France: Secularism vs communalism: learning from the ban on full face covering veil

Three days after the enforcement of the French law that prohibits full face covering, and after the first women law breakers have been fined, international media focus on ’protesting Muslims’, while the voices of the vast majority of presumed Muslims in France are ignored. One has to raise issue with the absence of proper coverage by English language international media regarding the public stands taken by French citizens of migrant Muslim descent.

I The forces for and against the ban

The right and center parties and a section of the socialist party aproved of the ban. It is clear that Sarkozy chose to go for a new controversial law, rather than making use of existing laws and regulations on public security that would have allowed him to curtail legally full face covering, because he is courting votes from the National Front extreme right party in view of the 2012 presidential elections.

Today, in France like in most parts of Europe, right wing parties cannot afford to dispense from the support of ’traditional’ far right xenophobic parties which are fast rising: they score around 15% in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and Hungary, and more than 30% in Switzerland and Serbia.

But even more radical new extreme right groups have been emerging on the right of the traditional extreme right parties. In their views, the French state is far from taking strong enough a position vis a vis ’Muslims’, be they fundamentalist or not. For instance in France, such groups undertake provocative street actions against ’Islam’, in response to provocative street actions by Muslim fundamentalist groups. Both the new extreme right groups and Muslim fundamentalist groups are looking for physical confrontation that would rally and radicalize their troops. So far, the state and its police turned a blind eye on these illegal actions - a policy of laisser-faire that many fear would incite to further violence.

Many are increasingly worried about the growing rapprochement of the right wing government of Sarkozy with the various elements in the far right and the subsequent consequences on secularism.

Sihem Habchi, the president of one of the major women’s organisations in France, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissive Women ), who actively supported the ban on full face covering, denounced the government’s manipulation of secularism in a statement issued on April 9, 2011, saying that ’Secularism is eaten up from within by the political power which cynically instrumentalizes it, by an extreme right heiress ( a reference to Marine Le Pen, the newly elected President of the National Front Party and daughter of its founder) who attempts to privatize it in order to feed hatred, an often cowardly left wing that is guilty of far too many stepping back, the worrying ’holy alliance’ between religions which invite themselves into the debate under the fake pretext of defending secularism, and editorialists that endlessly ethinicize secularism and form strange alliances.’

Soheib Bencheikh, the well known French Islamic scholar, former Great Mufti or Marseilles, Director of the Institute of High Islamic Studies, author of many books and articles including ground breaking work on Islam and secularism, speaking in Montreal in 2005, stigmatizes the French government which, he says, ’supports communalism’:’Islam is a prey for politicians, not only in Muslim countries but also in democratic countries, like France’.

Scorning the ban, is an unholy alliance between the Muslim Right, human rights groups, left and far left parties, which choruses into a simplistic defense of ’Muslims’’ religious rights.

The international media gives them full and nearly exclusive coverage… No wonder why so many foreigners believe that ’Muslims’ in France cannot at all practice their religion !

But some human rights rganisations have gone further and supported the full face covering as an expression of political identity. On August 31, 2010, A.I. issued a press release opposing a proposed similar ban of face covering in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which followed previous appeals not to ban full face covering in France and Belgium. In response, on September 2, Secularism Is A Women’s Issue wrote: ’For the first time, A.I. is not just justifying its position only through the defence of religious rights, as it has done so far. Please note in passing that albeit 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: A. I. 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 admiting 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 under all its various forms, as a recent introduction in western life, is indeed the political flag of fundamentalist groups’.

The most recent migrants, who often were themselves the victims of Muslim fundamentalists, resent being labelled traitors, racists, sold out to the extreme right or to foreign imperialism by many militant on the left and in human rights organisations. Malika Zouba, journalist, points that ’It is the over simplicistic way of thinking that kills us’.

Sihem Habchi, in her April 9, 2011 statement argues that ’Secularism is not a theme that belongs to the far right’. She goes on stating that ’There is a need to put an end to this dialectical folly that depicts as an ally of the extreme right anybody who hints at the problems that are occuring under the pressure of obscurantists, such as rejecting mixed presence of men and women in the public services, especially in the hospitals, in schools, in swimming pools, in municipal services, etc’.

H.A., a journalist who was active in Algeria in a left organisation, angrily adresses all those who ’unwittingly use the same arguments than Islamists and their laquees in the left… In order for these two laws (2004 & 2011) to be passed, secularists and feminists, among whom many Muslims women and men, had to fight bitter battles against islamists and those who promote them in the left’.

Lalia Ducos, daughter of a freedom fighter in the Algerian struggle for independence from the French colonial occupation, active in left wing and women organisations in Algeria, President of WICUR (Women’s Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights ), expressed despair on April 11, 2011: ’I am sick and tired with 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 it is even toppled by its manipulation by extreme right groups !’

II Holding fort for secularism

The most determined and outspoken defenders of secularism today are citizens of Muslim descent, among them numerous women. It is certainly not by accident. Said Sihem Habchi, in her April 9, 2011 statement: ’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, many individuals and groups from Muslim descent, among them numerous women, went public on three occasions:

They testified to the Stasi Commission ( that re-examined the application of secular laws in state schools which were challenged by Muslim fundamentalists ) and helped promote the 2004 law that reiterates the founding secular principles of the French republic defined in the laws of 1905 and 1906.

These century old laws institute the separation of state and church (’church’ at that time referred to the Catholic Church, and Islam was not at all in the picture). Article 1 of the 1906 law affirms the principle that the French secular state garantees to all citizens the freedom of belief - or not to believe - and the right to practice their religion - or not to practice any.

It should therefore not be a surprise that Soheib Bencheikh, speaking in 2004 to the Liberal Muslim Network, declared: ’I have to emphasize that it is thanks to secularism, that Islam (in France) can stand on equal foot with Catholicism, in rights and duties’.

Article 2 of the 1906 law states that, beyond religious freedom enshrined in Article 1, the secular state declares itself incompetent in religious matters: religions are beyond its mandate, hence it will not interfere with them, will not grant them any recognition, will not fund them.

Matters that are within state mandate, such as education, will be entirely secular, both teachers and pupils will abide by this rule while in the premices of the schools.It follows suit that children under adult age 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 compulsary, entirely free and secular. Ironically, the 2004 law is now erroneously labelled the world over ’the law against the veil’ !

Bencheikh, speaking in Canada in 2005, supported this law. He said that ’Salvation for the young French Muslims in France, who are often confronted to poverty and exclusion, will come from the neutral a-confessional educational system’. France’s definition of secularism is very different from what the Anglo-Saxons call secularism. Hence French secularism is ill known and often hastily misjudged by ignorants.

In France the state is supposed not to interfere with religions, while in Britain and in many other European and North American countries, states are only supposed to treat all religions equally.

In Britain, for instance, the state does interfere with religions and it constructs them into organised political entities - a system which indeed has been breeding communalism.

In 2005, French citizens of migrant Muslim descent picketted day and night to defend various public facilities such as schools, health centers, sports centers, public libraries, etc… from the unemployed youth who were setting them on fire during weeks long riots in the suburbs of Paris - thus teaching the youth the meaning of ’res publica’ - something that belongs to all citizens.

In 2010, they testified in numbers to the Guerin Commission ( which was set to advise the government on the issue of full face covering ), and made public statements demanding that full face covering be curtailed in France. Fadela Mrabet, daughter of an Algerian progressive scholar of Islam, well known academic, scientist, author of several books on women in Algeria, a former very popular journalist with the progressive ’Algiers Channel-3’ radio channel in the seventies, had to flee Algeria after being evicted from her job and seriously threatened:

’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 under age minors that they try to impose on women… Only a law that will reaffirm these two indissociable principles - secularism and equality between sexes - will protect the girls of the suburbs and further the status of women.’ This is reinforced by the statement made in 2004 by Meriem, a lawyer, age 25, living near Paris: ’When i hear a girl say: the veil protects me, i respond: no, it is the republic that protects you.’

However, there was a heated debate, among women who agreed that full face covering was to be combatted, regarding the best strategy for doing so. Many women would have preferred that existing public security regulations be used for doing so, thus avoiding that a new law explicitely stigmatizes ’Muslims’. This option would also have spared them the over simplistic accusation of siding with the rightist social program of Sarkozy, which in actual fact they do not support.

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

North Africa, and within it Algeria has been the main source of economic migration of unskilled workers which started already between the two world wars and grew fast after WWII. Those workers grew their political roots into workers’ trade unions and parties. They were further politicized during the liberation struggle of Algeria against French colonization.

Many of them, whose families have lived in France as French citizens for three or four generations, are just not religiously enclined. An overwhelming majority never set foot into a mosque. But for those who are believers and support secularism laws, secularism is beneficial to religion: Soheib Bencheikh, respected Muslim scholar, former Great Mufti of Marseilles, Director of the Institute of High Islamic Studies in Marseilles, author of several books on secularism and Islam, himself a strong defender of French secularism, 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 it’. (interview given to Liberal Muslim Network in 2004). Saoudia, a student living in Nice, age 23, speaking to the media in support of the 2004 law, echoes Bencheikh’s analysis: ’religion is in the heart, not on the head’

Through family ties with relatives living in Algeria, they got first hand records on crimes committed against the - all Muslim - population by armed fundamentalists during the nineties, that led to the latest wave of emigration. It consisted of intellectuals, artists, writers, feminists, etc… who saved their lives by fleeing both targetted assassinations and massacres perpetrated by armed fundamentalist groups such as GIA, AIS, FIDA, etc….

They have first hand experience of what it means to live under the boot of the Muslim Right, and they do identify in France the early warning signs of their political rising. Inducing or imposing a culturally alien dress code on women has been one of the first warning signs of fundamentalist rising in most Muslim countries. Asma Guenifi, a psychologist living near Paris, the sister of a 19 year old boy assassinated by armed fundamentalists on the family doorstep in Algiers during the ’dark decade’ of the nineties, now the President of AFEMCI ( Association of Euromediterranean Women Against Fundamentalisms) testifies: ’I was born in Algeria. I witnessed the rise of fundamentalism. Disoccupied boys who force you to wear a headscarf, mosques poping 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 demands for separate religious family laws and courts. Speaking on May 13, 2005 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, against the adoption of religious arbitration courts on family matters for 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 international pretence of defending women’s rights that was used as a justification for invasions in Afghanistan or Iraq, and despite the increasing instrumentalisation of secularism, women of migrant Muslim descent in France, to this day, continue to support secularism and to denounce the rise of fundamentalist forces in the ’suburbs’, i.e. in the under priviledged areas around Paris and big cities, that physically target women and girls.

Aicha, social worker, age 34, living in a suburb near Paris 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 monopolize the attention of the state and of the media. Nobody listens to Muslims who do not create any problem, who practice their religion in the private sphere.’ And Fadoua, student, age 25, living in a suburb near Paris: ’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, 2011, Sihem Habchi, President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, commented on the enforcement of the law banning full face covering veil, on the Europe-1 radio channel:’This law was necessary to saveguard 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 could identify notorious Islamic fundamentalist activists’. A 2008 scholarly article by the Algerian-American law professor at Rutgers University, Karima Bennoune, entitled ’The law of the republic versus the law of the brothers’ reached the same conclusion.

These secular women and their organisations are especially politically well equipped by their own life experience and that of their families to, on the one hand, combat racism and discrimination in jobs and housing that indeed affect specifically the citizens of migrant descent (unemployment of youth rises from an average 10% to 16% for youth of migrant descent, and even up to 50% in ’suburbs’ around Paris), and on the other hand, to stand for secularism, firmly refusing that social and political problems be addressed through a religious lense. For them, it is not an either or option: they have to fight on both fronts.

One should acknowledge their political courage and clarity, and learn from their analysis.

If we do not, we will witness the communalisation of France and of the whole of Europe, through the abandonment of the notion of citizenship, as well as through ethnicization and religionizing of the laws. This process, against which French citizens of migrant Muslim descent are repeatedly warning the world, is unfortunately already well under way.

April 15, 2011

marieme helie lucas