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.