Silencing the Secular Muslim, the French way

Secularism versus communalism in France

Days after the enforcement of the French law that prohibits the full face-covering veil, and after the first women law-breakers have been fined, international media focus has been on ‘protesting Muslims’ while the voices of the vast majority of presumed Muslims in France are ignored. One is thus forced to question why the English language international media has failed to provide proper coverage of the public stands taken by French citizens of migrant Muslim descent.

Forces for and forces against

The new law received support from across the political spectrum as the right and centrist parties and a section of the Socialist Party approved of the ban. It is clear that Sarkozy chose to opt for a new controversial law – rather than making use of existing laws on public security that would have allowed him to legally curtail full face-covering – because he is courting the votes of the far-right National Front in view of the 2012 presidential elections.

In Europe today, right-wing parties cannot afford to dispense with the support of the traditional xenophobic far-right parties that are rising rapidly: they get about 15 per cent of the vote in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and Hungary and more than 30 per cent in Switzerland and Serbia.

But even more radical new organisations are now emerging to the right of the traditional far right. In their view, the French state has failed to adopt adequately tough measures with regard to ‘Muslims’, whether fundamentalist or otherwise. In France, for instance, such groups undertake provocative street actions against ‘Islam’ in response to provocative street actions by Muslim fundamentalist groups. Both sets of antagonists seek physical confrontation in order to rally and radicalise their troops. So far the state and its police have turned a blind eye to these illegal actions – a policy of laissez-faire that many fear will incite further violence.

The growing rapprochement between Sarkozy’s right-wing government and the various far-right organisations has disturbing consequences for secularism.

Denouncing the government’s manipulation of secularism in a statement issued on April 9, 2011, Sihem Habchi, president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), a leading women’s organisation in France, who actively supported the ban on the full-face veil, said: “Secularism is being eaten alive by a political power that cynically instrumentalises it, by a far-right heiress [a reference to Marine Le Pen, the newly elected president of the National Front and daughter of its founder] who attempts to privatise it in order to feed hatred, an often cowardly left wing that is guilty of being far too retreative, a worrying ‘holy alliance’ between religions that invite themselves into the debate under the pretext of defending secularism and editorialists who endlessly ethnicise secularism and form troubling alliances.”

Soheib Bencheikh, the former grand mufti of Marseille and director of its Institute of Higher Islamic Studies, has also criticised the French government which, he says, “supports communalism”. Speaking in Montreal in 2005, Bencheikh, a well-known French Islamic scholar and author of several books and articles, including groundbreaking work on Islam and secularism, stated: “Islam is a prey for politicians, not only in Muslim countries but also in democratic countries like France.”

Ranged against the government’s recent ban is an unholy alliance of the Muslim right, human rights groups and left and far-left parties, chorusing a simplistic defence of the religious rights of ‘Muslims’. And it is to them the international media gives full and nearly exclusive coverage. No wonder so many foreigners believe that ‘Muslims’ in France cannot practise their religion at all.

Some human rights organisations have gone even further and supported the full-face veil as an expression of political identity. On August 31, 2010 Amnesty International (AI) issued a press release opposing a proposed similar ban on face covering in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which followed previous appeals not to ban the full-face veil in France and Belgium. In response to the AI statement, on September 2 last year Secularism is a Women’s Issue (SIAWI) wrote: “For the first time AI is not just justifying its position only through the defence of religious rights, as it has done so far. Please note, in passing, that although several Muslim theologians have gone public in Europe to say that covering is not a religious duty, AI has repeatedly chosen to ignore their voices (on what grounds?) and given the floor to conservative and obscurantist voices instead. But it is the first time that AI supports ‘the right to veil’ as the expression of a political stand: [AI wrote]: ‘Such a law would violate the human rights of women who choose to wear a full-face veil as an expression of their religious, cultural, political or personal identity or beliefs.’ Hence AI is for the first time admitting to the fact that veiling in the heart of Europe in these days and times is a political stand. Isn’t it what we have been saying for many years? The veil in all its various forms, as a recent introduction in western life, is indeed the political flag of fundamentalist groups.”

The most recent migrants, many of whom have been victims of Muslim fundamentalists themselves, resent being labelled traitors or racists, as having sold out to the extreme right or to foreign imperialism, by many militant left-wingers and human rights activists. As journalist Malika Zouba points out, “It is the over-simplistic way of thinking that kills us.”

In her statement of April 9, Sihem Habchi argues that “Secularism is not a theme that belongs to the far right… There is a need to put an end to this dialectical folly that depicts as an ally of the far right anybody who hints at the problems that result under pressure from obscurantists, such as rejecting mixed presence of men and women in the public services, especially in hospitals, in schools, in swimming pools, in municipal services, etc.”

Addressing all those who “unwittingly use the same arguments as Islamists and their lackeys in the left”, H.A., a journalist who was active in a left-wing organisation in Algeria, makes an impassioned case: “In order for these two laws [2004 and 2011] to be passed, secularists and feminists, among them many Muslim women and men, had to fight bitter battles against Islamists and those who promote them in the left.”

Lalia Ducos, president of the Women’s Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights (WICUR), was equally disparaging. Ducos, who works with left-wing and women’s organisations in Algeria, said on April 11: “I am sick and tired of this manipulation of secularism by the government in order to snatch votes from the National Front and, of course, I am sick of the manipulation of secularism by Islamists and now even this has been toppled by its manipulation by extreme-right groups!”

Holding the fort for secularism

The most determined and outspoken defenders of secularism today are citizens of Muslim descent, among them numerous women. This is certainly no accident. As Sihem Habchi says, “Those of us who came from other countries benefited from secularism and this is why we are so deeply attached to it.” In recent years several individuals and groups of Muslim descent, many of them women, have come out publicly in support of secularism on three significant occasions.

They testified before the Stasi Commission (set up in 2003 to re-examine the application of secular laws in state schools, which was challenged by Muslim fundamentalists) and helped promote the 2004 law which reiterates the founding secular principles of the French republic as defined in the laws of 1905 and 1906. These century-old laws institute the separation of state and church (where ‘church’ referred to the Catholic church, as Islam was not in the picture at the time).

Article 1 of the 1906 law affirms the principle that the French secular state guarantees to all citizens the freedom of belief – or not to believe – and the right to practise their religion – or not to practise any. Article 2 states that beyond the religious freedom enshrined in Article 1, the secular state declares itself incompetent in religious matters: religions are beyond its mandate and hence it would not interfere with them, would not grant them any recognition and would not fund them. Matters within the state’s mandate, such as education, would be entirely secular and both teachers and pupils would abide by this rule while on school premises. Thus it follows that children are not allowed to wear any sign of their religious affiliation (i.e. neither cross, nor veil, nor kippa, etc) in state schools where education is compulsory, entirely free and secular. Ironically, the 2004 law is now erroneously labelled the world over as ‘the law against the veil’!

Speaking to the Liberal Islam Network in 2004, Soheib Bencheikh declared: “I have to emphasise that it is thanks to secularism that Islam [in France] can stand on an equal footing with Catholicism, in rights and duties.” And later, reiterating his support for the 2004 law, Bencheikh said in Canada in 2005: “Salvation for the young French Muslims in France, who are often confronted with poverty and exclusion, will come from a neutral non-confessional educational system.”

France’s definition of secularism is very different from what the Anglo-Saxons call secularism. Hence French secularism is poorly known and often hastily misjudged by ignorants. While in Britain and in many other European and North American countries the state is only supposed to treat all religions equally, in France, the state is not supposed to interfere with religions at all. In Britain, for instance, the state does interfere with religions, constructing them into organised political entities, a system which has indeed been breeding communalism.

In 2005, during the winter riots in the suburbs of Paris, French citizens of migrant Muslim descent picketed day and night to defend various public facilities such as schools, health centres, sports centres, public libraries, etc against the unemployed youth who were setting them on fire – thus teaching the youth the meaning of ‘res publica’ – commonwealth, something that belongs to all citizens.

In 2010 they testified in large numbers before the Guerin Commission (set up to advise the government on the issue of the full-face veil) and made public statements demanding that the full-face veil be curtailed in France.

Fadéla M’Rabet, who was a popular journalist with the progressive radio channel, Algiers Channel 3, in the 1970s, had to flee Algeria after being forced out of her job and gravely threatened. Now a well-known academic, scientist and author of several books on women in Algeria, M’Rabet says: “The veil is not, as they would like us to believe, a religious sign for Muslim women. This symbol of submission is the seal of humiliation for women and the marker of their lifelong status as underage minors that they try to impose on women… Only a law that will reaffirm these two indissociable principles – secularism and equality between the sexes – will protect the girls of the suburbs and further the status of women.”

These sentiments were endorsed by Meriem, a young lawyer who lived near Paris, in a statement made in 2004: “When I hear a girl say: the veil protects me, I respond: no, it is the republic that protects you.”

However, there was heated debate among women who agreed that the full-face veil was to be combated, on the strategy to be followed in achieving this objective. Many women favoured the use of existing public security regulations for doing so thus avoiding a new law that explicitly stigmatises ‘Muslims’. This option would also have spared them the over-simplistic accusation of backing Sarkozy’s rightist social agenda which in actual fact they do not support.

Why are French citizens of migrant Muslim descent capable of such complex political analysis which many media organisations and political parties seem incapable of?

North Africa, and within it Algeria, has been the main source of unskilled migrant workers in France, through economic migration that began in the period between the two world wars and grew rapidly after World War II. These workers put down political roots in workers’ trade unions and parties and became further politicised during Algeria’s struggle for liberation from French colonial rule.

Many of them, whose families have lived in France as French citizens for three or four generations, are just not religiously inclined: the overwhelming majority of them have never set foot in a mosque. But for those who are believers and support secular laws, secularism is beneficial to religion. Soheib Bencheikh believes that: “Separation between religion and politics will clarify the place of Islam as a divine spiritual doctrine, not as an instrument which can be misused to gain political power. Thanks to that, Islam can go back to its original stand, as promoting its teachings, not forcing them” (Interview given to the Liberal Islam Network in 2004). Speaking to the media in support of the 2004 law, Saoudia, a 23-year-old student from Nice, echoed Bencheikh’s views: “Religion is in the heart, not on the head.”

Still in touch with relatives living in Algeria, they received first-hand accounts of crimes committed against the – all-Muslim – population by armed fundamentalists during the 1990s which also led to the most recent wave of emigration. These new émigrés included intellectuals, artists, writers, feminists and others who fled Algeria to save themselves from both targeted assassinations and massacres perpetrated by armed fundamentalist groups such as the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), AIS (Islamic Salvation Army), FIDA (Islamic Front for Armed Defence) and so on.

They have first-hand experience of what it means to live under the boot of the Muslim right and they now identify early warning signs of its political growth in France. Inducing or imposing a culturally alien dress code on women has been one of the first warning signs of rising fundamentalism in most Muslim countries. Asma Guenifi, a psychologist who lives near Paris and current president of AFEMCI (Association of Euro-Mediterranean Women Against Fundamentalisms), has lived through the horror – her 19-year-old brother was assassinated by armed fundamentalists on her family’s doorstep in Algiers during the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s. She testifies: “I was born in Algeria. I witnessed the rise of fundamentalism. Unemployed boys who force you to wear a headscarf, mosques popping up like mushrooms, the social discourse, the extremists posing as victims… they are doing the same thing in France.”

Covering women is also just a first step that leads to many other demands, in particular the demands for separate religious family laws and courts. Speaking in Montreal on May 13, 2005 against religious courts as a means to arbitrate family disputes among Muslims, Soheib Bencheikh supported the principle of one law for all: “Positive laws, conceived of by representatives of all the people, including Muslims, must be enforced on everyone, including Muslims.”

Despite the fact that the international community falsely used the defence of women’s rights as a proffered justification for the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, and despite the increasing ‘instrumentalisation’ of secularism, women of migrant Muslim descent in France continue to support secularism to this day and to denounce the rise of fundamentalist forces that physically target women and girls in the ‘suburbs’ (i.e. the underprivileged areas around Paris and other big cities).

Aicha, a social worker from a Paris suburb, said in 2004: “Today the little brothers are the ones who tell their mother: your daughter must be veiled. This is the culture of the suburbs. What upsets me? That the extremists monopolise the attention of the state and the media. Nobody listens to Muslims who do not create trouble, who practise their religion in the private sphere.” Fadoua, 25, a student living near Paris, averred: “In my suburb, the streets belong to boys, girls stay at home. The outside space, the right to speak, everything is limited. I do not want to be limited to that.”

On April 11 this year Sihem Habchi of Ni Putes Ni Soumises spoke to Europe 1 radio on the enforcement of the new law banning the full-face veil: “This law was necessary to safeguard and protect these women [in the suburbs]… I think it is crucial not to step back, especially while one is witnessing a protest demo in which one can identify notorious Islamic fundamentalist activists.” Three years earlier, in a 2008 essay entitled ‘The Law of the Republic versus the “Law of the Brothers”’, Karima Bennoune, an Algerian American law professor at Rutgers University, had said much the same thing.

Moulded by their individual and familial life experiences, these secular women and their organisations are especially, and politically, well equipped to combat the problems that specifically affect citizens of migrant descent, such as racism and discrimination in jobs and housing (unemployment among youth of migrant descent rises from an average of 10 per cent to 16 per cent, and is as high as 50 per cent in the ‘suburbs’ of Paris), and to simultaneously stand for secularism, firmly refusing that social and political problems be addressed through a religious lens. For them, it is not an either/or option: they have to fight on both fronts.

We must acknowledge their political courage and clarity and learn from their analyses. If we do not, we will witness the communalisation of France, and indeed of all of Europe, through the abandonment of the notion of citizenship and the ethnicising and religionising of laws. This process, against which French citizens of migrant Muslim descent have been repeatedly warning the world, is, unfortunately, already well underway.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2011. Year 17, No.158 – Forum





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