changes of French society that happened at the same time. The first is immigration, and the second is the European project. There is a gap between the political scene and the national scene. There are decisions taken in Brussels that are not taken by the French parliament or government. At the outset, there was a new population which arrived which had a different culture, not just a different religion, but a different culture. So there is a sense that French society is questioned from above through the weakening of the nation-state and from below through multiculturalism and this leads to fearful reactions—reactions of anxiety and fear, whereby some people try to find refuge in the invocation of identity. But we do not know what identity is. When the National front speaks of identity, it refers to a picnic with red wine, saucission (pork sausage), and folklore music—things which are completely marginal to a real culture so for me, “French identity” means nothing. French culture has a meaning but it is itself very diverse so I think this question of identity is a response to a political and social crisis which is real and which exists.
MFC: What is a “moderate Muslim” in the French context, since the definition differs in different societies?
OR: In the French context, something which is very explicit among politicians, journalists, etc., is that political radicalization—jihad, terrorism is a consequence of religious extremism—the idea that the more people become religious, the more they become politically radical—this is the assumption, the premise of the reasoning which leads the authorities to say that to resolve the problem there is a need to develop an Islam which is theologically “moderate.” And as you know, in the police files, concerning Muslims who wish to get a security clearance to work at an airport, etc., their religious practice is noted. This is not new—in 1905, the French ministry of defense, which was under the control of radical secularists, had files on French officers noting their degree of religious practice—did they go to church every week, with a prayer book, etc., so it is not just Islamophobia. It is linked to this phobia of religion and the view that religion ultimately leads to fanaticism, which is a secular idea by definition.
It is not understood in French society how someone can be religiously radical while being totally politically moderate–while of course it exists. Take even a priest (moines)—his is a religiously radical decision since he has decided to dedicate his life to religion exclusively, but he is someone very pacifist and moderate. But because we no longer see priests in public spaces, we have forgotten this and we do the same thing with Muslims. So a Muslim who prays five times a day is considered a potential radical. This will be found in police files and in the view of many people. Hence the idea which was launched by an adviser to the government that the state should train laic imams, in other words, moderate imams—there is a need to reform Islam, theologically, that women are the equals of men etc. for example, but the problem is that the state—the secular state—must not interfere in a theological debate, otherwise it is no longer secular. There is meant to be a separation between the state and religion, and secondly, if one is consistent, it should be done with all religions, but no one is asking the Catholic Church to ordain female priests. There were reforms on this. The law of 1905 refused to recognize Catholic hierarchies. That the pope had authority over bishops, this was only recognized in 1924. There is an old French Republican tradition that demands churches reform in line with the demands of the Republic—it is not only Islam.
I think Muslims often, when they do not know French history well, put everything on the back of racism, but it is deeper than that. My response is simple, the secular state should not delve into theology—and secondly, what is a religious reform? Martin Luther was a reformist, Calvin was a reformer, but they were not moderates—you need only look at American evangelicals, they are not moderates. There is not “moderate” religion and the question should only be asked in political terms. Hence a moderate Muslim is one who condemns violence and jihadism—OK—there is no need to ask what he thinks of the Quran, of prayer—this is the separation between church and state—it must not be a political question.
MFC: You seem to see a contradiction between the need to hide one’s faith, as a “moderate Muslim” and the need to publicly denounce attacks on the other hand. Are French Muslims in a lose-lose scenario?
OR: Exactly, it is a double bind. On one hand they are criticized for being communitarian (communautarise)–-and on the other hand because we perceive them as communitarian, we demand of them that they respond as a community to condemn terrorism. But because there is no “Muslim community,” nobody can speak on behalf of it to condemn terrorism, [but then] they are told they do not condemn terrorism. It is a trap Muslims are placed in. The answer is to speak in different voices. This is what happened after Charlie Hebdo, unlike after the Rushdie affair twenty-five years ago when the Muslim community had no representatives. Today I wouldn’t say the Muslim community has representatives, I would say the Muslim community has Muslim elites, intellectuals, cinematographers, lawyers, artists, religious figures, organizations like the UOIF who can speak, compared to twenty-five years ago when there was this injunction on a community which didn’t exist. Thousands of Muslims spoke up—this is also where social networks play a part—when something like this happens, you automatically get thousands of tweets. This didn’t exist twenty-five years ago, so speech is freed up. There is not one Muslim speech, but many Muslims speaking out, with nuances and divergences among themselves, on issues or allegations against the Muslims community—so I’d say there has been progress. Very clearly. Stop talking about the “Muslim community.” It does not exist. That message is starting to be heard.
MFC: Some thinkers argue that the French Republic forged its very identity in opposition to its colonies. Can it ever adapt to integrate Islam as part of national identity?
OR: I think we put too much emphasis on the colonial past, it is an intellectual construction and concretely, this is no longer really the issue. The colonial Republic was secular (of course it supported religious orders, the great paradox of the law against congregations in 1904, which excluded Catholic congregations from education in France, was that it allowed them abroad—the priests were useful abroad, but the enemy in France), but French colonization didn’t build itself as Christian. That there is a sense of superiority compared to indigenous people, that there is this civilizational mission—yes, but the colonial institutions were more complex.
Let me give you one example. A French institution that gives its full place to Islam is the army. The French army has created a Muslim chaplaincy, which is on the same plain as the Jewish and Protestant chaplaincies, not quite the same plain as the Catholic chaplaincy. The Muslim chaplains organize the pilgrimage to Mecca in uniform, just as there is a Christian pilgrimage to Lourdes, in uniform. Why has it been easier for the army to integrate Islam? Precisely because the army has a colonial past. There were Muslim troops, the issue of halal came up, as did chaplains etc. The colonial heritage is more ambiguous than what we might think. The grand mosque of Paris is also a consequence of the colonial past—France was very ambiguous because on one hand it wanted to be a Muslim power, through its colonial dimension, but on the other hand, it never treated Islam the way it treated Catholicism—the 1905 law wasn’t applied in Algeria. I do not agree with the stance of those such as the French movement of the Indigenes de la Republic (a former political party) who believe we simply have a progression of the colonial relationship–-I think today we are more so in a state of hyper-laicite than in an extension of the colonial set-up. This hyper-laicite affects all religions, but more so Islam. It is more a refusal to take into consideration religion in the public space—it is a religion-phobia.
MFC: If the fact of not displaying one’s religion is the definition of a moderate Muslim, but yet many Muslims may not consider it possible not to “display” aspects of their religious identity—whether through a headscarf, the need to pray five times a day, fasting, etc.. Is it possible for Muslims in France today to be fully Muslim and fully French?
OR: That depends on the niche you occupy. Where one lives, where one works. It is a question for all religions—the issue of compromise. It is not proper for a religion to arrive with a list of non-negotiables, which the Catholic church has done. It has for example said that gay marriage is non-negotiable, which causes huge problems because it leads to an impasse. Now it is time to rethink the relationship between religion and Republic. By leaning on religious freedom laicite has gone too far in transforming into an ideology and needs to return to a rule of cohabitation and not an exclusion of religion. Now, the forms of cohabitation must be negotiated. We see it already in the workplaces; companies negotiate their religious workforce. It is obvious that a checkout person who refuses to ring up alcohol cannot be a cashier. We cannot expect him not to take into account the purchase of alcohol, he needs to do another job – but there are plenty of other jobs. Similarly, there are jobs where the practice of Ramadan and prayers are also problematic—but all of this is negotiable—we need to consider it not in a multicultural perspective but from the basis of religious freedom whereby religious communities come together to renegotiate the contract, because the problems facing Muslims are also those facing Orthodox Jews. The Catholic Church is struggling with the growing gap between its values and the dominant culture and the Protestants have always been the most integrated to the Republic, but with the growth of evangelicals, we have a Protestant movement which is much more assertive in demanding its rights, much more critical of laicite and modernity, such as on abortion. So I think there needs to be a coalition of religions to ask the Republic to apply the principle of religious freedom rather than the principle of uniformity through laicite.
MFC: You refer in your book to the crisis of culture as a consequence of globalization and new modes of communication, a dynamic which isolates religion according to you. Is this a process of secularization on a global scale in your view?
OR: Its international. Take fundamentalist preachers—Salafis or American evangelicals, they all say the same thing—that dominant culture is no longer religious, that the culture is “Western,” “secular,” “atheist,” “pagan,” whatever, they each have their terminology. But the gap between religious cultures and dominant cultures is observable everywhere. Even in the United States where the majority identify as religious, religious authorities complain that culture is not a religious culture—see the laws on gay marriage that recently passed even when a majority of society identifies as believing. I think there is a growing divorce between dominant culture and religion, but people remain believers. For me secularization is not measured by the number of people who cease to believe, it is when dominant cultures no longer identify as religious.
MFC: Is the French model of laicite a good model for the management of diversity for other societies?
OR: It is a model which is essentially French, because even in countries which have adopted it officially, such as Mexico or Turkey. In Turkey although everyone speaks of laicite, the constitution is not secular because religion is organized by the department for religious affairs. Kemalist Turkey preserved the Department of Religious Affairs to control religion, specifically Islam—it is not laicite. Similarly in Mexico, there is a “French style” laicite, but it is clear that religion, especially Catholicism, plays a much bigger part in society than it can in France, so in all countries there is a national dimension, a historical dimension, there is a national question over the issue of religion and the state. If you take a country like Denmark where less than ten percent of people practice a religion, Danes will tell you they are Lutherans because it is the religion of the state—but they do not practice, they do not care at all. So it is an extremely secular country although officially there is no separation between state and society so each country in my view invents its compromise to manage the relations between the church, state, and society. I do not think in particular that laicite in its current version, as an ideology, can be positive for any country, I think it has gone too far–but we can conceive of a secular constitution, in the sense of distinguishing religion and politics, which works well in a religious society. Take the example of the United States. There you have a total separation, but no president can be elected if he does not believe in God. Look at Bosnia, created specifically to be a Muslim state for the Muslims of Yugoslavia, is totally secular—which does not mean that there is a Muslim community which functions very well in laicite, which is blossoming in a secular framework. The issue is not the laicite as a constitutional principle of separation, I think this can function very well, the problem is when laicite constructs itself as an anti-religious ideology.
MFC: The sociologist Pierre Merle considers that laicite as it is understood today, which prohibits religious displays rather than respecting them, leads to marginalization, rather than fostering a sense of living together—what is your view?
OR: Of course, any society which is diverse… I reject a multicultural approach for a very simple reason: it is not an issue of accepting the culture of immigrants. We are now into the third generation. We are no longer dealing with an issue of immigration—immigration is over —those of the third generation do not want to assert a culture, but a religion. I think the issue at its root is not one of multiculturalism, it is an error to speak of this, it is an issue of freedom, of democracy. Religious freedom is not a demand for recognition by minorities, it is written in the constitution, it exists within Republican ideals and it must be applied. So for me, this is the question, religious freedom presupposes there are believers in society, and that believers have a right to be believers in the public sphere. They should not be asked to hide their beliefs in the public sphere—it is totally absurd in a diverse society to ask everyone to pretend to be the same.
MFC: In your view does the term laicite in France today serve a racist function?
OR: On the Right, yes—on the Right and Far Right, certainly, but on the Left it is more complicated. The blurring in fact comes now through converts and the gap between religion and ethnic identity. In the French imaginary, and the European imaginary more broadly, a Muslim is an Arab or a Turk or a Pakistani—thankfully things are changing. Slowly we see people who are of Muslim origin who are ultra-seculars. In France those who criticize the veil most vociferously are often of Arab background, in particular of Algerian background. The lesson-givers are ex-Muslims who criticize Islam, whereas there are converts who reveal themselves to be much more extreme than Muslims from birth—it is quite common. When you look at Daesh (ISIS), they recruit many converts. It is no longer a question of ethnic origins, so yes, there is a racism behind Islamophobia, but I think there is also a challenge to this because religious identity is no longer determined by ethnic identity.
MFC: Since the law of 2004 forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” in schools, the field of prohibitions seems to growing ever wider. It is no longer simply headscarves—or headgear such as bandanas or hats, which are prohibited in schools—but now also long skirts, dark or loose clothing are also suspected of being “religious symbols”. Lila Charef from the Committee Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has said, “we’ve moved to another level of surveillance concerning women’s appearance.” Why in your view are Muslims women subject to such levels of control of their bodies by the state and its institutions?
OR: Because women are perceived as being at the heart of culture. This is an old story—when the Soviets wanted to Sovietize Central Asia in the 1930s, their campaign targeted primarily women—unveiling, mandatory education. The French did the same in Algeria. It is not an issue of laicite versus Islam. It is a more general question. For example, when I was at school in the 1960s, there was a regulation of women’s dress and not of men’s dress. At the time, it was also about the length of skirts, they had to be below the knee. Now they are required to be over it. It goes up or down, but that’s where it is always measured. The skirt remains the measure of the control of women. There is a very macho patriarchal dimension here—social control happens through the control of women’s bodies, but under the pretext that this control serves to free the alienated Muslim women. It is not perceived as a part of the continuity of the control of women’s bodies in order to ensure social control. The Catholic Church was very big on this—control of hair. My grandmother would never have left the house without a hat. Women who went out without hats were women of poor repute—this has always existed, but it is now in the name of women’s liberation when in fact it is still about control.
MFC: Why have French feminists, predominantly, been unable to perceive the regulation of Muslim women’s bodies as an extension of patriarchal control of women’s bodies?
OR: It is surprising. I think the French specificity is the inability of French elites, intellectuals, to understand religion. French elites are profoundly secular. In Germany, in the United States, there is a much more flexible understanding. I am thinking of Judith Butler, who is a feminist for example. Because Americans, even when they are atheist, do not have a phobia of religion. Feminists in France share a phobia of religion, which is a marker of the French intelligentsia. The second thing is their theory of emancipation—the veil as oppression—they cannot see beyond this. This is partly why the educational sector is so hostile to the veil. I see many of my colleagues who say they cannot stand to have a woman in a headscarf in front of them in lessons or lecture halls. We have seen how the Stasi Commission basically refused to listen to women who wear headscarves. The comparison is possibly a little risqué, but it is the same issue with prostitutes: we do not listen to prostitutes because a woman who is oppressed is a woman who is not meant to have a voice, not to have anything to say; that someone else must always speak for her and so people speak only to those who resemble them. This is very clear, there is a mirror effect between French feminism and women of Muslim origin who are anti-veil, they speak only among themselves.
MFC: Do you recognize a link between the marginalization that flows from the increasing social and legal restrictions being placed on French Muslims and the openness of some French Muslims to the rejectionist message of Daesh (ISIS)?
OR: Not directly, no, because those who are joining Daesh are not in the categories most targeted. Paradoxically, those most targeted are not the young and marginalized. Young marginals are not at university, at school, they do not eat in cafeterias, so they do not really care about repression. It is more the rising elites who are the victims of hostility to Islam, it is young women at university, girls at schools, young people who eat in cafeterias, but this is not where the Daesh is recruiting. I do not see a mechanical effect whereby a sense of exclusion leads to radicalization. However, there is an indirect relationship. Given the difficulty in recognizing an Islam within the public sphere, young people have no positive models of Muslim citizens, no image of someone who can say, “I’m a contented Muslim citizen,” so they live their exclusion vicariously. They are excluded, not necessarily because they are Muslim, but because they have no positive images. The only positive image they have is the jihadi, so greater flexibility towards religion in the public space would contribute to circulating different images of integrated Islam, Republican Islam, which would allow them to say you can be French and Muslim.
You can read the piece on the Jadaliyya website here
“As a party they’ve got a problem with race,” declared Labour’s Chuka Umunna, making reference to the latest racist controversy involving Ukip. “And I don’t think you can kick out racism from their party unless you have got a leadership which understands it and understands race in modern Britain.”
Umunna was referring to the growing array of racist comments made by Ukip figures – from one councillor saying she has a “problem with people with negroid features” to another who posted on Facebook “Muslim women: Hang ’um all first then ask questions later”. Ukip’s sinister side is increasingly well documented, but in many ways, its pantomime-esque displays of prejudice serve a useful function for broader society, cordoning off racism as something that happens out there, on the fringes, and thus comparatively absolving everyone else. As if somehow Ukip’s comments happen in a vacuum, as if there isn’t a broader climate of intolerance from which this is just the embarrassing stain that seeps through.
Implicit in Umunna’s statement of course was the idea that Labour – or the “mainstream” – unlike Ukip, does understand issues of race in modern Britain. But is the fact broader society knows not to – publicly at least – make references to “Bongo Bongo land” or compare Muslims to dogs, a real indication that issues of race are understood in modern Britain?
In a recent programme on Channel 4 the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips said that Britain has a problem talking about race. The problem Phillips seemed to identify was an almost overbearing anti-racism campaign, which has left white people feeling like they might all be racists. Phillips’ reassessment reflects a shift in the dominant consensus concerning race, from a view of racism as endemic in government and broader society, to an increasingly popular perception that Britain is broadly post-racial and that it is communities themselves that cultivate divisions, sowing seeds of “legitimate” resentment.
Few would disagree that the nature of racism has shifted significantly since the Eighties when “Paki bashing” was a regular occurrence and black footballers could expect to be met with banana peels on the pitch (this does still happen!). The type of open violence associated with racism has been greatly reduced, but this is often taken to mean that racism itself has disappeared. Consequently, when minorities have sought to decry incidents of racism – typically more subtle – their voices have been diminished by a sense that they are no longer ‘buttressed’ by dead bodies. Post- Stephen Lawrence, there is almost a sense that the UK has “dealt” with the issue of racism and that racism can now only be found in the darkest recesses of the white working class.
The assumption that Britain is today a “post-racial” society masks flagrant issues of race-related inequality – from the fact Britain imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than the US, through to Muslim women being 71 per cent less likely to find employment – through to a simple observation of the white elite running the country. There is significant resistance to acknowledging that the historic and present reality of racism has a profound impact on who is poor in this country and who is not.
Although Umunna singled out Ukip as particularly bad, the fact race is the unwelcome guest at the inequality discussion table suggests the issue is not strictly peripheral. To quote Phillips, we do indeed need to talk about race – and racism specifically – but not so much as Phillips’ suggests, by empowering individual bigots to express their “feelings”, but perhaps by starting an honest conversation about structures of racist discrimination. We need a conversation about “whiteness”.
Falguni A Sheth, associate professor and author of Toward a Political Philosophy of Race, defines “whiteness” as a category of power based on “a general, but not universal, correlation between those in power and general racial identity…” Talking about “whiteness” means recognising the complex history of social, economic and political realities according to which ethnic minorities have been considered as innately inferior, and their enduring impact on ways of thinking and current inequalities.
Many conversations about race get bogged down in immediate denials of individual proclivities for a hatred of minorities, an unhelpful distraction from the substance of racism, of which individual bigotry is just one manifestation. In this way, racism can be neatly sectioned off – the naughty renegades at Ukip versus the “good” guys everywhere else. As the American Academic Robin DiAngelo and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, acknowledges: “From the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message.” We need to move past the binary that someone is either a racist thug or they’re Benetton – to a large extent we are all enmeshed in racist structures.
DiAngelo’s research suggest a real reticence among white people to discussing issues of racism, something she dubs “white fragility”. She notes that one of the predictable patterns in discussions about race with white people, is an inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to white racial reality: “For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist (…). This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time.”
Such resistance was perfectly illustrated by BBC director general Tony Hall when he responded to accusations by leading ethnic minority voices that the network needs to improve on diversity issues with a call for the channel to be “colour blind”. One of the first things a critical reflection on whiteness might involve would be acknowledging that “colour blindness” often functions as a type of racism – not least in this case by denying the negative racial experiences of minorities. As the Canadian journalist Desmond Cole poignantly wrote: “White people often go out of their way to say they don’t see colour when they look at me – in those moments, I’m tempted to recommend an optometrist. I know they’re just expressing a desire for equality, but I don’t want to be erased in the process.” Part of talking honestly about racism starts with awareness, and specifically, awareness of the myriad forms of iniquitous power associated with “whiteness”.
What’s more, we need to address the increasingly widespread trope, expressed by the journalist Allison Pearson in response to Phillips’ polemic, that it is actually white people now getting the raw deal. Britain, this argument goes, is so post-racial, it is actually white people today experiencing the brunt of “prejudice”. Pearson writes: “…British people, who dared to express any concern about the rapidly changing face of their country, were shouted down as racist or a bigot.” Minorities are to blame for not “integrating”, with no recognition of barriers which might obstruct a sense of belonging within a negotiated sense of the common “us”.
There is increasingly a sense of a disaffected white majority that blames minority “cultures” for various failings, and in the process, absolves white structures of responsibility. The failure to take seriously vulnerable young girls being exploited by criminal gangs, by both the police and the social services – white structures – becomes an issue of “Muslim Asian sex gangs” – minority culture. Culture has replaced ethnicity for the acceptable vocalisation of prejudice, despite the fact no culture is genuinely hermetic and the same minorities typically remain the target.
What’s more, the notion that criticising someone’s culture, unlike attacking their ethnicity, doesn’t play into racist stereotypes, belies the reality that racism has always had a cultural dimension, critical to the construction of racial hierarchies. Sweeping generalisations concerning the cultures of diverse, subaltern peoples, not least in the heralding of the worst examples from a given group as representative of its entirety, has always been a feature of racist rhetoric.
The growing focus on “culture” as a legitimate basis for prejudice has been bolstered by the tide of anti-immigrant discourse, which emphasises the notion of “native” Britons – read white – versus “outsiders”. Umunna was right to link racism to anti-immigrant sentiment in his response to Ukip. Culture is the new acceptable conduit for racism, a disingenuous reformulation adapted to the normative framework of ethnic “diversity”. A diversity of façade, which masks a call for a uniformity of thought, defined according to white culture.
This emerging trend locates societal woes squarely on the shoulders of minorities who’ve allegedly been unduly “ring-fenced from criticism”. Phillips popularised this argument by asserting that political correctness is to blame for stifling free conversation about race and thus driving support for nationalist movements across Europe.
Yet “PC gone mad” Britain hardly has the most virulent nativist parties in Europe, compared with countries like Belgium or France, where the expression of racist views – be it a politician parading in black face or depicting the country’s justice minister as a monkey – are much more open. In fact, the reverse is true. Multiculturalism – the real target of the anti “PC” brigade – has helped protect minorities. In France, where the normalisation of the far right has led to frequent dehumanising language being used against minorities, racism now requires a £70m campaign to tackle it.
The writer Sathnam Sanghera is right to point out that “the single thing that has done most to suffocate discussion about race is the poisonous connection made between anti-racism and “political correctness… those who use the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ in relation to any mention of race aim to do exactly what they accuse proponents of political correctness of doing: they want to shut down all conversation.”
The real resistance to discussing racism frankly actually comes from that white society that believes itself beyond issues of racism. As a consequence of this, any difficulty experienced by minorities are viewed as at best their own problems, or at worst, an ungracious refusal to recognise white society’s largess.
We need a discussion about race that involves less finger pointing and more introspection. We need a recognition of the continuities between historical and current inequities globally, and current inequalities in society. We need to examine the systematic privileges accrued by white people as a mere consequence of “whiteness” and listen to – and take seriously – the claims of those excluded by it.
We need a conversation about race – let’s start with the problem of “whiteness”.
You can read the original piece on the New Statesman website, here
ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): “Face Veils and Miniskirts: Whose Interests are Served in France’s Republic of Men?”
When France enacted its 2010 ban on face veils, rare were the voices that questioned whether criminalising alleged victims of “misogynistic pressures” – as pundits dubbed the women – would actually be helping them.
One of a handful of experts who actually interviewed women who wear the face veil, suggests the law has had the contrary effect, in actually hampering women’s sense of autonomy.
What is more, contrary to the cliche of oppressed illiterate immigrants, sociologist Agnes De Feo found that a majority of women who wear the face veil are born in France, educated and declare doing so voluntarily.
Yet despite ideological imperatives being allowed to trump facts in the discussion over the face veil, the same paternalistic impulse has emerged in a debate currently dividing the French political stage – this time involving prostitutes.
In March this year, France’s socialist government sought to reform a ruling which came into force in 2003 under former president Nicholas Sarkozy, criminalising “passive soliciting” of sex. The law placed the onus for stopping an industry predominantly run by men for the financial and sexual benefit of men, on typically vulnerable women, something the proposed amendments aimed at rectifying.
But instead of overturning the law, the French Senate – dominated by the Right – has rejected the penalisation of “clients” and instead could outlaw “the act of publicly soliciting another person for paid sex, by any means, including passive behaviour.” In a nod to the Republic’s overbearing logic, police officers in France could soon be required to monitor women’s hems at both ends of the spectrum – face veils and miniskirts.
Marisol Touraine, the French minister for Social Affairs, described the move as “unbelievable and regressive” and bemoaned the criminalisation of prostitutes, rather than seeing them as victims. Critics of the proposal argue it could lead to the targeting of prostitutes in order to meet policing figures, distract officers from more pressing concerns and is ultimately more about “cleaning up” the image of certain districts, rather than concern for women.
Debates on prostitution in France are divided between “abolitionists” and those who prefer to see less criminalisation of prostitution, such as the STRASS, the French sex worker’s trade union. STRASS argues that the penalisation of clients exacerbates a climate of criminality around prostitution – ultimately harmful to women working within it – but both groups support decriminalising “soliciting,” viewed as punishing already vulnerable women through fines and possible jail time.
But just as the debate in France chose to ignore the voice of women who wear the face veil, in favour of ideological debates over the meaning of laicite and integration, the current stance among French conservatives is led by a moralising discourse concerning the moral abhorrence of prostitution. Criminalising soliciting sex, it is claimed, helps the police identify prostitutes and maintain a sense of the gravity of the crime, an essential aspect to countering it.
However, evidence from studies underpinning the Swedish approach, which since 1999 has seen the criminalisation of clients, not sex workers, suggests otherwise. Based on grass-roots discussions with women working in prostitution, the Swedish model has led to a decrease in street prostitution and prostitution networks have come to view the country as a “dead market.”
The hypocrisy of the sanctimonious line towed by French conservatives is all the more glaring when one considers the emergence of several controversies highlighting the widespread use of prostitution by the French elite. In 2013, a coalition of French intellectuals, authors and philosophers came together to put forward a petition entitled “Hands off our prostitutes” outlining their belief in their right to access prostitution. The title was all the more egregious in that it played off a historic petition launched by women in the 1970s demanding the legalisation of abortion, and echoed an anti-racism slogan Touche pas a mon pote (“Don’t touch my friend”). Apparently for a certain class of French men – typically quiet on actual issues of discrimination – campaigning for the right to sexually exploit women is the new anti-racism.
Not to mention the case of former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who along with 13 others, was charged in February this year, with aiding and assisting prostitution. Much has been made of DSK’s lascivious “elite sex parties” involving prostitutes and multiple accusations of sexual assault, ruining his political career. Much less has been written about DSK’s alleged victims – “Mounia” the prostitute, Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid – Arab and black women subjected to the violent whims of a powerful French politician. The parallel is a fitting one for a system in which the full humanity of a sub-class of women fails to register and where racist overtones bleed most evidently into the treatment of minorities on the fringes.
Gregoire Thery, secretary general of Mouvement du Nid, which campaigns against prostitution, points out that in the special commission established to investigate the issues at hand, 75% of senators who voted against the penalisation of clients were men, while an overwhelming majority of women voted for the law. The Senate – overwhelmingly in favour of criminalising prostitutes – is 76% male.
The Conservative UMP’s stance of condemning prostitution affords a facade of moral righteousness to an argument for the criminalisation of women, by the very men recent scandals suggest regularly exploit them. Whether when talking about women in face veils or women working in prostitution, concern appears less about women’s needs, and all about men’s sense of entitled access to female bodies.
For professor of French politics at the University College London (UCL), Philippe Marliere, the issue stems from the very conception of the French Republican ideal: “the so-called ‘republican’ stand (UMP or PS) is hypocritical and relies on pseudo-universal morals.” For Marliere, these policies – whether in relation to prostitution or Muslim women’s dress – “are not meant to be fair and effective, but to criminalise and to discriminate against minorities in France.”
In the case of women in face veils, the law has hardened an already tense climate in which Muslim women are increasingly the object of vigilante-style attacks and day to day discrimination. Criminalising already vulnerable women – by virtue of their profession or otherwise marginal status in society – only entrenches prejudice. This is all the more worrying when one considers that 90% of women working in prostitution in France are foreign nationals, at a time of steepening racism and Far-Right led anti-immigrant rhetoric.
While restrictions on Muslim women’s dress have often been justified on the grounds of the “uniquely problematic” integration of Muslims, current debates highlight the exclusionary function of the Republic’s universalist claims. Those who do not conform to a narrow and reified conception of French values are ostracised and policed by an entitled elite which views women’s bodies – particularly those of black and Arab women – as property of the Republic, and chattel for some of its representatives.
This hollow republicanism and its politicised principles, from laicite to women’s rights, functions less to serve the interests of women and more to cement the sexist and racist logic of a prevailing class of men.
You can read the original piece on the abc.net.au website, here
When the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre opened its doors in November 2001, it was billed as an extension of an airport waiting lounge, but for some of those who have passed through its barbed wire fences, it feels more akin to a prison. And a secretive prison at that. Just last year, the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was denied entry. Cameras are prohibited within the facility.
Rather than a short “transit”, some detainees will spend months and even years in detention. And despite the hotel-like description on its website (“All bedrooms have en-suite wet room and toilet and are tastefully decorated with floral curtains”), two former detainees I spoke to, a husband and his pregnant wife, described their experience as “worse than in the third world – the UK says it has the best human rights, but as someone who’s been through the system, I didn’t experience this”.
Yarl’s Wood has become notorious for a number of controversies since its opening, including the detention of children until as recently as 2010. Over the years, campaigners have pointed to consistent allegations of abuse within its walls, including racist taunts and “improper sexual contact” with female detainees. And in 2011, the treatment of pregnant women at the centre hit the headlines when it was revealed one pregnant detainee collapsed after enduring a four-day journey from Belfast to Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire via Scotland and Manchester. In a recent case, a pregnant detainee miscarried after collapsing at the facility.
New evidence from the charity Medical Justice now shows that some pregnant women in detention are receiving sub-standard medical care, putting the life of both mother and child at risk.
A Home Office investigation is currently pending into claims against Serco, the private company contracted to run the centre, made by the couple I spoke to. The allegations include the manhandling of an expectant woman, despite it being unlawful to use force on pregnant women to achieve removal, and accusations medical staff ignored serious symptoms including abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. The woman, who is currently five months pregnant, complained: “I kept being told everything was normal, but I knew something was wrong.” Upon release, she was treated for an infection that can cause miscarriages and stillbirth.
A recent investigation by Channel 4 News highlighted the abuse and harassment of women within the centre and the devastating consequences for their mental and physical wellbeing, particularly when many have been victims of sexual assault, trafficking, and various forms of violence in their countries of origin. The consequence of this abuse is even more precarious for pregnant women who – according to the government’s own guidelines – should only ever be held in exceptional circumstances. In damning evidence to an inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and the all-party parliamentary group on migration into the detention of pregnant women, team inspector at HM Prisons Inspectorate Hindpal Singh Bhui stated: “…we haven’t found those exceptional circumstances in the paperwork to justify their detention in the first place.”
Serco claims it provides “a comprehensive primary care service for all of our residents” but Medical Justice, a charity whose volunteer clinicians visit and assess detainees, has observed that the standard of care within the centre often falls short of NICE Guidelines and comparable recommendations. One volunteer midwife said:
I’ve seen women who need urgent medical and obstetric care, who I would have admitted immediately to hospital if I’d seen them in my normal practice, be denied access to hospital, one had an ambulance they called turned away at the gates and many have been denied pain relief and other symptomatic treatment. The delay in getting them to an obstetrician was sometimes over a week. Some of these women had risk factors for life-threatening conditions.”
The UK Border Agency claims not to know the exact number of pregnant women detained, but over a ten-month period beginning in March 2013, Medical Justice saw 21 detained pregnant women, one of whom was held for 122 days. Their case review showed that the detained pregnant women were around 7 times more likely to experience complications in pregnancy and for Phoebe Pallotti RM, a registered midwife and academic who volunteers with Medical Justice, the reasons are all too clear: “I’ve seen women with serious complications of pregnancy been forced to miss vital appointments because of their detention and recommendations from previous treating doctors and advice given by myself be routinely not acted upon and urgent care seriously delayed.”
For Pallotti, stories of pregnant women’s concerns about their and their child’s health being ignored by medical staff at Yarl’s Wood are all too common. In the majority of the cases she documented, medical staff seemed to flout standards of care applied in the wider community, including basic procedures such as informing patients about the medications they were being given and their potential side effects: “I’ve seen very vulnerable pregnant women with documented histories of depression or presenting with symptoms of depression and PTSD been given medication for preventing malaria (so that they could be removed) which we never use in the NHS for anyone with mental health problems because it can and does cause psychosis and suicidal ideation. In some cases their mental health seriously deteriorated.”
One former detainee charged midwifery staff from a local trust with falsifying information in her pregnancy records – she says she was denied routine consultations, including the standard testing for down-syndrome. She also accused the nurses at Yarl’s Wood of being complicit in the abuse she says she suffered: “They [the guards] were pulling me by my (pregnant) stomach and the nurses were just watching on even though I was calling for help.”
The primary purpose of detention is removal, but according to the most recent review by Medical Justice, of the 21 pregnant women they visited, none were actually removed and all but one were released back into the community. One woman left the UK voluntarily.
In response to the allegations made by Medical Justice, a Home Office spokesperson said:
Home Office detention policy is that pregnant women should not normally be detained. However, pregnant women may be detained when their removal is imminent and medical advice does not suggest the baby is due before the woman’s expected removal date. Women who are less than 24 weeks’ pregnant may also be detained under the fast track asylum process.
All detainees have access to healthcare facilities and medical advice at all times. There is a complaints system for anyone who feels they have not been treated in accordance with our standards and all complaints are investigated thoroughly.
The former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, is undertaking an independent review of detainee welfare and will pay particular attention to detainees who may be especially vulnerable, including pregnant women.”
As debates on immigration heat up close to the elections, the cost of detention to the tax payer is a hot topic. But the charity points out that detaining someone is around £30,000 more expensive annually than supporting them in the community and that contrary to popular belief, not only do pregnant women rarely abscond, but where deemed necessary, they can be removed from the country after the child’s birth. For Pallotti, this just confirms her view that the policy of detaining pregnant women needs reviewing. “Regardless of one’s views on immigration,” she noted, “the detention of pregnant women may not often be successful at achieving deportation, costs a lot of unnecessary money, and can be very damaging to the pregnant mother.”
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