“A king, a vainglorious Senate, a Caesar, a Cromwell must above all veil their plans in a religious shroud, compromise with all the vices, flatter all the parties, crush that of upright men and oppress or deceive the people, to reach the goal of their perfidious ambition”. (Robespierre – 5 February 1794, Speech to the National Convention in the name of the Committee of Public Safety)
The Liberal Defence of Unfreedom
So once again we find ourselves discussing the merits of defending freedom by enforcing unfreedom. In this instance it’s a familiar target and familiar debate; the Islamic veil, or more precisely the question of whether the niqab (this is the veil that covers the face revealing only the eyes) should be banned in public places. The occasion for this is a little obscure. A ruling last week by Judge Peter Murphy required a woman standing trial to remove her niqab in order to give evidence, although she could keep it on at other times during proceedings. The ruling appeared to be a fairly balanced compromise between religious freedoms and legal protocol and at no point did the judge raise the issue of the status of the niqab in general. On the same day however pompous Liberal Democrat home office minister Jeremy Browne raised the issue of a need for public debate on face veils and suggested a possible ban on wearing them in public places such as schools. The ostensible reason for this pressing urgency is the need for the State to protect a girl’s freedom of choice! Hence you see the confusion and the premises underlying Browne's clarion call to Liberal concern. For opponents, the niqab is a sign of religious conformity, one that “people should be able to call deeply offensive without being accused of being bigoted or islamophobic”. And most of all those who wear it have most probably been forced. By this token would not a ban on circumcision be a more pressing matter? Circumcision is after all one of the most important signs of religious affiliation for Jews, and is unlike the wearing of a headscarf or veil not something that can easily be undone. Furthermore unlike Muslim girls who only take up the niqab or hijab at puberty, circumcision is practiced on infants who have even less resources to resist. But no, such an argument misses a central point; that is for its opponents the niqab is not just a sign of religious affiliation but a threat to democracy and the “British way of life”!
The news from last week contained a characteristic hodge-podge of mixed justifications; protecting young girls from religious conformity, defending Liberal democracy from separatist practices, ensuring transparent legal processes, and of course the typically woeful polls of ‘the man on the street’ which elicited such pearls as “when in Rome, do as the Roman’s do”. JS Mill would be proud. What is undoubted though is that attacks on the veil have great symbolic value and play to a traditionally right wing audience fretting over the specter of “Islamification”. Such threats and calls for “debate” also serve to normalize the kind of discourse practiced by the likes of the EDL and BNP whose tactics tend to veer towards the firebombing of Islamic cultural centers rather than the sort of cozy question time discussions Browne might have in mind.
France of course banned the niqab (and other full body coverings such as the burqa) in public places during Sarkozy’s presidency and issues on the spot fines and threats of arrest for women who defy the will of the Republic. But that ban was only the latest salvo in a long running battle over the status of traditional Islamic dress. The issue initially reached a crucial point in 2004 when the hijab, the headscarf that only covers the hair was banned under a law which banished “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation from French state schools. The debate which preceded the enacting of the law, which focused around a commission led by the unfortunately named Bernard Stasi is one which the current crop of defenders of liberal values at Westminster would do well to study. That there was even a commission set up at all was demonstrative of how times had changed from 1989 when the French Conseil d’Etat declared that the hijab was not in itself incompatible with laïcité and made reference to the European Convention against Discrimination in Education. Laïcité is the particularly French gloss on separation of church and state, which in France has an especially thick reading when applied to the public sphere, including state schools. It should however be noted that it was designed to apply most of all to public officials (including teachers) rather than school children themselves.
It was Sarkozy (the Rat Man again!) who raised the issue in 2003 in the wake of the “war on terror” when he insisted that Muslim women pose bare headed for identity photographs. “The new Republic, down with hats!” cried philosopher Alain Badiou in an ironic response. As Joan Wallach Scott observed in her book coving the controversy, the tough stance taken against the hijab was a sign of unwillingness or impotence on the side of the government to address a problem it shared with many other European states: how to adjust national institutions and ideologies that assume or seek to produce homogeneity to the heterogeneity of their current populations (Scott 2007 pg40). Their approach can arguably be said to have backfired as it was reported that in the years during the controversy more girls took up the hijab, construing the decision as an act of defiance at western attacks on Arab countries and the demonization of their faith. But more than that, what was particularly indicative of the supposedly neutral establishment position was the attitude shown to the women who wore the hijab.
In the numerous articles and reports that were produced during the years of controversy and consultation (particularly around the Stasi report of 2003) the voices of the girls wearing the hijab were rarely included. Also of note was that where Muslim girls were able to voice their opinions in favour of the hijab and deny being under the yolke of their male elders, their statements were all too often accused of having no rational basis and the girls of being under a veil of religious ignorance. The hijab, for philosopher Alain Finkielkraut (1), made the girls blind and deaf, losing the senses that connect them to the world and preventing them from developing their rational faculties. And Jacques Chirac writing in L’Express back in 1994 conflated the hijab and the full face veil while making associations between its wearers and militant Islamism when he stated that “wearing the veil, whether it is intended or not, is a kind of aggression”. Here we see a strange ambiguity, also in evidence in the UK, where Muslim women are seen as both victims and threats.
As has also been the case in the UK, the public discourse in France was heavily skewed in favour of characterising Muslim girls as an undifferentiated group under patriarchal subservience. The debates did not provide an effective process of contestation for those who would be affected by the legislation, and ignored the counterfactual testimony of those who did speak of readily of adopting the hijab as an autonomous decision fully compatible with liberal democracy and freedom of religion. All too often the Islamic community as a whole was characterised along stereotypical and racist lines that associated it with pre-enlightenment values that could not be integrated into French culture. The clash of civilizations rhetoric that in the UK frames any discussion of Islam and which reaches its extreme with the crusader ideology of the EDL is a natural consequence of systematic stereotyping and objectification which goes unchallenged day after day in the media. Another French philosopher (that's quite a few for this post) Etienne Balibar has termed this kind of prejudice racist internationalism (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991 pg 61); a multifaceted prejudice founded upon a mythological conflict between the ‘modern European forces of enlightenment’ and a supposedly pre-modern barbarity that is both threatening at the margins of nations and degrading them from within.
Finally, what also distorts this discourse and undermines the establishment claim to be upholding some kind of universal liberal ideal is that the view of Muslim women presupposed by those who argue for State intervention is primarily influenced by a western social historical perspective, in particular by construing a normative account of what a liberated female should look like and be able to do. The claim that the open liberal version of emancipated femininity offered by western democracy is more egalitarian than others is disputable when its prevailing norm is drawn along lines of sexual availability, the seemingly unconditional imperative to reveal and promote ones physical form, and not least the ever expanding panoply of images offered by media, advertising and pornography that serve to fix women as mere objects of a male gaze and slaves to self-absorbed consumerism. “The leitmotif of their messages revolve around the idea that when Muslim women are free to sleep with as many men as they want to, then they will be integrated. Liberty is measured by the number of sexual acts they engage in” (Scott 2007, pg165). Taking this into account could the wearing of the niqab not equally be construed as an effective act of resistance against our overly sexualised culture?
The virtual and objectified version of the Muslim community that the debates in France constructed and the media here maintain, are seemingly mirrored by an equally virtual notion of the objectively neutral and eternally virtuous liberal state whose polity of abstract equals is to be ranged against the elements of communal inequality lurking in “broken boroughs” and divided Northern towns of Britain. What this liberal ideology is unable to witness is the ways in which formal abstract equality before the Law has nevertheless left many of the patriarchal structures and stereotypes in place, and is constantly skewed by very concrete racism congealing as a byproduct of the “war on terror”. ‘Visibility’ might just as well be the signature of this controversy, drawing together as it does discourses on security and democracy. Today CCTV is ubiquitous in towns and cities, technologies of observation and security have become such an everyday part of life that people barely recognize let alone question its presence. We are required to hand over an ever greater quantity of personal information to government and corporations. Biometric data is incorporated into travel documents; online activity is monitored and scrutinized by service providers and state agencies. We are encouraged to become our own jailors by being vigilant and reporting suspicious activity wherever we may go. Transparency, visibility and security have become synonymous as operators in modern democracy. This permanent state of observation engenders just the sort of paranoia that the Committee for Public Safety suffered from during the Terror when Robespierre spoke of treachery and those who covered their plans under a religious veil. What is revealed is safe and good, what is hidden challenges not only the orthodoxy of transparency but the security of the state itself. There is predictable collateral in this ongoing war against the concealed, and nowhere has the articulation of security and transparency into a single apparatus been more marked than in the controversy over the Islamic veil.
The rumblings over the niqab witnessed this week may well die down, but the underlying causes of this intolerance; the spectacle of anti-Muslim propaganda pumped out by the media, self-interested politicians selling out to the Right, and above all the never ending State of Exception that is the “war of terror”, have yet to be addressed. From the perspective of a power that desires the permanent visibility and observation of citizens, the figure of the veiled women cannot but provoke anxiety. She, who by the calling of a higher identity takes up the invisibility that we all supposedly have before the Law; and yet by this display she unveils the fear and prejudice that is the truth of our “neutral, liberal“ democracy.
1) – Finkielkraut testimony to the Debre commission in Aline Baif, “Le debat sur la laicite scolaire,” ProChoix, nos. 26-27 (Autumn 2003), pg 89
-Balibar,E and Wallerstein, I 1991 - Race, Nation, Class Ambiguous Identities (London, Verso)
-Scott, Joan Wallach 2007 - The Politics of the Veil (Woodstock, Princeton University Press)