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New Statesman Book review: “Refusing the veil” by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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You can read the original here on the New Statesman website.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a woman who prides herself on bridging worlds, denouncing racism at west London dinner parties while opposing religious bigotry down at the mosque. A committed anti-racism campaigner, she has been an almost-lone Muslim voice in the mainstream British media arguing against immigration scaremongering and retaliating against sweeping stereotypes of Muslims as anti-British terrorists. Her latest book, Refusing the Veil, part of a series entitled “provocations” for Biteback Publishing, is a passionate treatise against what she – as a Muslim, feminist and liberal – considers to be submission to a misogynistic symbol of women’s inferiority.

“The veil,” she argues, “in all its permutations, is indefensible and unacceptable”.

But this is no theological treatise aimed at challenging the textual validity of “veils”, though Alibhai-Brown does also question that. It is a fundamentally political treatise on the place of Islam and Muslims in Europe, in which Alibhai-Brown contends that Muslim women are exploiting “the weaknesses and vulnerabilities at the core of free societies”.

The book opens with her bemoaning the “bullying” of schools over the right of female students to wear face veils, arguing that “veils are now ubiquitous”, something she refers to as a “depressing and scary development”. The bullying, we are told, is happening from radical Muslims allied with well-intentioned liberals, who misunderstand the meanings behind the face veil. While the face veil has become a source of tension in certain contexts, namely schools and court buildings, establishments have typically found a compromise between upholding security requirements or other societal obligations and the freedom of religion of individuals. Sadly, discussions of mutual accommodation, itself a manifestation of the very integration allegedly at stake here, are entirely absent in favour of a confrontational binary between entitled radical Muslims on one hand and beleaguered liberal institutions on the other.

Nor is the underlying argument particularly original. Abandoning the veil as a renunciation of the “backwardness” of traditional religions has its earliest permutations in the Sixties and Seventies in Muslim majority countries, where reformers sought to emulate the west’s “success” through the wholesale adoption of European mores and habits. In Iran, this involved the forced imposition of bowler hats in place of turbans by the then Shah. Elsewhere, it manifested as a move away from the headscarf and traditional clothing in favour of European-style skirts and suits. Since then, postcolonial critics have argued against linear view of these developments, promoting instead the idea of multiple modernities, within which traditional symbols can and are inverted to produce new meanings. Contemporary academic studies of veiling widely recognise it as one such example, with multiple meanings ascribed to a garment – the significance of this is open to evolution as part of Islam’s discursive tradition. Although Alibhai-Brown quotes the academic Leila Ahmed approvingly, Ahmed’s most recent publication is a refutation of these views, in which Ahmed asserts that many women who wear the hijab, or headscarf, “now essentially make up the vanguard of those who are struggling for women’s rights in Islam”.

Indeed Alibhai-Brown seems out of touch with contemporary debates among Muslim women surrounding the significance of veiling, not least as a feminist principle aimed at challenging the very patriarchy she claims underpins it. Contemporary arguments examining how the global south has re-appropriated traditional symbols as a means of resistance and national cultural reassertion are all but lost in favour of simplistic arguments concerning the veil as a sign of commitment to backward values. This is a view buttressed by support for the views of intellectuals like the Egyptian thinker Qasim Amin, who believed in the superiority of European civilisation, or the dubious feminism of the late nineteenth century colonialist Lord Cromer who, while he did reject the veil as backwards, simultaneously opposed the suffragettes back in the UK.

Of the many critiques which can be made of this book, its lack of conceptual clarity is surely the most glaring. To pen an entire book on “the veil” without clarifying what exactly one is referring to at any point lacks intellectual rigour. This may well be the desired objective, to lump all Muslim women’s religious attire together under one problematic term – except that these varied manifestations of faith, and sometimes culture, are motivated by different worldviews. There is no single, monolithic, misogynistic worldview underpinning all of them, (although such motivations may exist among individual wearers) and consequently her objections are united by one common theme – the problematisation of the visibility of Europe’s Muslim population. This aligns Alibhai-Brown’s voice with the Swiss ban on minarets, the French face veil ban and the Danish ban on halal meat, which are all reflections of European crispation in the face of a more confident and assertive Muslim identity.

And yet, Alibhai-Brown is unwilling to recognise the continuity of her discourse with that of the far right, whose increasing presence on the European political scene has allowed them to dictate the terms of national discussions, including on this very issue. Her sole acknowledgement of this overlap is a single line when she states “these people don’t matter”. Sadly, that isn’t entirely accurate. Just this year, the French Front National (FN) captured its historic first senate seats, following a strong showing at the European elections in May. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the FN is “at the gates of power”. Polls even suggest that FN leader Marine Le Pen could easily make the run-off in the 2017 elections and even win if up against Francois Hollande. In Germany, anti-islamisation protests, which have nothing to do with the far right, are growing. Here in the UK, the rising popularity of the xenophobic Ukip can hardly be divorced from a broader climate in which Muslims are regularly the focus of national ire. Consequently, and according to new research, Muslims are facing the worst job discrimination of any minority group in Britain, with Muslim women up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. According to Dr Nabil Khattab, of Bristol University, the situation was “likely to stem from placing Muslims collectively at the lowest stratum within the country’s racial or ethno-cultural system due to growing Islamophobia and hostility against them.”

Alibhai-Brown herself has been the victim of this growing racism, writing recently of how she was spat at by a middle-aged white woman who shouted at her “bloody paki“ on a bus, a fact which only makes her blind spot on this all the more troubling.

The book links the veil to problems of integration and national identity, yet ignores the broader dynamics of integration – the reception offered to migrant communities, unemployment, racism, ghettoisation. The veil becomes the focal point for societal ills because, it is claimed, it represents a commitment to backward values, rather than the progress epitomised by western societies. This teleological view of progress underpins the entire book. We are given the sense of a besieged liberal Britain under attack from fanatical veiled hordes.

Alibhai-Brown claims not to want to ban the face veil, but provides all the moral arguments necessary for precisely that. Whether she supports the legislation directly or not, her arguments complement a growing tide in Europe which seeks to criminalise Muslim women, ironically in order to free them – despite themselves! Amnesty International has condemned moves to ban face veils as “an attack on religious freedom”, in recognition that restrictions on women wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as forcing them to wear one. But Alibhai-Brown doesn’t even engage with the arguments concerning the co-opting of feminist rhetoric and the language of human rights in order to mask a growing tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The complexities are numerous – some Muslim women, such as the granddaughter of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who wears the headscarf out of conviction, also object to state imposition of the headscarf. Award-winning Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, an outspoken critic of the “veil”, believes “It is surely a basic human right that someone can choose what she wears without interference from the state”.

In a Foreign Policy article discussing the headscarf, one woman explained: “I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke,” but there is no discussion in YAB’s book of whether all religiously associated garments are to be problematised – the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skullcap, say – rather the entire focus is on the uniquely troubling item worn by Muslim women. This is a view that feeds into this view of Islam as distinctively troublemsome, and as somehow singularly oppressive to women.

This assumption of coercion permeates the book over and above than the myriad voices of the women Alibhai-Brown consults and who offer up a range of motivations for their sartorial choices, from resisting consumerism, to spirituality, through to political solidarity. And this simplification of Islam is recurrent in the book – elsewhere, she falls into classic orientalist depictions of over-sexed Muslims, as the reader is told “Muslim men and women spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, talking, regulating and worrying about sex.”

For all its pleas of defending liberalism, this is a socially conservative book dressed up as a liberal feminist manifesto. It expounds an intolerance regarding the visible difference of others which is distinctly at odds with core liberal principles and their very British articulation in the shape of “live and let live”.

Its feminist credentials are equally questionable, especially given that any explanation articulated by “veil”-wearing women is delegitimised through an appeal to arguments about “false consciousness” and brainwashing, denying Muslim women agency in their decisions and reducing them to passive recipients of male intent. Muslim women are described as “severely controlled”, and “hard” Muslim men, we are told, “want to banish Muslim women from shared spaces”. Although the existence of controlled women and controlling men, Muslim or otherwise, is undeniable and a serious cause for concern, the suggestion that this is the predominant case when it comes to women and “veiling” is not only at odds with academic studies (Scott, Ahmed, and others) but confirms precisely the sort of stereotyping Alibhai-Brown has spent so much of her life denouncing.

Refusing the Veil might be a revolutionary title in Iran or Saudi Arabia where it would signify opposition to a legal imposition on women. Here in Britain, where despite the undeniable existence of community pressures on women, most adult women have a considerable margin of freedom concerning their sartorial choices, it is just another call for policing women’s clothing.

In the book, Alibhai-Brown slips fluidly between Saudi Arabia and Hammersmith with no attention to the differing contexts and consequent meanings each place carries. While the Saudi government undoubtedly uses clothing as items of subjugation, it is wrong to assume that women in the UK are experiencing anything like the same subjugation. This a problematic conflation of Muslim female victimhood, which perpetuates stereotypes of passive, voiceless victims.

Alibhai-Brown presents herself as the middle ground, referring disparagingly to veils, while denouncing other women’s clothing as “tarty”. Yet the patriarchal impulse underpinning any public call to define what should constitute appropriate women’s clothing remains. In a section in which she seeks to debunk the idea that covering will protect women from rape, she doesn’t address the worrying assumption that rape itself is linked to clothing, and that discussions of rape in terms of women’s attire only confirm the view that women are somehow complicit in their abuse.

Alongside the fluid use of the term “veil”, other, disparate phenomena are put in the same bracket. Honour killings and domestic violence both end up linked, through reference to personal anecdotes, to women wearing the “burka”. It is worth stating with force that neither so-called “honour killings”, themselves a form of domestic violence, and domestic violence more broadly are in fact a “Muslim” phenomena and sadly exist across cultures. Burkas may well cover bruises, but so does make-up – neither can be causally linked to the violence itself.

According to Alibhai-Brown, the main culprit behind the rise in “veiling” is the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi petro-dollars – but the truth is while some women who cover their face certainly are Wahabi-inclined, others may well be traditionalists or Islamist, and some even claim feminist motivations. It really can’t be overstated how problematic it is to attribute meaning to people’s choices without ever even enquiring as to the basis for those choices.

Too often discussions about the meaning of religious coverings are undertaken – as was the case of the French face veil ban – without involving the voices of the women who choose to wear the items. In her book, Alibhai-Brown sees a woman in a full face veil pushing a pram in the park, and proceeds to impute a whole series of ideas to her, without even stopping to speak to the woman – her defence? Her face being covered made it impossible to communicate. But the truth is, to quote Arundhati Roy: “There is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately unheard.” Alibhai-Brown could have just as easily approached the woman and struck up conversation, particularly if, as she claims in her book as grounds for opposing the “veil”, she is that concerned that under every face veil could lie a battered body. In the modern age, so much of our interaction occurs without being face to face, without eye contact or the ability to read facial or body language. While you might prefer eye contact, it can hardly be said to be an absolute impediment to any form of interaction.

Many of the arguments in the book are emotional – why are babies or young girls being dressed in headscarves? Burkas hide bruises! Solidarity with women who are forced to wear them should make you remove it! Where will you get your vitamin D?! None of these are particularly original and many are completely nonsensical. For a start, solidarity with women who are legally coerced into wearing certain types of clothing might arguably be better served by supporting women’s right to make informed choices, whether in Saudi Arabia or in France. Secondly, evidently not wearing burkas isn’t the solution to ending domestic violence, with 30 per cent of British women – most of them not wearing burkas – experiencing domestic abuse. As for arguments about vitamin D deficiency, they hardly warrant a rejoinder but to note that like any vitamin deficiency, a supplement – not a political debate – is a more apt response.

A final, salient critique of the book, is its middle class bias. That the veil offends the sensibilities of west Londoners out on walk on Ealing Common should hardly provide the basis for a repudiation of a garment which, whatever its symbolic ascription, is often worn by a strata of women already facing many different challenges. To claim to do so out of a feminist concern for those very same women, while actively contributing to their dehumanisation through the use of terms like “cloaks” and “masks”, to legitimate “revulsion” by empathising with such reactions towards them, is to give credence to the very same racist and discriminatory attitudes which Alibhai-Brown has made her name opposing.

This book is a validation of quiet, middle class prejudice, the type which dare not speak up for fear of being accused of being racist, but as Alibhai-Brown herself reveals in the book, feels deeply uncomfortable with “the veil”. Rather than challenging that prejudice, Alibhai-Brown provides the ultimate insider’s reassurance that such emotions are warranted and legitimate. For such a pivotal anti-racism campaigner, it is a sad capitulation to anti-Muslim prejudice.

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Written by Myriam Francois

December 12, 2014 at 16:27

Foyles Battle of ideas: Riots & revolutions: Europe’s young radicals?

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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:

Clive Bloom
emeritus professor, English and American studies, Middlesex University; author,Riot City: protest and rebellion in the capital

Neil Davenport
writer; head of sociology, JFS Sixth Form Centre; contributor, spiked

Mary Fitzgerald
writer; editor; campaigner; former senior editor, Prospect

Myriam Francois-Cerrah
DPhil candidate, Oriental Studies, Oxford University; journalist; regular panellist, BBC1’s Big Questions

Ashley Frawley
researcher in the problematisation of happiness and wellbeing, University of Kent, Canterbury

Thais Portilho-Shrimpton
journalist; former campaign coordinator and web editor, Hacked Off

Chair:

David Bowden

ZAMAN newspaper (Turkish) İslam Avrupa’ya yabancı bir din değil

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I was interviewed in Zaman newspaper on a variety of topics including Muslim integration and the place of Islam in Europe  – you can read the piece here in Turkish

 

Avrupa’da iyi eğitimli, üst-orta sınıfa mensup, içinde yetiştiği toplumla bağlarını koparmamış genç Müslümanların sayısında kayda değer bir artış var. Myriam François-Cerrah bu profilin dikkat çekici temsilcilerinden biri. Cerrah’ın söyledikleri ise ezberleri bozacak cinsten…
 

Avrupa’da İslam ve Müslümanlara dair tartışmaların seçim kampanyalarını etkilediği bir süreci geride bıraktık. Bu sırada ‘Avrupa ve İslam’ kelimelerinin çoğunlukla artan yabancı düşmanlığı ve İslamofobya ekseninde yan yana getirildiğine tanık olduk. Her ne kadar Endülüs’ten bu yana Avrupa’nın yerel bir unsuru olsa da, İslam’ın sadece göçmenler ve azınlıklarla ilişkilendirilerek değerlendirilmesi yaygın bir alışkanlık hâline geldi. Oysa Fransa’daki seçim kampanyalarının da işaret ettiği üzere İslam harici bir faktör olmaktan çıkıp Avrupa’da gündem belirleyen ve ‘Avrupalı’ kimliğinin oluşumuna katkıda bulunan önemli bir referans olmaya doğru ilerliyor. İslam sadece göçmenlerin, yabancıların temsil ettiği bir fenomen değil, Avrupalı Müslümanlar sayesinde içeriye ait, yerli bir bileşen artık. Bu tespitin izlerini, sayıları her geçen gün artan Avrupalı yerli Müslüman’ın varlığında da görebiliyoruz. Özellikle Batı Avrupa’da iyi eğitimli, üst-orta sınıfa mensup, içinde yetistigi toplumla bağlarını koparmamış genç Müslümanların sayısında kayda değer bir artış gözleniyor. Myriam François-Cerrah bu profilin dikkat çekici temsilcilerinden biri.

Fransız baba ve İrlandalı annenin kızı olarak 1983 yılında İngiltere’de dünyaya gelen François-Cerrah’ın genç yaşına rağmen çok renkli ve etkileyici bir öyküsü var. Soyadındaki ‘Cerrah’ı İngiltere’de yaşayan Türk asıllı eşinden alan Myriam, entelektüel bir ailede büyümüş. Anlattıklarına göre, yatırım bankacısı olan babası tarih ve felsefeye çok düşkün biridir. Annesi ise Marksist – feminist literatüre aşina bir öğretmen. Myriam, evdeki tartışmaların entelektüel gelişiminde büyük katkısı olduğunu, özellikle annesinin fikirlerinden çok etkilenerek yetiştiğini söylüyor. Gençlik döneminde tam bir Jean-Paul Sartre hayranı olan Myriam, onun hayatı ve fikirlerine hâlâ saygı duyduğunu belirtiyor.

Çocuk yaşta oyunculuğa başlayan Myriam François , Hollywood tecrübesi sonrasında eğitim hayatına devam eder. Cambridge Üniversitesi Sosyal ve Siyasal bilimler bölümünden mezun olduğunda 21 yaşındadır. Kültürel anlamda Katolik olarak yetiştirildiğini söyleyen Myriam, o dönemde şüpheci bir Hıristiyan olduğunu ve organize dinlere karşı güvensizlik duyduğunu anlatıyor. İslam’la ilgilenmesi Müslüman bir arkadaşıyla yaşadığı tartışma ertesinde başlamış. Arkadaşına fikirlerinin yanlışlığını gösterebilmek için Kur’an okumaya girişen Myriam, sonrasında daha açık bir zihinle onu anlamaya çalıştığını ifade ediyor. Fatiha süresinin başında, ilahi hitabın tüm insanlığa yönelmiş olması onu şaşkına çevirmiş.

Kur’an’ın dilini hem tanıdık hem de farklı bulduğunu, bazı taraflarıyla ona eski kutsal metinleri hatırlattığını ama bazen onlardan çok farklılaştığını söylüyor. Kur’an’ı okudukça Hıristiyanlık hakkındaki şüphelerinin netleştiğini fark eden Myriam, insanın kendi fiillerinin sorumluluğunu tek başına taşıyan varlık olarak tanımlandığını görünce aniden kendisini bir yetişkin gibi hissetmeye başladığını söylüyor. Myriam François, rölativizmin hüküm sürdüğü bir dünyada Kur’an’ın objektif ahlaki ilkeler ve referans çerçevesi sunmasının önemine işaret ederken onun mesajından nasıl etkilendiğini şu sözlerle ifade ediyor: “Felsefi konulara her zaman derin ilgisi olan biri olarak Kur’an’ın insanlığın bütün felsefi mirasının zirvesi olduğunu hissettim. Adeta Kant’ı, Hume’u, Sartre’ı ve Aristoteles’i birleştirmişti. Varoluşun derin sorularına bir şekilde adres gösteriyor ve onlardan en hayati olana ‘neden buradayız?’ sorusuna cevap veriyordu.”

Myriam François-Cerrah’ın Kur’an’ı anlama çabası ona hayatında yeni bir sayfa açar. Cambridge Üniversitesi’nden mezun olduğu yıl Müslüman olmaya karar verir. Pek çok arkadaşı onun bu kararıyla başka bir faza geçtiğini düşünür ve fazla hırpalanmadan dönmesini ümit eder. Myriam, arkadaşlarının bu seçimin aynı zamanda bu dünyaya ait, profan bir seçim olduğunu anlayamadıklarını söylüyor. Çünkü müslüman olmak bu dünyadan el etek çekmeyi gerektirmiyor. Bazı arkadaşları ise kararını anlayışla karşılar ve onu desteklemek için ellerinden geleni yapar. Çocukluk arkadaşlarının bir kısmı ile hâlen çok yakın olduğunu ve onlar sayesinde ilahî mesajın evrenselliğini gördüğünü söyleyen Myriam için, Müslüman olsun olmasın her insanın yaptığı iyi amellerde ilahî değerlerin ışıltısı var.

Hz. Muhammed’in (sas) kişiliğinde kendinden önce gelen Hz. Musa, Hz. İsa ve Hz. İbrahim gibi çok büyük vazifeyle görevlendirilmiş birini gördüğünü söyleyen Myriam, onun hakkında sahih bilgiye ulaşma konusunda sıkıntılar yaşamış. Başka tarihî şahsiyetlerin hayatı söz konusu olduğunda Batılı araştırmacıların uyguladığı ‘tarihî relativizm’ yönteminin Hz. Muhammed (sas) söz konusu olduğunda bilinçli şekilde, onun şahsiyetini küçümsemek adına ihmal edildiğini fark ediyor. O yüzden onun hayatı ve kişiliğini oryantalist iftiralardan arınmış şekilde hakiki olarak anlamak için çok çaba sarf etmiş.

Myriam François-Cerrah Müslüman olduktan sonra MEND adında Filistinli bir STK için çalışmak üzere bölgeye gitmiş ve ‘şiddet içermeyen sorun çözme teknikleri’ konusunda eğitimlere katılmış. 2005 yılında ise Ortadoğu politikaları konusunda yüksek lisans tezi için Amerika’ya Georgetown Üniversitesi’ne giriyor. Amerika’dayken dış ilişkiler konusunda pek çok makaleye imza attığı gibi Bassam Haddad’ın ‘Araplar ve Terörizm’ adlı belgeselinin yapımına katkıda bulunmuş. İngiltere’de yayımlanan ve genel yayın yönetmenliğini İngiliz muhtedi Sarah Joseph’in yaptığı İslami hayat tarzı dergisi ‘Emel’in eski editörlerinden biri olan Myriam, hâlen dergiye katkıda bulunan isimler arasında. Exeter Üniversitesi’nin Avrupa Müslüman Araştırmaları Merkezi tarafından hazırlanan ‘İslamofobya ve İslam karşıtı nefret suçları’ başlıklı çalışmasına bir bölüm yazan Cerrah, şu sıralar Oxford Üniversitesi’nde doktora çalışmalarına devam ediyor.

Myriam François, kendi duruşunun, içinden çıktığı topluma ve kültürüne karşı bir reaksiyon ya da muhalefet olduğu kanısında değil. Bilakis bunu şimdiye dek biriktirdiklerinin takdire şayan olduğunun bir tür sağlaması gibi algılıyor. İlk zamanlar kendisini İngiltere’deki İslam toplumuyla özdeşleştirmekte zorlanmış. Pek çok caminin kendisine cazip gelmediğini ve bazı kurallar ve teşrifatın kafa karıştırıcı ve sıkıntı verici olduğunu itiraf ediyor. Bazı şeyleri çok garipsemiş, bazı tavırları ise çok karmaşık bulmuş. Dış görüntüye, haricî olana öze ait olandan fazla önem veriliyor oluşu onun için hâlen hayal kırıklığı olmayı sürdürüyor. Myriam, kendinden emin ve kendini iyi ifade edilebilen ve günümüz tartışmalarına katkıda bulunabilecek bir ‘İngiliz Müslüman Kimliği’ne çok ihtiyaç olduğu görüşünde: “İslam yabancı bir din değil, biz Müslüman olarak kendimizle irtibatımızın kesildiğini, kendi kimliğimizin izlerini kaybettiğini düşünmemeliyiz. İslam bize ait doğruların ve iyinin onaylanması, kötülerin ise düzeltilmesi anlamına geliyor.”

İslamofobya ile ilgili çalışmalara katılan Myriam, bu olgunun Avrupa’da yükselişte olmasını ekonomik sorunlara bağlıyor. Kriz dönemlerinde hem yabancı düşmanlığı hem de ayrımcılık vakalarının arttığına dikkat çeken Cerrah, araştırmaların son dönemde pek çok Avrupa ülkesinde İslam karşıtı tavırlarla birlikte anti-semitizm’in de yükselişte olduğunu gösterdiğinin altını çiziyor. İslamofobya’nın yabancı düşmanlığının bir parçası olduğunu düşünen Cerrah, Edward Said’e atıfta bulunarak, oryantalist müktesebatın, Batı’daki mevcut İslam algısını hâlen etkilemeye devam ettiğini ifade ediyor. Avrupa’da artan İslami görünürlüğün tetiklediği tartışmaların ülkeden ülkeye değiştiğini söyleyen Myriam, Fransa’da bunun büyük problem hâline gelmesini şöyle açıklıyor: “Fransa’da bütün vatandaşların Cumhuriyet yapısı içinde eriyeceğine dair mit, bunun büyük bir problem olarak algılanmasına sebep oluyor. Vatandaşlık nosyonu, eşitliğe işaret etmek üzere bütün farklılıkların silinmesi üzerine inşa ediliyor. Oysa gerçeklik böyle değil, bütün vatandaşlar farklı. Bu farklılıklar ortadan kaldırılamaz. Eşitsizlikler devam ettiği gibi vatandaşların topluma katılımı noktasında entegrasyon problemi ortaya çıkar.”

Bütün Avrupa ülkelerinde Müslümanların işsizlik, ayrımcılık, ırkçılık, düşük eğitim düzeyi gibi ortak problemleri olduğunu hatırlatıyor. Bunun yanında ülkeden ülkeye değişen problemler var. Mesela İngiltere’de başörtülü kadınları hemen her sektörde görebilirsiniz fakat Fransa’da bu durum nadirdir. Avrupa’da aşırı sağın yükselişi pek çok azınlık için ortak problem.

 Avrupa’daki anlatı, Hıristiyanlık ve Museviliğin modern Avrupa kimliğinin gelişiminde etkili olduğu yönünde. Myriam bu konuda hemfikir. Fakat “Hıristiyanlığın yahut Museviliğin paylaşıp da İslam’ın paylaşmadığı ne tür değerler vardır?” sorusunu sorarak ilave ediyor: “Onlar da bizim tarihimiz ve değerlerimiz cümlesindendir.”

Müslümanların, Avrupa kimliğini oluşturan değerler konusundaki tartışmada taraflardan biri olması gerektiğine inanıyor: “Bunun ötesinde ortak kültürümüzün iyi taraflarını muhafaza etme noktasında, toplumumuzun gelişimi için, hastalıklarımıza çözüm bulmak için Müslümanlar da katkı sunmalı.Daha iyi bir Avrupa, hatta daha iyi bir dünya için diğerleri arasında onların da sesine kulak verilmeli.”

Myriam Cerrah ‘İngiliz Müslüman kimliği’ne ısrarla vurgu yapıyor. Bunun tam olarak ne anlama geldiğini sorduğumuzda verdiği cevap şu: “Bir İngiliz olmak İngiliz tarihini, kültürünü bilmektir. İslam 7. yüzyıl Hicazi Arap kültürünü İngiliz kültürü ile değiştirmeyi gerektirmez. İslam’ın değerleriyle kendi farklı kültürlerimizi geliştirmek, arıtmak ve zenginleştirmek durumundayız. Müslüman olmak ‘yabancı’ olmak demek değildir. Bana göre İslam temas ettiği her kültürü en kâmil şekilde zenginleştiren ahlak ve değerler bütünüdür.”

Myriam François, soyadındaki ‘Cerrah’ı İngiltere’de yaşayan Türk asıllı eşinden almış. Türkiye’yi ve Türkleri çok sevdiğini belirtiyor. Her yıl eşinin memleketinin bulunduğu Karadeniz’e geldiklerini, özellikle Kaçgar dağlarında rafting ve trekking yapmaktan hoşlandığını anlatıyor. Türkiye siyasetiyle ilgili gözlemlerini ise şöyle ifade ediyor: “Türkiye hakkında biraz çalışmıştım. Bazı Avrupa ülkelerinde olduğu gibi yolsuzluk önemli bir problem. Bunun yanında ordunun rolü ve son yarım yüzyılda politik alana yaptığı müdahaleler Türkiye’nin seçtiği demokratikleşme yolunda bir tehdit olmaya devam ediyor. Fakat Avrupa ekonomisi derin bir durgunluk yaşarken Türkiye’nin patlama yapıyor oluşu da dikkat çekici ve bu konuda Türkiye’den öğrenecek çok şeyimiz var.”

Sinema, idealleri yaymak için iyi bir imkân

Londra’nın Fransız muhitinde doğup büyüyen Myriam François-Cerrah’ın henüz 12 yaşındayken popüler bir Hollywood filminde rol alması onun hayat hikâyesinin  en ilginç ayrıntılarından biri. Myriam (o zamanki adıyla Emilie François) çocuk yaşlarında oyunculuğa merak salar.

Lokal bir tiyatro grubunda derslere devam ederken kendisine bir oyunun birkaç bölümünde rol alması teklif edilir. Bu şekilde başlayan oyunculuk macerası Hollywood filmlerine kadar uzanır. 1995 yılında Emma Thompson ve Kate Winslet’in başrol oynadığı gişe filmi ‘Sense and Sensibility’de çocuk oyuncu olarak kamera önüne geçer. 1997’de çekilen ‘Paws’ ve 2000’deki ‘New Years Day’ filmlerinde ise başrol oyuncularından biridir. Myriam François-Cerrah oyunculuğa ve o dönemki iş arkadaşlarına hâlâ büyük bir muhabbet ve saygı beslediğini söylüyor. Ona göre sinema, ideallerin yayılması için çok elverişli bir imkân sunuyor. Bu yüzden film sektörüyle ilgisini kesmeye niyetli değil. Kamera arkasında da olsa bu sektörde bir şeyler yapmaya devam etmek istiyor. Film endüstrisinde daha çok Müslümanı görmek umudunda olduğunu da özellikle vurguluyor.

 

 

Written by Myriam Francois

September 3, 2012 at 22:30

France Legislative Elections: A Left turn for Europe?

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This piece is featured in the New Statesman here and on the Huffington Post blog, here

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31%) in France’s legislative elections as 6500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next 5 years, reducing the deficit to 3% by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of ‘three ways’ in the second round on June 17, whereby three candidates reach the second round, and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande’s Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left.

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande’s power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a ‘citizen revolution’, has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this “corrupt and unjust capitalist system” and reflects the only real alternative: “We don’t need three cars or big houses – the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind – we need a revolution.” But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe’s problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they’re concerned there could be a ‘return’ of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by “near constant strikes.” After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen’s views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and “the fratricide which occurred” means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party.

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou’s ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the ‘New Right’. Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP’s right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an ‘ideological blockage’ for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure on the UMP to concede is even more accute, in light of the thirty two ‘three ways’ in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen’s success in transforming the image of her father’s party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN which achieved almost 18% in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly, a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77% of the votes, a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May’s election. In the second round, the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the “Marine blue gathering”, a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France’s Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10% unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France’s policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

Sky news Press Preview: Sunday 6th of May 2012

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Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader and MEP, and I doing the press preview on Sunday 6th May 2012, 9h30pm, discussing the French and Greek elections which headline the papers.

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Written by Myriam Francois

May 6, 2012 at 17:23

Lecture: Islam and feminism – common ground?

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This is a lecture I delivered at the university of Southampton, a join Islamic society and Feminist society event in January 2012.

Written by Myriam Francois

February 20, 2012 at 13:55

Why a war with Iran is the real threat

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A shorter version of this was published in the Huffington Post, you can read it here.
and the original on the State of Formation site, here

The war drums are beating. Yesterday’s announcement that the EU has formally adopted an oil embargo against Iran, follows the news that Britain, America and France are sending six warships led by a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier through the highly sensitive waters of the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran had threatened to close in response to growing sanctions, including a partial freeze on assets held by the Iranian Central Bank in the EU.

The strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz, located between Iran and western ally Oman, cannot be overstated, nor can the clear signals being sent by this unified show of force. Tankers carrying 17 million barrels of oil pass through this waterway every day, accounting for 35 per cent of the world’s seaborne crude shipments. And the “naval exercises” being undertaken there by both parties are no practise mission. Earlier this month, General Ataollah Salehi, commander of Iran’s armed forces, threatened to respond with “full force” if any US carrier ventured into the region’s waters, stating: “We don’t have the intention of repeating our warning, and we warn only once.” Meanwhile, Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered in less than mysterious circumstances, as the US sent its military chief General Martin Dempsey to Israel on Friday, to urge the country “to keep the channels of communication open with Washington,” amid concerns the Jewish state could launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a concerning scenario given its 300 actual, not potential nuclear warheads. The hawks who pushed for the invasion of Iraq are hankering after a repeat scenario in Iran, while the sequels are still festering next door…

In his Cairo address in 2009, Obama assured the Muslim world, “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” But the actions of Obama’s government have been anything but a new beginning. In fact, his current policies on Iran in particular are an extension of initiatives begun under the Bush administration and which regard Iran as a threat to America’s strategic interests – read control – over the region. In March 2011, General Petraeus, of Iraq infamy, informed the Senate Committee on Armed Services that “the Iranian regime is the primary state-level threat to stability”, to which academic Noam Chomsky wryly commented that the term “stability” could be translated as “firmly under US control.”
Current tensions are really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The US has a long and established presence in the Middle East, with military bases in more countries than you can shake a stick at. In fact, if you joined the dots, you could draw a fairly tight circle around Iran, something the Iranians are not blind to. Meanwhile, as the Arab revolutions throw out, or attempt to throw out, traditional US allies in the form of longstanding despots, a new leadership is trying to emerge, one which will seek alliances most conducive to national interest. And while the despots looked to the US as an ally, unsurprisingly, the US is not viewed particularly favourably amongst the Arab people, suggesting truly democratic governments might not provide the sort of regional cooperation the US has long been accustomed to. In a 2011 poll, in five out of the six Arab countries surveyed, the U.S. was viewed less favourably than Turkey, China, France—or Iran.

Far from seeing the U.S. as a leader in the post-Arab Spring environment, the countries surveyed viewed “U.S. interference in the Arab world” as the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East, second only to the ongoing Palestinian occupation. And whilst Iran is not viewed particularly positively either, polls indicate that when Arabs were asked questions about Iran or its nuclear program, and the U.S. and its threats of sanctions or military action were a part of the question, Arabs would indicate strong support for Iran and its defiance on nuclear issues. Current sanctions are likely to bolster support for Iran in the region and crucially, reduce support for America and its allies.

Though the nuclear threat posed by Iran is held to be the imperative for current action, a military and intelligence reports to Congress in April 2010 [Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Statement before the Committee on Armed Services, US Senate, 14 April 2010; Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran, April 2010; John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service, “Report to Congress Outlines Iranian Threats,” April 2010] makes clear that the Iranian threat is not military. Iran’s military spending is “relatively low compared to the rest of the region,” (around 1/80th of US military spending) and its military doctrine is strictly “defensive, … designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities,” with only “a limited capability to project force beyond its borders.”
On the thorny nuclear issue, the report states that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” Whilst this is hardly reassuring, the most recent report by IAEA officials in November of 2011, suggests that development of this ‘deterrent’ has yet to be actualised. In other words, despite the breakdown of talks between Iran and the EU in Turkey last year, there is still time for a diplomatic resolution. Particularly since in recent weeks, EU officials say the Iranians have been sending signals about resuming talks.

Surrounded by US military bases, locked in a cold war of its own with the US, and all too aware of military incursions into neighbouring countries, Iran is seeking a deterrent to ensure its national sovereignty. The fact that a poll in September 2010 by the International Peace Institute found that 71 percent of Iranians favoured the development of nuclear weapons, suggests the government is not alone in its concerns. And it certainly doesn’t escape attention that the US has favoured dialogue rather than military action against other US nemesis, nuclear weapon holder North Korea…

So if Iran doesn’t yet pose a nuclear threat, nor is its impetus for seeking a nuclear deterrent beyond a diplomatic resolution, is an oil embargo the best way to proceed?

It is worth remarking at this point, the real cost of these sanctions to our economies, not to mention to poverty stricken Iranians, 10 million of whom live under the absolute poverty line (according to 2010 official figures) and for whom sanctions have already made imports 24% more costly. Iran has experienced sanctions since the 1979 revolution but the current oil ban is the most significant toughening to date. Europe accounts for around 20% of Iran’s oil exports and with European economies struggling, a hike in oil prices is the last thing our sluggish economic recovery needs. Despite suggestions that the beacon of human rights that is Saudi Arabia is prepared to fill the void, the impact felt will be dramatic. And for what? Critics suggest the measure will do little to change the course of the Iranian nuclear program and the embargo could end up hurting the EU more than Iran. “I don’t know why Europe is going along with this. (…) [Joining the embargo] will backfire,” says Iraqi Manouchehr Takin, a senior oil markets analyst with the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies. Cynics can now look to Libya, where conveniently, production by European oil companies is increasing and offering an alternative source to help quell demand…

And if you thought the rest of the world agreed with us on this embargo, you’d be wrong – Japan, China and India have all baulked at the proposal, suggesting it would be ineffective and damaging to the global economy. What this lack of consensus means concretely, is that any loss in sales for Iran from Europe will be offset by the hike in the cost of crude, compensating for any loss of revenue. At whose cost? Why yours of course.

The current upsurge in tensions is a reflection of a poorly played diplomatic card.Threatening Iran through so-called ‘hard power diplomacy’ is not diplomacy – it’s just threatening. The spread of nuclear weapons is a significant cause for concern and commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) treaty essential. However, while Nuclear powers continue to ignore Article VI of the treaty which “obligates the nuclear weapons states to liquidate their nuclear stockpiles and pursue complete disarmament,” other states concerned about their national sovereignty will continue to view nuclear weapons as one of the only ways to ensure their national sovereignty.

Isolated, marginalised and defensive, current sanctions do little to foster the only possible solution to this crisis, the creation of a more trusting atmosphere where Iran is not backed into a corner where it feels nuclear weapons are its only and last means of self-defence. Historical precedents indicate that sanctions have little to no effect on Iran’s political decisions – instead, the latest oil embargo is guaranteed to make life harder for average people both in Iran and Europe. This collective punishment will do little to convince Iranians that the West isn’t “the great Satan” and is sure to bolster support for Iran in the Arab world where it will be viewed as the underdog. Europe needs to take the lead and move away from an over-emotional US led discourse which allows skewed ideological imperatives to trump national interests and global stability.

Written by Myriam Francois

January 24, 2012 at 13:54