Burning the Muslim Witches in France

Can a “secular” state tell its citizens how to bear the emblems of their religion? As France debates yet another anti-Muslim law under the guise of secularism, Laurent Bazin writes that the burden of the French state’s strange crusade falls most heavily on women.

For some decades now, France has been carrying out an increasingly insidious and implacable witch hunt.

The latest episode was the controversy over the top appeals court’s decision in the case of a woman fired from her daycare job for refusing to take off her headscarf.

As in every previous such incident, the near-universal reaction of the media was to present secularism as a citadel under siege by Islam.

[When the court ordered the fired woman reinstated,] the former president of the HALDE (High Authority Against Discrimination), Jeanette Bougrab, cried that “the last dike has given way,” that the Republic is in danger.

A band of intellectuals is already howling for an adjustment of the law, one that would extend official secularism to the private sector (!), banning so-called “veiled women” from early-childhood professions. Echoing this, the Defender of Rights is demanding a “clarification” of the law, and the government is already looking into the possibility. Yet another law on the veil?

The fierceness of this hunt against the veil resembles the cruel game of a child who plucks off the wings of a fly, one by one. First, teenage girls were excluded from public schools and forced-in the name of secularism and ostensibly against ghettoization-to be locked in Muslim [private]schools.

Then mothers were forbidden to accompany their children on field trips, and soon after prohibited from waiting for their children at the doors of the school.

Wearing a headscarf is now prohibited on national ID cards-the symbol of our national identity if anything is. Schools, preschools, hospitals, police, government buildings have to be cleansed of veiled women, and the private sector needs to follow along.

Veiled women must be made to disappear from public view, and particularly from the sight of young children, as if they were some kind of intolerable obscenity. Universities are no exception, and are already thinking of ways to pull the headscarves off their students.

Wearing the burqa in public was banned after a gigantic media frenzy over the few hundred women in France who were enumerated as wearing it. A government focused on promoting ‘national identity’ had little trouble getting near-unanimous backing for its burqa-banning law.

Then the singer Diams was dragged through the mud by the press for having discretely worn a cap under her rapper’s hoodie; the most violent attacks on her coming from a state minister who accused her of being “a real danger to the young women of poor neighborhoods.”

A similarly heated media campaign prevented a political activist of the Noveau Parti Anticapitaliste from running for office in recent elections. And so the list keeps getting longer: women being denied their most basic rights: the right to schooling, the right to work, the right to bring their children to school, the right to run for office, and all over a piece of fabric covering their hair.

And behind the curtain, behind the veil, a religion: Islam. No longer does secularism mean the separation of church and state, no longer the neutrality of the state in the face of religion; no longer does it mean the right to practice the religion of your choice or the right to freely express your convictions.

In its new version, secularism means extinguishing any expression of religion (meaning Islam) from what is an increasingly comprehensive “public sphere,” religion must be stamped out not only within the state itself, but in public spaces (in other words in places which until recently were the primary environment for freedom of expression), and now from within privately owned businesses as well.

So the law doesn’t allow it? Well, let’s bend the law. “It is up to our elected officials to find a way out of the confusion,” says the petition For a Law on Religious Emblems signed by the intellectuals. “Our laws must be amended… we call on our legislators to do it.”

Using the pretext of banning religious emblems-a strategy that fools some despite its obvious deceitfulness-a whole apparatus of anti-Islamic law is emerging, bit by bit. It is reminiscent of colonial-era law, in which the post-revolutionary principle of the equality of all under the law had to be suspended in the case of “the natives,” giving them a special [inferior]status.

The separation of church and state, we should remember, was never applied to the three departments of “French” Algeria. [When Algeria was made legally part of France] our “secular republic” had to invent a new legal term for the formerly colonial “natives”; they were designated “Muslim French from Algeria” so the state could continue to legally restrict their rights; a differentiation that continued right up until the end of the Algerian war for independence.

And this is not ancient history. In those days, the Republic strictly censored any criticism of its colonial policy. Now it is Islam that is accused of being a threat to freedom of expression, even as the debate about the headscarf is used as a way to suppress the free expression of Islam in French society.

Such fantastical inversions of the true situation, of the real power dynamic, are common in the politics of oppression. Thirty years ago, the idea that Islam was incompatible with a secular republic was held by at best a few dozen intellectuals who were constantly in the media; their claims were indistinguishable from what the then-new fundamentalist religious movements were saying themselves at the time.

Nowadays this idea is widespread in the media, who keep proliferating the polls to show that two thirds, sometimes as many as three quarters of the French population believe that Islam and the secular republic are not compatible. For the same thirty years however, all serious studies have shown that the opinions of French Muslims are indistinguishable from the public at large, and in particular that they are massively in favor of a secular state.

Isn’t it clear that the “Republic”, by way of its supposed defenders who claim it is incompatible with Islam, who continuously demand new laws, is every day ratcheting up the verbal and symbolic violence against Muslims? Once, Islam’s threat to France was merely a slogan of the [extremist]National Front; a time that seems long past now.

Since then, numerous intellectuals have stepped in to validate this idea; they were remarkably efficient, and increasingly aggressive in promoting the idea of a threat.

Certain of these movements, these currents of thought and the intellectual figures who direct them, have tried to turn feminism into a tool of the state. They have made feminism a centerpiece of a national identity built on the cult of the republic and the symmetrical rejection of Islam. The sacralization of secularism and its transformation into a political slogan, disconnected from its legal and historical anchoring, are the central device of this collusion.

By the exclusions that it dictates, this ‘gendered’ nationalism that is being constructed is no less sexist, no less violent, than the old sexual order that it has replaced. And it is no less sexist, and no less violent, than the machismo that it pretends to fight, by tearing off the veils of Muslim women.

Because behind the curtain, behind this veil, the target is Islam. But under the scarves, the hats and the hijabs are actual women. Women who are given dirty looks, women who are pointed at, women who are designated as threats, who are regarded as unclean things to be kept away from the children, women whose rights are being stripped away day by day.

It is women-and not men-who are expressly targeted, who are subjected to the most violent public scorn, who are denied access to public spaces, to school, to work, and perhaps soon enough, to elections.

And if it is women who are persecuted like this, it is because they are seen as vulnerable, as doubly inferior: because they are women and because they are part of a religion that is seen as foreign.

Feminism’s aim in the ’70s was to liberate women, all women. But this is no longer the objective of certain strains of contemporary feminism, which, with the help of the state, take it upon themselves to pronounce excommunications and to concoct the figures of evil witches.

“Don’t they see that we are doing this for their own good, these cows, these bitches?” The rhetoric of the media keeps heating up; these women can only be seen as victims, or self-deluded; otherwise they are plotters, manipulators, dangerous.

There is always a fine line between the woman who won’t be submissive, and the woman who is a bitch or a prostitute; a scandalous woman is by definition a woman who refuses to obey orders, to keep to ‘her place.’

And in the political and media campaigns that are being deployed, veiled women are effectively treated as if they were prostitutes to be cleaned up. In the name of secularism, in the name of gender equality, in the name of the Republic–this new Trinity of the “good”-there is a frenzied effort to make them disappear from sight by pretending to snatch them out of their submissiveness. This public frenzy does not seem to have any limit.

There is a name for this kind of frenzy, and it is a disquieting name: in truth, this is a national cleansing project. It started with the very first “affaire du voile” in the nineties. And it is about time we realized what is going on, since such projects are always boundless.

Its purpose being ultimately imaginary, the witch hunt is endless. What kind of woodpile will be invented in the end, to burn these witches in their accursed veils?

Laurent Bazin