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New Statesman: State-sanctioned prejudice is at the heart of David Cameron’s approach to countering extremism

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Last year, Olive Tree Primary School in Blackburn was being investigatedbecause a teaching assistant had allegedly discussed, “stoning for gay people” and “condemned music and clapping as satanic”.

As a consequence, Olive Tree primary, as well as other schools within the Islamic trust, Tauheedul Education, were visited by Ofsted. Although no evidence of extremism was found, suspicion here – like elsewhere in the case of schools affected by the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – has lingered.

Unlike the front page headlines parading schools as hotbeds of Islamic extremism, news that Olive Tree primary and three other schools run by the trust have since been classed as “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted has been much less prominent.

Yet accusations of extremism have seen schools struggle to recruit and retain staff – a reality that Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham’s Education Commissioner, has described as “the biggest issue facing schools” in the area.

Cameron’s decision to deliver his big address on how to tackle extremism from within a school in Birmingham was entirely calculated to set the stage for schools as the battleground for counter-extremism.

The choice of location speaks to the recent so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, which, despite being debunked by at least five official investigations that found “no evidence of a conspiracy” nor of “a sustained plot”, continues to be used as the basis for seemingly never-ending state encroachment into the private sphere of Muslim citizens – now including Muslim children.

All this is despite a huge backlash from educationalists, teachers, as well asacademics against the increasing securitisation of education and the perils this poses to the very objectives of education – namely, a frank exploration of knowledge, within a trust-based environment.

David Lundie, a senior lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope university, who has actively opposed the new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, points out that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism” did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, when educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.

But learning lessons from the past isn’t this government’s forte.

The Prime Minister’s address this week was meant to set out a new vision for counter-extremism, but for keen observers of the government’s befuddled strategy (or lack thereof) it sounded decidedly familiar.

But there were a few caveats – the saving graces of an otherwise patronising and ill-advised speech. For a start, the PM recognised the “profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations” “in every sphere of our society” and, most significantly, recognised that extremism is a threat first and foremost to Muslims – to Muslims in regions where they hold sway and those in the UK who may be targeted for grooming, or who may come under attack from far-right extremists.

The reality of the latter situation is stark, what with a bomb being left outside mosques as recently as last month, and an Asian man recently hacked at with a machete by a man shouting white power slogans.

Acknowledging Muslims as partners, not a “swamp” harbouring terrorist crocodiles, to paraphrase the rather gauche Michael Gove, is certainly progress.

Some of the initiatives laid out for countering the appeal of Daesh – such as giving a platform to its victims or empowering those communities most affected to speak out – are important in countering its propaganda.

Tackling segregation and discrimination, improving social mobility, and even the proposal to establish a new community engagement forum are constructive ideas.

But while there was some encouraging talk of working with communities, the government’s key failure has been its inability to identify extremism and its causes correctly, a misgiving that can be more than partially attributed to its selective hearing.

Cameron has once again laid out – as in Bratislava last month, and Munich before – a definition of the threat being faced that perpetuates the same tired, misplaced and critically, unsubstantiated notion that “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology”.

Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas. This is exactly the terrain upon which the terrorists would like it to be played out, rather than in the real world circumstances producing anger and disaffection.

Ideology plays its part; it is the packaging of political concepts to render them accessible and attractive. But it’s hardly the core.

The issue of defining the nature of extremism has been a longstanding government struggle. Most recently, a working definition was set out, the brilliant irony of which was typified by a now classic interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who, when asked to provide an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil that should trigger an anti-extremism intervention, wriggled nervously before responding – homophobia.

Her intervention might of course have proven more compelling had she not voted against gay marriage twice herself, at least on one occasion in reference to her own religious views as a Christian.

And why not? There are plenty of folk whose views, religious or otherwise, might prompt them to vote against gay marriage, but to suggest this is the basis upon which children – and let’s be honest, Muslim children specifically – ought to be investigated is where comical policy blunder switches to dangerous criminalisation of children.

The speech also reiterated the notion that some ideas, although not calls to violence, are too subversive to be allowed expression. Think carefully about that statement. There are ideas which need criminalising.

Now, I write as someone who frequently denounces what I regard to be institutionalised forms of prejudice – racism. But I have never once suggested that racists should be jailed, unless, of course, they are inciting violence.

I do, however, believe communities and society as a whole have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny. Sexist innuendos don’t deserve lockdown, but they should be shut down. The suggestion that we should regard the expression of critical views of anything from liberal democracy to foreign policy as harbingers of extremism should make us all shudder.

In a free society, citizens must be able to express unpalatable views: subversive ideas, counter-cultural perspectives that contribute to challenging the status quo. Shutting down the fringes is counterproductive at every level – it forces such voices underground, limits free speech and fosters a climate of fear in which certain ideas are deemed not simply bad taste, but worthy of police intervention.

The great hypocrisy of Cameron’s speech is of course that the far-right has for generations expressed the sorts of ideas that bear considerable continuity with those who then go on to attack minorities. But groups from Britain First and the EDL, far from being shut down, are permitted to march through some of our most diverse cities in an act of clear provocation.

The parallels being drawn between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists are themselves questionable, not least because Muslim extremists – the limelight-aspiring Al-Muhajiroun aside – don’t tend to be very public. They function underground, often online and, contrary to popular belief, out of sight of the community that has shown itself prepared to ban speakers from premises and flag violent concerns from co-religionists to the police.

The ideals of violent Muslim extremists are not tolerated in your local mosque, nor are they accepted in schools or local community associations. Their voices are not regular contributors to flagship programmes that shape public opinion, such as that of Douglas Murray, from the Henry Jackson Society, who puts a plummy twist on a fascist classic with his view that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” and who has previously argued that the EDL should be “given the benefit of doubt”.

This brings me to the next trope in Cameron’s woolly speech: the idea that Muslims are somehow in the grip of mad conspiracy theories. Who are the overpaid incompetents who convinced the PM that conspiracy theories should top the list of concerns regarding British Muslims? And why only Muslims? Is David Ike about to become a banned entity?

And how about the decision to throw in a host of social ills with no connection to extremism – from FGM to religious councils to forced marriages – none of which are the exclusive purview of the Muslim community.

Nor do they have any discernible link to radicalisation, unless you count the far-right trope that Muslim communities bring with them an array of “problems” – a stereotyping and essentialising of Muslims for which Tommy Robinson himself couldn’t have dreamt up a more prominent platform.

But the most galling aspect of David’s monologue was the attempt to undermine the most academically-grounded, widely-recognised notion that foreign policy grievances play a significant role in motivating attacks by Muslim extremists; what he attempts to recast as “the grievance justification”.

He spoke as if anger at the death of innocent men, women and children in invasions of sovereign nations, or support for brutal autocracies, could simply be rebranded as an “excuse” to cover up that the true source of anger – recast as “hate” – is something within Islam itself.

Cameron also seeks to undermine the very significant concept of alienation, with attendant concepts such as relative poverty, or the disconnect between aspirations and real world expectations. This feeling can, in fact, be greater in highly-qualified individuals who fail to see their hopes matched by reality, and are consequently more open to counter-cultural messages of self-assertion. A Western education and a flat screen TV are hardly a preserve against a sense of discrimination or thwarted dreams.

It is a sad indictment of the government’s attempts to tackle extremism properly that it continues to peddle the same, unsubstantiated, widely-debunked and frankly self-serving “conveyor belt” theory of extremism. This theory somehow holds that anyone with socially conservative views is merely a few steps away from blowing us all up.

The truth is, the profile of those engaging in terrorist activists, those orderingIslam for Dummies online, is less befitting of the notion of pious devotees, and much closer to the classic model of a political radical enamoured by the latest articulation of subversion.

The notion bandied about in Cameron’s speech that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination” would be true if the definition of extremism wasn’t so broad as to encompass opponents to gay marriage, monarchists, anarchists, communists, Nigel Farage – we’ve now reached a stage where it is no longer possible not to be a liberal within a liberal democracy. Or, more accurately, it is no longer possible to be a socially conservative Muslim within liberal Britain.

Cameron of course would deny that the policies outlined are Muslim-specific, even if, as the Tory insider Paul Goodman clearly indicates on his blog, the speech was “mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims”.

It is Muslim children being targeted through intrusive questionnaires. It is Muslim majority schools that have become the focus of a witch hunt dressed up as a “neutral” Ofsted inspection. It is Muslims who are primarily affected by our decision to sign away some of our most cherished civil liberties, under the guise of the protection of “British values”, all the while upbraiding those who challenge their “suspension” –  the stripping of British citizens of their nationality, the introduction of secret courts, undermining open justice, and a raft of proposals under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that civil liberties campaign group Liberty describes as “as unsafe as they are unfair”.

The PM spoke of establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non-violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard, which seems like a perfect antidote if the government weren’t determined to engineer the nature of the discussion by selecting only the types of voices likely not to rock the boat.

We need not look too far back in recent political history to recall the disastrous attempt by Hazel Blears, then Tony Blair’s Communities Secretary, to set up various groups with the intent of socially engineering a politically acceptable form of Islam.

We definitely don’t need more of that, thanks.

For all the berating of community leaders as little more than “professional Muslims”, the fact is their replacement with Whitehall-manufactured voices, dressed up for the sake of legitimacy in half-baked think tanks, is no improvement. Bring back the Mr Khans, I say. At least they actually know where the community centre is.

The notion that government is going to “actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices” should make any self-respecting secularist shudder. Why is the state meddling in the religious practices of its citizens? And do we really aspire to a state that seeks to dictate the nature of “correct” religious praxis?

This sounds less liberal democracy and more religious autocracy. Unless you’re not Muslim of course, in which case your religious freedom isn’t under threat. And that, I believe, is quite possibly the definition of state-sanctioned prejudice.

“This extremist ideology is not true Islam,” added Cameron – a statement that might have been met with relief were the implication of it not that the government is somehow beholden to the meaning of “true Islam” and prepared to try and enforce it.

“We can’t stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values,” he continued. But standing neutral is exactly what the secular state should do.

You can read the original piece on the New statesman website, here

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Written by Myriam Francois

July 22, 2015 at 09:12

The National.ae: Blaming ‘ancient hatreds’ for Srebrenica ignores politics

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There’s something about Srebrenica. Much like when I visited Auschwitz in the 1990s, there is a sense of something profoundly awful having happened there, which stains the very air you breath.

Twenty years have passed since around eight thousand men and boys were systematically killed, dumped in mass graves and then subsequently dug up to be reburied in secondary and even tertiary grave sites, in an effort to the cover up the crimes. To this day, bodies are still being discovered and in many cases, families are left to bury only a few bones, the last remaining evidence of a life lost.

In February, I travelled with the BBC to the site of the killings to make a documentary, A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, about what impact learning about the events might have on a group of young people, born in the same year as the genocide.

The young people were part of a delegation organised by the group Remembering Srebrenica, a British organisation that takes people to learn about the tragedy.

We followed the group as they learnt about the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide at Srebrenica, the painstaking work of the International Commission on Missing Persons in trying to identify remains. And although the delegations do not usually meet Serb officials, the group accompanied me to speak with Milos Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb Chair of the Municipal Assembly in the town of Srebrenica itself, who refuses to use the term “genocide”.

Although Serbia has condemned the events as a “horrible crime”, it and many Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice, both of which have called the events a genocide. In the context of Bosnia, the genocide was part of a broader process of ethnic cleansing, one aspect of a project of Bosnian Serbian extreme nationalism which sought to create an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greater Serbia” in lieu of a diverse, integrated society.

Before I travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, my knowledge of what had happened at Srebrenica was limited to what I’d acquired within the Muslim community in the UK. The genocide at Srebrenica isn’t taught in British schools, something the young people featured in the BBC documentary felt was a serious omission. I began researching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and was particularly interested in better understanding how closely the narrative I’d acquired about Bosnia tallied with the facts.

There was – and to some extent there still is – a sense among British Muslims that Bosnia was “our” genocide, unrecognised, and moreover a symptom of a tacit anti-Muslim prejudice, which spilt over into politics, locally and internationally.

As with most narratives, there are undeniable elements of truth, but I also came to feel deeply uncomfortable with the “religification” and appropriation of the events.

Among the core arguments in the narrative is the view that Bosnian Muslims were left to slaughter because “Muslim blood is cheap”. Certainly, the evidence now suggests that western powers were much more aware than previously thought of events on the ground.

In a recent op-ed, former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey decried that “nowhere in official sanitised accounts has Washington, London or Paris acknowledged its role in leaving Srebrenica naked”, a reference to Nato’s failure to provide air support to Dutch peace keepers despite repeated requests and despite new evidence that American spy planes had images of the killings underway.

Mr Sacirbey also hints at what has become apparent since, that anti-Muslim stereotypes did play their part, with then-French president Francois Mitterrand objecting to a “Muslim-led unified Bosnia” and former US President Bill Clinton acknowledging in his memoir that “some European leaders were not eager to have a Muslim state in the heart of the Balkans”. Did such prejudice contribute to political considerations? It was certainly there.

According to a report in The Guardian, “British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were ‘untenable’ long before the Serb commander Ratko Mladic took the town”. They agreed to sacrifice Srebrenica to leave a political map amenable to the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic.

Numerous books now indicate a strange affinity among some western leaders with the Serb leadership. But even with this, it is difficult to claim anti-Muslim prejudice specifically drove those decisions, rather than cold, political calculations over whom western powers felt could best manage the disintegrating region.

Part of the sense of injustice felt in connection to Srebrenica for many Muslims lies in the power equation involved.

Far from a “civil war”, as the broader conflict was often depicted, Srebrenica was an assault by a modern, strongly armed Bosnian Serb army against a UN safe zone in which male fighters had been convinced to give up their weapons.

The defenceless nature of the civilians who’d placed their trust in international institutions, only to be handed over to be executed, has cemented a sense that international organisations have long served only the interests of western powers and often failed – as in Rwanda – to protect those whose lives are deemed less worthy.

But to view these events outside of their broader context plays into a depiction of the conflict in the Balkans as the product of ancient hatreds, a view that former aide to Mr Clinton, Richard Holbrook, bemoans as a strategic failure that cemented a sense that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders.

This perception of the broader conflict as pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims ignored the reality that, as Brendan Simms points out in his book Unfinest Hour, the Bosnian government forces, in some theatres “included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents” despite being routinely described in the media as “the Muslims”.

This vision was itself internalised by many Muslims, who saw in the conflict an assault on Islam itself, rather than a supremacist Serb nationalism that sought to divide integrated communities along lines that had until then been perceived as broadly indiscernible.

The Muslim identity was one of those lines and the long term consequence of identifying Bosnian Muslims as Muslims first and foremost has been a renewed sense of themselves in religious terms.

To paint the genocide at Srebrenica as the product of pure anti-Muslim hate reduces the events to the inevitable outpouring of age-old hatreds, rather than acknowledging root causes and political failures. The Bosnian people’s suffering shouldn’t be appropriated. Ultimately, it remains a disservice to the victims not to truly seek to understand what led to this tragedy.

Myriam Francois is a journalist and broadcaster. She presented the BBC1 documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited

You can read the original piece on The National website here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 18, 2015 at 14:26

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New Statesman: Why is David Cameron using British Muslims as the scapegoat for his government’s failings?

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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.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 23, 2015 at 17:31

Jadaliyya: Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic

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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

Written by Myriam Francois

May 20, 2015 at 16:47

New Statesman: To talk about race, we need to talk about the problem with “whiteness”

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“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

Written by Myriam Francois

April 28, 2015 at 15:35

Oxford Union: “Feminism has been hijacked by white middle-class women”

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This is the transcript of a speech given by Myriam Francois-Cerrah in an Oxford Union debate on 12 Feburary. She was speaking in favour of the successful motion “This House believes that feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women”, alongside Ava Vidal and  Linda Bellos OBE. In opposition: Inna Schevchenko from FEMEN, Michael Kaufman and Natalie Bennett (Green Party).

Ladies and Gentleman, it is a pleasure to be here with you this evening.

I know, I know – the apparent irony of my being a white middle class woman who believes feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women will, I’m certain, not be lost on you.

But – it is in many ways a vindication of my case.

After all, I am a minority within my own community – unrepresentative of Muslim women either here or in the global south, in terms of my either socio-economic profile or ethnicity, despite the frequency with which I am called upon to speak from within that subjectivity.

Before attending today, I thought long and hard about whether I should trade my place for one of my many personal heroines, women of colour whose voices are so often overridden not only by a white narrative, but white privilege, which however mitigating my headscarf might be of aspects of it – I nevertheless embody.

I ultimately decided to partake for one central reason and that is to emphasise that critique of white feminism – or white culture more broadly – is not a discussion about race – but of a political category, implying an unequal balance of power between dominant white culture, and subaltern identities.

The term “white people” doesn’t refer to the colour of people’s skin as much as it refers to people’s identification with the dominant power relations which continue to subjugate people of colour to a second class status and relegates women of colour specifically to the bottom of the heap.

I can’t and refuse to speak for Muslim women – I speak only as a feminist Muslim woman whose solidarity lies first and foremost with the global south. And I speak as an intersectional feminist who believes race, class and gender are critical to feminist discussions.

Arundhati Roy once said: “There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.” When it comes to alternative conceptions of feminism, the feminist movement has been doggedly resistant to including alternative voices. And by including, I don’t mean merely recognising that alternative voices exist on the margins, a benevolent nod to those who don’t quite conform to “our ways”.

Nor do I mean the superficial diversity of different faces – I’m talking about the substantive diversity of different conceptions of female flourishing. I mean accepting that the white liberal secular framework is not the only acceptable lens through which women can articulate their struggles.

Rather than the predominant assumption that alternative feminist voices are playing “catch up” with western feminism, I mean realising that feminism isn’t about “saving” women from the global south, it’s actually about learning from them as true equals in a shared struggle.

Although this recognition is slowly trickling through, it is often too tokenistic and at times deeply patronising.

My PhD research is on Morocco where many of the women I interview identify as committed religious believers – in their society, they are the forefront of struggling for the reinterpretation of religious texts in an egalitarian light, they combat the notion of male supremacy or ultimate authority but they also – in many cases – reject the term “feminism” as a western concept which is ill fitting to their needs as Moroccan Muslim women, an import that one woman described as “another form of cultural imperialism design to alienate native women from the real source of their power” – their own culture.

While as a Muslim feminist, I am well aware of the struggles for equality within my faith, I also recognise that the problem of gender inequality cannot be laid at the feet of religion alone. In fact, poverty and authoritarianism – conditions not unique to the Islamic world, and produced out of global interconnections that implicate the west –are often more decisive.

The feminism I relate to, the feminism I draw on, is the feminism of women resisting imperialism, exploitation, war and patriarchy – it is the feminism of Indian women fighting back against rape culture, Palestinian women resisting Israeli occupation, Bengali women demanding basic safety conditions in sweat factories producing clothes for fake fashion feministas – the innumerable women of the Arab uprisings and their ongoing resistance!

When I say feminism has been hijacked by white women, I mean white culture continues to dominate the narrative in all fields and renders alternative points of view as quaint contributions permitted to confirm the eternal truth of western supremacy.

I mean the instrumentalisation of the Malala Yousafzais of this world, local heroines turned into political pawns to justify ongoing wars and occupations, which ultimately hit women hardest. Women’s education recast as a justifiable motive for western imperialism.

Malala’s example serves only to validate white feminism’s priorities and perceptions of otherised women, as in need of saving, as grateful recipients of foreign interventions.

For all the feminist justifications for the plunder of Afghanistan, its maternal death rate today stands among the highest in the world. A recent UN report blames decades of grinding conflict in addition to repressive attitudes towards women.

The same pattern is replicated elsewhere – when 200 Nigerian schools girls get kidnapped by Boko haram, rather than focus on finding the girls, the story is used to justify the ongoing global war on terror. Which incidentally, still hasn’t appeared to have helped return the girls.

There is plenty of research on the impact of conflict on women, who are among its primary victims, not only in terms of actual casualties of war, but also in their struggle for autonomy because what conflicts actually do, is polarise gender roles: masculinity becomes more aggressive and women are idealised as “the bearers of a cultural identity” – women’s bodies become part of the battle field.

This is as true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as of Afghanistan.

And this is where white feminism continues to fail the true test of feminist solidarity in taking on-board the critiques coming from the margins. There has been far too little introspection, far too much reticence to question white supremacy

White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the US as well as in the colonial empires and arguably continue to be beneficiaries of imperialism and exploitation.

The cheap clothes we buy, the petrol we fill our cars with, the diamonds we covet – they are all tied into the feminist struggle because, to paraphrase bell hooks, if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because western society does not view all men equally.

There can be no equality between men and women until there is a redress of the global inequities which posit whiteness at the top of human hierarchy and consequently posit white bourgeois women as the benchmark for female emancipation.

And this is where groups like Femen are part of the problem – with statements such as “as a society, we haven’t been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women“, because we all know that ALL Arab men hate women right?

In response to a campaign by Muslim women to actively denounce Femen as racist and patronising, Inna Shevchenko – who graces us with her presence tonight, responded  “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.” White saviour complex anyone?

This brand of pseudo feminism which confirms the idea of passive, voiceless women of colour who need saving from their men, if not from their own selves, is not one I recognise.

Do women in the global South struggle with issues of patriarchy?

Err – yeah – alongside all the other problems fostered by an unequal capitalist system, they also struggle with local variations on the virtually universal problem of patriarchy.

Those who seek to proclaim a hyper-arching female solidarity need to start by tackling many white women’s ongoing complicity in the broader conditions of subjugation – military and economic – which keep their so-called “sisters” in the global south down.

A South African activist once said: “Come to my space”, “respect the people in that (…)Do not come and project.”

If it takes my white privilege to amplify this message, at least it will have served one positive purpose in the broader struggle for human equality.

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Written by Myriam Francois

February 13, 2015 at 16:43

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Middle East Eye: The ‘Republican March’: A nationalist rally with sinister undertones

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The concept of national unity is an appealing one to our politicians – let us rally around a visionary leader – and in the case of Francois Hollande, around one of the most unpopular presidents in French history at a time of huge national division over everything from economic policy to gay marriage.

In his speech during the “Republican march” on Sunday 11 January, Hollande stated: “Clarissa, Frank, Ahmed  – died so we could live free,” in reference to the three police officers gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack.

The image of diversity – black, white, Arab – united under the republic encapsulates the French ideal, all differences subsumed under the national banner, erased in the unity of principles and values. Ahmed, the Muslim police officer, Hollande told the crowds, died defending the principle of laïcité, a central principle of the French Republic and an incarnation of which has been used to advance ever more restrictions against Muslims in contemporary France.

Moments of real national unity are incredibly rare and in many cases, quite sinister. Because despite the rhetoric, national unity can provide a glorified cover to the stifling of differences of opinion and the opportunity to impose a singular narrative, the nationalist narrative of “who we are” which can only be contested at the risk of being expelled from the national body and in so doing, of becoming the suspect “other”. Sunday’s march gathered people for various reasons – among them to remember the dead, to oppose terrorism and to support freedom of expression.

Vigils to remember the dear are typically solemn affairsthe strength of emotion is consistently aimed at those who lost their lives in tragic circumstances. Vigils aren’t about us, they’re about them. And that’s why, watching the largest ever public rally in French history, it was clear to me that this was no vigil. This wasn’t so much about “them”, the victims of political violence, but about “us” and about what we, the French stand for.

What we stand for, we were told, was opposing terrorism. But this begs the question of who exactly supports it? Or perhaps more to the point, who is perceived as supporting it? After all, protests are generally the purview of a minority which feels its voice isn’t being heard, of the besieged who must take a stand against the status quo. But when the protest becomes the status quo, surely the question shifts to whom exactly is being targeted by the message.

Some may claim the banners were directed at the terrorists – presumably not the dead ones – but the international networks to which they claimed allegiance. Are terrorists thought to be responsive to public protests? Or perhaps the message targeted elsewhere. If the target wasn’t the terrorists, is it the perception of an enemy much closer to home – the implied enemy within?

Many juxtaposed “opposing terrorism” with “supporting free speech” – but with Charlie Hebdo taken to symbolise free speech in the context of the march, this particular publication, which deliberately produced incendiary and at times racist images targeting Muslims, has come not only to define free speech in France, but it has been incorporated through this march into the definition of national values.

In becoming the heroic voice of French freedom of expression, its previously contested maligning of Muslims and minorities has been reimagined as the quintessential expression of French identity.

To realise just how problematic this is, it is worth considering that this alleged beacon of anti-racism was publishing demonising images of Muslims in a country in which, just last month, a popular TV presenter was sacked for saying Muslims “should be deported to prevent civil war”; where France’s best-loved novelist Michel Houlebecq’s most recent bestseller was described by one journalist as “when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.

For a leftwing magazine, it seemed oddly blind to the struggle of the Muslim working classes, siding with a near societal consensus that their presence represents an inherent problem within European societies. In a 2013 poll, 74 percent of the French admitted they perceive Islam as incompatible with French society.

Recast in this sense, a nationalist rally of this magnitude which has as one of its central themes a perception of free speech embodied by a magazine which sought to denigrate an already much maligned minority within a broader climate of hostility and discrimination should perhaps raise some concerns. To speak of national unity at a time when France has rarely been so divided could only occur in the face of a perceived, existential external enemy – a common threat behind which all citizens must unite.

Ethnic minorities and Muslims in particular experience acute levels of discrimination at every level, from education, to housing, to employment. In France, a Christian citizen is two-and-a-half times more likely to get called for a job interview than an equally qualified Muslim candidate. Verbal and physical abuse of Muslims was up 47 percent last year.

This march was in fact part of the construction of the national self in contrast to the demonised Muslim “other”, expanded from the ahistorical, evil terrorist, to the broader Muslim threat, of which the terrorists are the mere violent tip of the proverbial iceberg. So much so that Muslims present at the march often felt the need to clarify their position within this potentially exclusionary lens – holding up placards to protest their innocence and respond to the presumption of guilt which assumed from their Muslim-ness a potential sympathy for murder.

This is the same republic which was constructed historically against the colonies from whence many young Muslims originate and which continues to this day, to largely exclude them not only from centres of power, but also from the sort of social mobility which might provide a stake in the constantly evolving national identity. Historically, the republic’s civility was built off the back of the presumed barbarism of its colonies, its sense of self constructed in opposition to the “unenlightened” Muslims which France conceived of as its civilising burden.

This so-called anti-establishment magazine which provided the pictorial illustrations of some of the bilious representations of Muslims, has since had its funding guaranteed by the French state, simultaneously undermining its journalistic independence, anarchic credentials and stamping its discriminatory output with a state certification.

I have previously argued that the targeting of Charlie Hebdo seems to have been a strategic decision by al-Qaeda, because it was known for selecting symbolically significant targets, in this case, which had previously polarised French society. Targeting Charlie Hebdo would allow them to appear to be acting in the name of all aggrieved Muslims, despite the fact even those troubled by the images have been vocal in their condemnation of the use of violence as a response. Sadly, the perception that they were indeed acting on behalf of broader sentiment appears to be prevalent.

In the wake of the attack, former prime minister Alain Juppe, while affirming the right of Muslims to live in security, called on Muslims to “assume their responsibilities” by affirming the values of the republic, while also calling on them to advocate gender equality. Unless you assume the attack was in any way connected to the broader Muslim community – and to a perceived conflict between republican and Muslims values, the call appears somewhat misplaced. I’m going to suggest it is misplaced either way.

French author Yann Moix went on, declaring that from hence forth “we will only call Muslim those who marched with us,” suggesting the republican march served a broader political ideal of not only narrowing the space for dissent, – ironically – but it also cemented a sense of Muslims as suspect citizens whose allegiance was to be proven, not accepted as given. Evidence of this new climate was immediate, as Rokhaya Diallo, a French Muslim broadcaster was reduced to tears on live radio, as a prominent writer badgered her to distance herself from the actions of the terrorists, a call she felt placed her and all Muslims on “the bench of the accused”.

Even if the objective of this horrific attack had been freedom of speech, the global response which has included widespread reprinting of the images in question, as well as the continued publication of Charlie Hebdo, suggests free speech has thankfully not been dented by the terrorists. It is, however, under threat from the immediate passing of ever more intrusive surveillance laws, the state of exceptionalism serving to justify ever more restrictions even before the banners extolling freedom of expression have been put away, and the massive police and military presence which only presages greater freedom for those who haven’t consistently been the victims of their abuses.

The republican march meant many things to many different people. But it has unquestionably been instrumentalised to further a sense of the republic inherently at odds with Islam and as requiring of its Muslim citizens to caveat their presence within it.

Sunday’s rally was a reminder that there is nothing quite so unifying in French politics as anti-Muslim prejudice.

– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/republican-march-nationalist-rally-sinister-undertones-1121786289#sthash.svTCsAm0.dpuf

Written by Myriam Francois

January 26, 2015 at 10:29