This post was originally written in response to France’s decision to ban the burqa but many of its arguments find new relevance in the aftermath of Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of over 90 Norwegians. Many of my arguments are also echoed in a recent piece written by Remi Nilson, editor of the Norwegian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, called “Why Norway?“
It is not about the burqa. And it’s not even about the dignity of the woman. Neither the French, nor the Dutch will admit it. But we have to look past the hysteria to attempt to understand what lies behind it. Though we use our love of ‘women’s liberation’ arguments to wage war, repress minorities, erase diversity, deny individuality, and of course silence difference, the fact remains that what is taking place in France and other European nations today concerning the burqa or its Muslim immigrants, is just not about the burqa or about the Muslims.
It’s about Europe and the impact the creation of the European Union has had on nations, their idea of themselves, and their economic and social realities. The immigrants are merely victims of the helpless.
The Europeans are suffering economically, and her citizens are in the midst of what can only be described as some of the most gut-wrenching economic and public services cut backs in their modern history. Europe’s new generations are being told that much of the social stability, security and safety nets their parent’s generations were used to are about to be eliminated. This same generation is seeing massive cuts in its education budgets and services, an erasure of its health care coverage, a loss of its pension networks, a gradual cutting away of job related benefits, rising unemployment, greater social and economic uncertainty and much else that national leaders like Sarkozy and their apparatchiks can do little or nothing about. Most of all this is taking place because of the economic crisis gripping European economies, new-found political priorities and a determined desire to connect to the requirements of a globalized economic and financial marketplace. And though the impact is being felt within the borders of each nation, the nation-state is unable to really do anything about it.
The massive demonstrations that gripped nations like France were clear call and warning to governments. But the fact remains that unlike in the past, these public demonstrations are now largely futile as the decisions about a nation’s economy, its financial sectors, and the civic and social services it once promised it citizens, are no longer in its governments hands. As Serge Halmi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, pointed out, in an editorial called ‘France Says No‘:
France hasn’t seen demonstrations like this for 40 years. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s character, his arrogance and determination to crush the “enemy” have aroused wide opposition. But one man’s whims do not account for all the sound and fury. This is a response to a fundamental and unjust change of social direction chosen by European governments with allegiances ranging from confident right to compliant left, on the pretext of dealing with the financial crisis. Berlusconi has done no more good or harm in Italy than the socialists under Papandreou in Greece and Zapatero in Spain. They all threaten the viability of public services and social security. To please the bean-counters on the stock exchange, they all propose to make ordinary people pay for the havoc wrought by the banks, who carry on just as before, free from any obligation to show “courage” (like the workers) or solidarity with future generations.
And it is precisely at such moments, particularly in what the writer and intellectual Arjun Appadurai called Fortyn Pim’s Europe (France, Italy, Austria, Holland, Romania), when there is a clear loss of national and government sovereignty, that the nation-state turns on its ‘other’, the weaker and the ‘different’ and raises the specter of their threat to ‘our way of life’.
As Arjun Appadurai discusses in his book The Fear Of Small Numbers: An Essay On The Geography Of Anger, the rise in fundamentalism and nationalist rhetoric reflects a growing loss in economic and social cohesion and control, as governments and societies confront the realities and strains of our fast changing, globally inter-connected world. Appadurai is more articulate, and points out that we now live in a world where….
…some essential principles and procedures of the modern nation-state – the idea of a sovereign and stable territory, the idea of a containable and countable population, the idea of a reliable census, and the idea of a stable and transparent categories – have become unglued in the era of globalization… (page 6)
We are seeing a phenomenon as government’s lose their ability to maintain control over their economies and industries, turning increasingly towards managing and encouraging a greater nativism, a more infantile celebration of imagined ideas of national culture, values and heritage. France is merely a specific situation of a phenomenon we have seen in India, Malaysia, Italy, and also today in the USA. As Appadurai further elaborates, that at such moments of loss of national sovereignty, we find nations caught in….
…panics about foreign goods, or about foreign languages, foreign migrants, or foreign investments. Many states find themselves caught between the need to perform dramas of national sovereignty and simultaneous feats of openness calculated to invite the blessings of…capital and the multilaterals…the virtually complete loss of even the fiction of a national economy, which had some evidence for its existence in the eras of strong socialist states and central planning, now leaves the cultural field as the main one in which fantasies of purity, authenticity, borders, and security can be enacted…the nation-state has been steadily reduced to the fiction of its ethos as the last cultural resource over which it may exercise full domination. (Page 22, 23)
And so in France, as in the rest of Europe, where an impotent leader, unable to offer any solutions to her flaying economic issues, has happily distracted us with the ‘threat’ to the great French republic posted by about 1800 or so Muslim women who apparently are ‘repressed’ and ‘unenlightened’ and need to be saved from themselves. In a nation of 65 million people, these women are not even a statistic and yet have become the focus of a nation’s hysteria, resulting in scenes that simply shame the human conscience. As Naima Bouteldja, writing for the Open Society Foundation, tells us:
As a direct result of the political and media hubbub, niqabis who ventured outside their house found themselves facing frequent verbal abuse ranging from “ghost” and “Darth Vader” to “whore” and “slut,” used as a back-handed way of defending women’s dignity. Some also had their pictures taken as if they were circus freaks, while a small number of women were also spat on or physically confronted by passersby who tried to rip off their veils.
It takes as much prejudice, misogyny, repression and brutality to compel a woman to take off a burqa as it does to compel her to put one on. Both acts deny her as an agent, an individual, a mind, a person, and a sovereign member of a family and a society with the capacity to speak, think, act and change. If you are not convinced, look closely at this scene, and tell me you do not realize where we have arrived. Tell me that this moment is not truly one of shame and lament.
In the same piece Bouteldja continues and tells us that:
Indeed by claiming this ban on the full-face veil will protect women, the result, as Jameelah, 24, told me has been the exact opposite: “I had the feeling that I was no longer human, that I was a monster,” she said, “while they should have respected me because at least I was a human being like them… at least for that reason I wanted some respect.”
Far from the wastelands of Afghanistan where the image of the burqa became synonymous with the repression of women and the presence of patriarchical pathologies, the urban byways of Paris have become theaters of the absurd where articulate, autonomous, independent women demonstrating on the streets of the city have been subjected to arrests, forced removal of their burqas, violent attacks, and verbal and physical abuse by the nation’s citizenry.
Oddly, these apparently oppressed women seem to have an annoying way of behaving and speaking as intelligent and articulate individuals, something that of course does not bother the righteous to reconsider their prejudice and generalizations. What is at play here is political manipulation of an old Orientalist prejudice, one that negates the independence and individuality of these women, and insists that they, regardless of what they as lucid and autonomous adults say, do not have the capacity to think and judge for themselves.
As someone said, freedom is untidy. We have to bring it to them under the benign guidance of bombings and outright war, and now also with benign laws. Its for their good. The mission civilisatrice continues.
But more importantly, as Tzvetan Todorov has warned that:
There’s a difference between criticising a triumphant ideology and criticising a marginalised, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred.
Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern in connection with the current economic crisis. They lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration. Roma and travelers, Muslims or Jews, and more generally, those who are different, experience hostility and social exclusion in many of our societies.
There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to larger popular support for marginal political parties. However, I am even more concerned by the reaction of mainstream political parties in addressing such popular fears.
The European left and her public intellectuals have failed the test of their time. Most all has scurried to the corners of conventionalism, and refused to stand by the ideals they once propounded for the likes of the victims of Soviet repression. When it has come to defend the humanity, equality and individuality of the darker races, they have succumbed to paranoia, racism and outright hypocrisy. The few that have stood consistent, and have been pilloried by the rest for their stance, include people like Ian Baruma. For the last five years, if not more, Baruma has been speaking out to Europe, trying to clarify her malaise, and warn her against her easy resort to hate. In an essay called Europe Turns Right Baruma argued that:
European populism focuses on Islam and immigration, but it may be mobilizing a wider rage against elites expressed by people who feel unrepresented, or fear being left behind economically. They share a feeling of being dispossessed by foreigners, of losing their sense of national, social, or religious belonging. Northern Europe’s political elites, largely social or Christian democrats, have often been dismissive of such fears, and their paternalism and condescension may be why the backlash in those liberal countries has been particularly fierce.
The strains on national identities that the European Union project has wrought has not been sufficiently studied. Europe is the home of some of the most desperately and violently manufactured nationalism and national identities. In complete negation of their lived reality, most Europeans think they live in ethnically homogenous and culturally uniform nations. Even the Swedes think so, never allowing facts to intervene and transform this myopia. The hundreds of millions of dead from WWI and WWII attest to methods required to arrive at our still-not-quite-pristine national purity. But it has been the project of the European Union has torn at what have until recently been a people blindly comfortable in their concocted identities and sense of national purity.
Pushed by the changing global economic environment, and Europe’s need to remain competitive and relevant, and project has bought it into question issues of economic autonomy, and economic policy management. What was once a national concern, overseen by national banks and national politicians, has passed onto people the Europeans never see and can never communicate with. And with the European economies dancing with economic straits, many now bankrupt and laid waste, the fears and uncertainties are pushing it citizens to extremes of regressive and xenophobic behavior. Again, as Ian Baruma had pointed out in an interview with Der Spiegel:
Immigration and the Muslim issue in particular has become the focal point of a much larger sense of anxiety which has to do with the European Union, globalization, erosion of the authority of the nation-state and economic uncertainty. That general sense of insecurity and resentment makes a country very vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that you get from people like Wilders and Pim Fortuyn before him.
We have been here before, for example during the minaret ban in Switzerland, and we will return here many times in the coming months. Today they will go after the burqa, the hijab, the dupatta, claiming security and French cultural values, tomorrow they will target other aspects of the immigrants life and culture and claim that it threatens the very foundation of the republic. Maybe they will eventually go completely against the idea of Islam as a belief, outlawing it completely on the grounds that it provokes violence and represses its practitioners. The leap isn’t as large as you may think. The conversations will move from dress, to food, to modes of worship, to financial transactions, to charities, to schools, to social gatherings, to language, too much else.
Faced with a growing social and cultural complexity, confronted with economic and financial systems that today no longer respect or adhere to the controls of regional dictates, and unable to offer solutions and ideas that address the real personal and social fears of its citizens, the Europeans are reacting by trying to construct walls to ward off change.
But it may be late. The die has been cast and nothing short of an economic miracle can turn us around. The economic situation in Europe is not about to improve, and the levers of national economic control and policy will remain beyond the ability of regional governments. That is, French and other politicians will not be able to respond to the real, economic and social demands and difficulties of their citizenry. They will instead turn towards demagoguery and denigration of the ‘other’ to stave off thought and questioning of their impotence.
The only thing now left to wonder is to what level of violence Europe’s citizenry will rise against her ‘other’, for there is really no other place to go if such cultural and nationalist programs continue. The Muslim immigrants of Europe stand dehumanized and degraded in her eyes. They are the un-human, the mass that has a core ‘essence’ that programs them towards barbaric and uncivilized behavior. They are unable to change, do not have the ability to reflect, cannot contemplate, or be individual. They can only do what is in their ‘essence’, an ‘essence’ defined by something called ‘Islam’ which of course the Europeans know and can define, though its practitioners prefer to practice it in a million different and diverse ways. Shockingly, many of its practitioners choose not to practice it either, but lets not bother ourselves with that possibility.
We can now only wonder whether we will go the way of Italy, a nation that has already sanctioned the use of violence against the taint of the ‘outsider’? The violence used to wrest a young woman’s burqa, or that used by armed men to drag her to jail, should give us reason to pause because when we decide that our liberties require a resort to illiberal actions, we have crossed the line from being open, democratic, tolerant and vibrant nations that respect the right of individuals (the individual and her rights to freedom of speech, access to justice, right to life etc. being of course the central concept of a liberal state) and have drifted towards insecure, fear ridden and weakened people closing off our minds, intellects, humanity and courage to the purveyors of lies and obfuscations.
Its time to see past the veil of lies and begin to ask the hard questions about what is happening to the world around us. Europe has to turn to herself, see within herself, to transform this debate into a meaningful one. She does not serve her citizens, nor her future generations, by easily succumbing to the fear-mongering of a few elitist politicians, or the egregious racism of a few paranoid racists. The future will insist that European nations be multi-ethnic and multi-religious, but more importantly that Europe’s story and history be that of all its people who have come there, thrive there, live there and make it what it is. There is no return to an imagined pure nationalism or nation. There is no return to the Europe that never was, other than in our imaginations. We will have to return to a point where the individuality and autonomy of each European is respected, even if that means that some individuals will dress, eat, live and speak in ways that we cannot fathom or appreciate. The individual is sacrosanct, and for as long as their personal choices are personal choices and they do not impose them upon others, we will have to tolerate them regardless of how much their choices may confuse us.