On 23rd August 2016, armed police forced a woman to remove her ‘burkini’ and undress on a packed beach in Nice. A spectrum of individuals and organisations expressed outrage. Sara R. Farris’ response attacked the ‘utter racism behind the French state’s claim to be protecting secularism’ and claimed that secularism had become the ‘fundamentalist religion’ of the French state. But there are major problems with Farris’ analysis. We see it as vital that people on the Left, feminists and anti-racists engage with the full complexity of issues thrown up by this incident. Stephen Cowden and Sukhwant Dhaliwal offer four counter-points to Farris’ argument
Image: Theo McInnes
Nationalism, Racism and Secularism are not the same thing:
The parallels that Farris seeks to make are misplaced. We believe she is mistaken to characterise this as an example of secularism as a form of fundamentalism. Rather the points Farris highlights are about the comparable features of nationalism (as the veneration of the Nation) and the role of religion in society (the veneration of God), as discussed by Benedict Anderson and Emile Durkheim respectively, each of which relies on a collection of signs and symbols to reproduce and validate itself.
We share the outrage regarding this disgraceful incident and the utter disingenuity of the claims of French police officers that their actions were motivated by an interest in ‘protecting’ Muslim women, we do not accept that the ‘burkini ban’ was intended to uphold respect for the morals and values of secularism. But we also do not believe that the ban reflects the meaning and purpose of laicite. Rather, the burkini affair is an expression of resurgent racist nationalism in France (and across Europe) where there has been an alarming rise in attacks on migrants and minorities of all faiths and an apportioning of blame on migrants for austerity policies and a retracting welfare state.
Despite the fact that some of the Islamist terror attacks consciously and deliberately targeted both the secular Left (Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015) and French Jews (killed in parallel attacks on the same day), Marine Le Pen’s Front National has been quick to capitalise on the trauma, to claim that these are an indication of the ‘cultural incompatibility’ of Muslims with French values. The French far right succeeded in setting the terms of the debate which has in turn involved the elevation of an exclusivist French identity and the claim by Francois Hollande that Islamist murders attacked ‘the ideal of justice and peace that France promotes everywhere’ (wishful thinking to say the least!). Le Pen has even invoked the spirit of Joan of Arc in a form of Catholic chauvinism that denigrates all non-Catholics as well as secularism. As Majid Nawaz explains, the burkini affair took place within a Front National stronghold and on the cusp of a wave of electioneering; so this incident was a crude form of political opportunism seeking to stoke racist sentiment in return for votes and political support.
Of course we must call this out but let us call it out for what it is – far right political opportunism and the instrumentalisation of a discourse about secularism towards these ends. Let’s not be hood winked into believing that this is actually secularism or laicite, nor discredit the important demands for laicite including among minority women. We wouldn’t throw out feminism in the face of its instrumentalisation by a whole range of right wing forces, so why should we throw out laicite and assume that the concept is tainted or akin to fascism?
Secularism is not the same as fundamentalism:
Farris argues that laicite has itself become a form of state ‘fundamentalist religion’ for a state that believes ‘God does not exist and that other belief systems should be prohibited or ignored.’ Laicite, she goes on to argue, ‘is not a tolerant religion. Insofar as Muslims are French citizens, they must follow the dominant religion’. But Farris lacks clarity on what fundamentalism actually is. She collapses secularism, religion and fundamentalism on the basis of a Weberian discussion of belief systems. We see this as analytically confused. As explained by a new journal on gender and fundamentalism, Feminist Dissent – a journal led by racially minoritised women – ‘fundamentalism refers to modern religious-political interpretations of religious texts, which aim to create a social order based on the 'return to fundamentals' of an imaginary utopian past. Control of the minds and bodies of women and sexual minorities are central to this ideology. Fundamentalist movements exist within all religions and they seek to impose their version of religion as the only valid one. Fundamentalists aim to reduce plural spaces and the right to interpret, dissent and doubt. They are often backed by violence or the threat of violence and create an atmosphere of terror. They are frequently flexible about the means they deploy and may seek to overthrow the existing order or make use of the institutions of the state such as parliament, the army, police and judiciary. They tend to use modern technologies and cultural and democratic spaces in order to establish and consolidate their power, whether in the community or the state. In many cases they make skilful use of the language of human rights while undermining fundamental rights and the principle of universality. In the most extreme cases, their ideology and activities amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.’
Conversely, laicite is, as Marieme Helie Lucas explains, ‘the total separation of Church and State and total disengagement of the state vis a vis religions which declares itself incompetent in these matters’. At a very practical level the 1905 Act establishing laicite, guarantees freedom of conscience (the freedom to believe and practise religion as much as freedom from religion) and also establishes the legal principle that the state will not fund or subsidise religions. Religion has, as noted above, continued to be a political football and the implementation of secularism is impacted by racism and the differential racialisation of religions, by political expediency, by the construction of nation and nationalism.
Nonetheless, secularism or laicite guarantees indivisible and universal human rights and is a prerequisite for the realisation of a whole set of rights and freedoms including women’s equality, the freedom of belief and also freedom from belief. Conversely, fundamentalism is elective, segregating populations into believers and non-believers and frequently in ways that are absolute and not able to be questioned or interrogated.
Sadly, there is a long history within left activism and postcolonial academic circles of responding to state racism, exclusionary nationalism, non-state racism (both mainstream and far right) by equating secularism and fundamentalism. The term ‘secular fundamentalism’ has been in popular circulation since the days of the Rushdie Affair. As Chetan Bhatt and others have been pointing out for some time, there is a tendency to disregard concerns about fundamentalism by talking about secularism and indeed universal human rights in relativist terms, as particularist, provincial, specifically European cultural systems. This tendency silences and denies the reality of the racially minoritised victims of fundamentalism and also the fact that minorities within European countries are living examples of the ability, often necessity, to be both anti-racist and secular.
De-secularisation and disenchantment:
Max Weber’s ‘secularisation thesis’ argued that the rise of capitalism would lead to a gradual disenchantment of the world and a decline in religious belief but aspersions about the validity of this prediction have been expressed since the 1970s White Revolution in Iran. Revitalised religious identities as political movements have since gathered pace and as Gilbert Achcar has observed ‘nowadays the freedom that appears to be most wanting and threatened in major parts of the world is actually the freedom not to worship any deity’. In fact, a wide range of groups and individuals have been harassed, victimised and murdered by these ascendant right wing forces.
Fundamentalist tendencies within all religions have proliferated and have taken advantage of people’s legitimate anger and frustration with the way governments of all stripes have created an economy of unemployment and insecure work. The main religion French Muslims are most under pressure to adopt is not laicite - for that cannot be either religion or fundamentalism - but an ultra-conservative version of Islam which now dominates the impoverished suburbs of urban France. As in many parts of the world, Islamist organisations have stepped into and come to dominate the space created by gaping holes in state provision, as well as the spaces and discussions vacated or stifled by an enfeebled Left, a weakness that is equally manifest in a fear of criticising Muslim fundamentalist movements. Again, as Marieme Helie Lucas has noted, these movements ‘promote and often impose religious and ethnic identities, redefining socio-economic problems in communal terms’ in ways that are very specifically detrimental to and undermining of women’s rights and autonomy.
Moreover, to claim that the French state is hell bent on imposing atheism simply ignores the institutionalisation of multifaithist practice across Europe. Contradictory? Perhaps. After all, nation states are not monolithic, uniform or essentialist entities, as the decision of French courts to suspend the burkini ban has clearly shown. And the practice of multifaithist governance across Europe, USA and Canada, is a reality that needs to be factored into the equation and one that cannot be tackled by Farris’ depiction of the French state.
Protection or purity:
We must acknowledge and resist the authoritarian tendencies of the state but in doing so we must not end up validating the burkini and regaling it as an act of women’s choice and agency. This would ignore the fundamentalist context within which it has emerged. The burkini reflects the proliferation and incremental imposition (over some decades) of ultra conservative Salafist interpretations of Islam, which have become normative aspects of everyday life. Salafist interpretations and proscriptions are regularly regarded –by left, civil society and increasingly by feminists – as benign expressions of ‘Muslim cultural identity’. However, the Egyptian blogger and commentator Nervana Mahmoud has noted that since the 1980s, relatively relaxed attitudes to women’s dress on beaches were replaced by a strict new doctrine which regarded women’s bodies as ‘a source of Islamist identity… forcing women to cover their bodies to maintain their “honour.” Any uncovered woman was deemed loose, decadent, and attention seeking.’ This neo-conservative dress code permeated the entire Arab and Muslim world, including Muslim communities in many European countries. In 2000, the burkini was introduced by a Muslim woman in Australia in order, as Mahmoud argues, ‘to adapt to beach-style life in Australia’. Ironically, Muslim women who hoped that this embodied compromise with religious conservatives might mean that they were free to enjoy the beach were wrong because ‘the more women give in and cover up, the more the advocates of regression will raise the stakes higher (as Islamists) … they prefer total segregation between men and women on beaches’.
On the one hand, French Muslim women are caught between a racist and discriminatory state that claims to protect them and yet subjects them to differential rights (infact via multifaithist governance) and racist immigration controls. On the other hand, Muslim women (and other minority women too) are regulated by fundamentalist proscriptions, the ‘purity’ demands of highly organised and vocal religious conservatives. Infact this is where Weber’s work can genuinely enhance our understanding. It is his discussion of the nature of the state, and its drive for legitimacy through a ‘monopoly on violence’ that speaks to the burkini affair. In the wake of a series of terror attacks, the French nation-state and the localities in the south of France, sought to re-assert their authority against Islamist incursions on their territory by imposing a monopoly on violence – the burkini affair is a stark reminder that women’s bodies are regularly the real and symbolic battleground on which existing states and aspiring states (fundamentalist forces) fight each other for power and control.
When addressing the situation of Muslim women in France, the significance of the fundamentalist will-to-power and its relentless need to control women in both private and public spaces should not be sidestepped, as doing so produces a limited analysis of the current political context. While Farris may have identified the most authoritarian elements of the French state, her sweeping attack on secularism throws the baby out with the bathwater and in turn also denies the history of racialised minorities - French women of Muslim descent themselves - who as Marieme Helie Lucas has noted ‘have been at the forefront of defending laicite’.
Rather than reactively attacking secularism, it seems to us that the challenge is about finding, in the words of Karima Bennoune ‘a space for opposition to fundamentalism and racism, to sex discrimination and religious or ethic discrimination, to the Muslim far right and the French far right’. In order to understand and to act politically in the dangerous situation we face today, it is more important than ever to resist the temptation to over-simplify.
Stephen Cowden is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Coventry University. Stephen is also a joint commissioning editor for the series New Disciplinary Perspectives In Education for the publisher Peter Lang. His research is concerned with Social Work ethics, Critical Pedagogy and the Sociology of Multiculturalism and Religious Fundamentalism. With Gurnam Singh he is co-author of Acts of Knowing: Critical Pedagogy In, Against and Beyond the University
Sukhwant Dhaliwal is a Research Fellow and PGR Co-ordinator at the Institute of Applied Social Research, University of Bedfordshire. With Nira Yuval Davis, she is co-editor of Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity
Both contributers are members of the Feminist Dissent Editorial Collective