Esther Benbassa, director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and Green party senator (Val-de-Marne) responds to the burkini crisis: "After this, no one should be surprised about France becoming the laughing stock of the foreign press. Indeed, however ridiculous this fever is, it cannot but be rather worrying. For a lot of politicians – on whatever side – there is a decidedly strong temptation to instrumentalise some people’s anger, and the fears of very many people, in the purely tactical attempt to strip a few votes from the Front National at the next elections, not allowing identitarian laïcité to be the preserve of that party alone."
Originally published in Libération and translated by David Broder
From the ban against wearing the burkini to the proposed nomination of the non-Muslim Jean-Pierre Chevènement as head of the French Foundation for Islamic Works, arguments on both Left and Right are diverting us into senseless rows, making France the laughing stock of the foreign press.
Following the hateful murder of Father Hamel by two Daesh ‘soldiers’ on 26 July, a government fearing potential further clashes ‘among religions’ has made the reform of Islam in France a central talking point. Of course in a laïque [state-secularist] country like our own the state can only give guidance as to what changes might be useful: transparency in mosques’ financing, the training and payment of religious personnel, etc. Only initiatives that come from the people concerned have any chance of succeeding. The state can encourage such initiatives, but cannot command them.
There is a very real neo-colonial trap, here. The Prime Minister immediately proposed the reactivation of a French Foundation for Islamic Works (FOIF), created in 2005 to guarantee the financing of the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM) set up in 2003. The rivalry between the federations that constitute this council, themselves dependent on their so-called ‘lands of origin’, had thus far stopped it working effectively.
And to put further pressure on Muslims, a petition likely ordered by the government entitled ‘We, French Muslims, are ready to take our responsibilities’ was published in the Journal du dimanche on 31 July, carrying the signatures of renowned Muslim figures. It appeared just below a column in which [prime minister] Manuel Valls expressed his views on the future of French Islam and on this Foundation.
Someone was proposed as this Foundation’s president – and his name was Jean-Pierre Chevènement. On 15 August he descended into the media arena to recommend that France’s Muslims show their ‘discretion’. But ‘discretion’ is exactly what the unequal pact of the dhimma – which for centuries governed relations between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities in Islamic territories – demanded of Christians and Jews, second-class citizens. So is that what we now intend to demand of Muslims in France?
What was conceivable in undemocratic Islamic states evidently cannot take place in a country like our own. France is still a Republic and a democracy. Each person – including Muslims – is an individual and a citizen, benefitting from all its rights and held to the same duties as anyone else.
No one denies the great qualities of Mr. Chevènement. But Muslims themselves are bound to have mixed feelings about his proposed nomination. In planning to place a non-Muslim – and what’s more, a former Interior Minister – at the head of this Foundation, aren’t we sending the message that the state’s sole intention is simply to place the Muslim French under supervision? A concordatthat dare not speak its name? Even Napoleon, forcibly organising French Judaism into ‘consistories’ in 1808–9, did not dare to place a non-Jew at the head of the Central Consistory.
The burkini crisis
The latest craze: the burkini crisis. Right in the middle of August mayors of both Right and Left suddenly threw themselves into a frantic race.
It all began with the cancellation of the ‘burkini day’ that an association had organised in Pennes-Mirabeau, in a water park privately booked for this purpose. Cannes soon banned this bathing costume, covering certain bathers’ whole bodies, from its beaches. The movement quickly spread to more than twenty communes [local administrative districts].
They invoke the risk of disturbances against public order, questions of hygiene, equality between men and women, our model of laïcité, and the struggle against Daesh. In the Prime Minister’s eyes the burkini has become ‘the translation of a political project, a counter-society’ – indeed, a ‘provocation’ that the Republic must defend itself from!
An ambiguous message
There is nothing in law banning wearing the burkini or imposing any duty of religious neutrality on citizens. The 1905 [laïcité] law imposes such neutrality on the state and the state alone. Moreover, the wearing of the burkini itself sends an ambiguous message, in that it is a compromise between the dress codes of a religious tradition and the modernity that is represented by women bathing in public. As is some young women’s combination of wearing both a veil and slim jeans. Such compromises aren’t going to please Salafists. On the contrary, they are the sign of the integration of these women who, while respecting some of their religion’s prescriptions, also very much live in the same city as the rest of the citizens, whereas a purist Islam would have them radically separated from ‘unbeliever’ society.
So we have reached the lowest level of politics. Left and Right emerge from this dubious competition at level pegging. We knew that we were ‘at war’. But this is not a war against the destruction of our planet and the exhaustion of its resources. Not a war against social inequalities or the poverty and misery of unemployment. No, those wars can wait a bit longer. It’s another war that demands our immediate, energetic mobilisation.
And now we have our fifth column. She’s lurking in plain sight, on our beaches. The assault launched against the few swimmers who are a bit covered up is itself dressed in the ‘purest’ motives. The emancipation of women! Who knew that our mayors and the members of our government were as feminist as all this? It’s true that they weren’t, when they weren’t dealing with Muslims. No one took such a view when devout Jewish women were bathing in modest dress of a similar kind.
The instrumentalisation of anger
The real problem is that women wearing veils or burkinis are giving visibility – perceived as aggressive in this period of tension – to the long-invisible Muslim presence in France. Defending what is nothing more than an individual freedom does not necessarily mean unreserved approval of this kind of clothing and its different combinations.
All the same, the more we forbid and/or stigmatise this clothing, the more we will contribute to conferring upon it the value of a symbol of identity, by way of reaction. After this, no one should be surprised about France becoming the laughing stock of the foreign press. Indeed, however ridiculous this fever is, it cannot but be rather worrying. For a lot of politicians – on whatever side – there is a decidedly strong temptation to instrumentalise some people’s anger, and the fears of very many people, in the purely tactical attempt to strip a few votes from the Front National at the next elections, not allowing identitarian laïcité to be the preserve of that party alone.