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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Thoughts on the burkini quarrel: Part two

Tewfick Aclimandos , Thursday 8 Sep 2016
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I ended the previous paper with the question: is the Islamic dress code the symbol of the ‎rising hegemony of a religion? Of the return of the claims of religious people who want to ‎define what is acceptable or not in the public sphere? ‎

The answer is an obvious no. This is a matter of civil liberties. You opt for your dress, ‎provided you do not trouble public order.‎

Those who support the ban on the burkini say different things: the burkini is “un-French”, it is an ‎attack on public order, it is the symbol of women’s subaltern status, and the recent episodes are ‎part of an Islamist plan for changing France, gradually forcing people to accept new restrictive ‎rules of coexistence, new norms for the public sphere.‎

The notion of “public order” is a crucial and necessary one in any country. It is a ‎guarantee of civil peace and a strong weapon against anarchy. However, it can also be a tool ‎for “majority rule and oppression”. It is easily misused to oppress minorities or to suppress ‎dissent, but it is also easily misunderstood by “international media”, which are quick to blame ‎anything they consider to be contrary to the “internationally accepted standards”. In other ‎words, we should assess any case alone, taking into account the specific context, the internal ‎dynamics of the social conflict, and try to opt for the wisest solution.

Nevertheless, I tend to ‎think the frequent use of this notion is an unmistakable sign of things going wrong.‎

We also should introduce the notion of cultural complicity, the fact that in each country ‎things deemed strange elsewhere are widely accepted there. This does not mean these things ‎are not to be criticised. This is a simple reminder: you have to see the wider local picture, and ‎stop assessing things as if every issue is separated from the others.‎

Then we turn to “un-French”. I’m among those who believe there is something relatively ‎stable called identity, and yes, historically speaking the Islamic dress code is “un-French”. But, ‎from personal experience, both in France and in Egypt, I have a strong dislike for oppression in ‎the name of identity.

Identities are stable, but also change. If some people have problems with ‎what they consider to be “unfair prescriptions in the name of identity”, they have the right to ‎try to change the rule of the game. And the majority has the right to cling to the traditional ‎model. Negotiations, evolution are the “proper course”, but sometimes negotiations are not ‎wanted, a compromise is deemed to be a surrender, and people resist evolution. Once again, ‎general recipes are only partially helpful, and foreign lecturing counterproductive.‎

Is the Islamic dress code a symbol of women’s submission? Does it allow women from ‎conservative background to be present in the public sphere?

According to the contexts, the ‎answers to both questions can be “yes” or “no”. Once again, no general rule. Moreover, the ‎questions seem politically irrelevant. The real questions should be: a) do you know women who ‎willingly adopt it, sometimes against their parents’ wishes? And the answer is yes. B) Do you ‎think that Muslim women who do not wear it are under severe pressure to adopt it when ‎Islamists and other conservatives have an opportunity to “be here”? And the answer is also a ‎yes.‎

The last question is by far the simplest. Are the French confronting an Islamist plan to ‎change the rules of social life and the political pact in France? The answer is an obvious yes, ‎and the creeping pressure they keep on the state and society is sustained, relentless and real. ‎As they are the main player dealing with Islamic religious issues (religious education, building ‎of mosques), they have considerable leverage, whatever their real weight among Muslims.

This ‎pressure is multiple: they want the school curricula to be changed, they want the anti-religion ‎discourse to be punished, they keep pressure on Muslims who do not fast, they want women to ‎wear the Islamic dress code, to avoid being outside by night, and in some cases they even want ‎to forbid the selling of alcoholic drinks in towns where the proportion of Muslims is significant.

We should also keep in mind how easy the issues turn poisonous and irrational. Any ‎Muslim claim (and many are legitimate, especially regarding discrimination) immediately ‎evokes all the stereotypes, the fears, the grievances, real or imagined, the political memories ‎of Muslims and non-Muslims.

Whatever the issue raised, the Muslims’ and Islam’s situation in ‎France is again debated, under review, with very little progress and a number of new scars. I ‎read somewhere the timing of the burkini issue was terribly inappropriate. I understand the ‎point, but the question is: what is the appropriate timing? ‎

Let us sum up where all this leads. I do not want to discuss the following issue: does ‎France need a new grand bargain with its Muslim citizens, or should it stick to “laïcité” and its ‎principles, while trying to adapt it incrementally? My strong preference is for the latter. ‎However, I’m failing to see how the Islamic dress code could, in itself, threaten it. If some people ‎wanted to impose mini-skirts on all women, the proper answer would not be to forbid it. Of ‎course I understand many non-Muslims hate this dress code and understand it as meaning “I ‎am different and I do not want to mingle with you”.

Being different is contrary to the logic of ‎the French national fabric, which is venerable and great. But being free is part of the same ‎logic. There is no rational argument for forbidding this dress code – “un-French” means, or at ‎least could be understood by many Muslims as meaning “Islam is un-French” and this is a ‎terrible statement that could convince many conservative Muslims that Islamists are right when ‎they say this. ‎

But the centralised nation state should adopt a much stronger stance against other ‎Islamist claims and practices; but this would need another series. Let us say here hate speech ‎should not be allowed and pressure against non-practicing Muslims or against Muslims who do ‎not behave like conservatives or Islamists should not be tolerated. Easier said than done, of ‎course.‎
 

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