Sylvie Kauffmann, a well-known left-wing journalist in France, and the former editor of Le Monde, has been writing about the dilemma of the French Left, faced with a growing widespread unease about Islam in France, an unease not confined to those routinely dismissed as “racist” or “Islamophobic” or “far-right,” but within the Left itself. I’ve reprinted one of her pieces below, unchanged, but with some parts in bold, and with my own comments interspersed.
PARIS — On Sunday [April 13], Air France will resume regular flights to Tehran. For its female flight attendants and pilots, there is a catch: On arrival, they will be asked to wear not only the most conservative version of their uniform, a pantsuit with a knee-length jacket, but also a head scarf to cover their hair, in line with Iranian law and with other foreign airlines’ practice. The unions have protested. “This is contrary to what I stand for as a woman,” an Air France flight attendant complained in Le Figaro Madame. The company quickly gave in. Only those comfortable with the requirements will fly the Paris-Tehran route.
What is really interesting is that the issue did not arise earlier when Air France was flying to Tehran, before international sanctions forced it to stop in 2008. Yes, secularism is in France’s DNA; this is the country that passed a law in 2004 to ban all emblems of religion in public schools, including Muslim head scarves, and a second law in 2010 to ban the burqa (full veil) in public areas. But the flight attendants’ reaction shows how much attitudes toward Islam have hardened in the past 14 months, which brought three waves of attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Paris and Brussels.
Indeed, Kauffmann could have made her remark stronger, so that it would read “Three waves of murderous attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Paris and Brussels have hardened views toward Islam in France, most noticeably on the left.”
The French government has declared “war” on the Islamic State, but another war is also underway — an undeclared culture war over the status of women. Its symbol is “le voile” (the veil), a generic term that has come to encompass all forms of Islamic garments used to cover women’s heads. The dividing lines are confusing liberals and feminists, intellectuals and human rights activists, left and right.
But those lines are not confusing all of them. They are not confusing those French liberals who have forthrightly recognized the misogynistic nature of Islam and its regulation of women’s lives, with rules that include, but go far beyond, strict dress codes. The only people who are “confused” are those liberals, feminists, “intellectuals” and human rights activists who can’t allow themselves to acknowledge this aspect of Islam because to do so would be to show Islam in a bad light, which means to lend aid and comfort to the “islamophobic” far-right.
Such confusion has been evident in a broader controversy about Islamic fashion. It is not a new issue, but suddenly the fact that Western ready-to-wear brands like Marks & Spencer or Dolce & Gabbana are designing and promoting “modest fashion” collections for the growing Muslim market has hit a raw nerve in France. Pictures of embroidered abayas and stark burkinis — full-cover swimming garments — flourish in the media and have incited puzzled comments, prompting the women’s rights minister,
A feminist and Socialist, i.e., on the left.
Laurence Rossignol, to declare those brands “irresponsible.” They “promote the confinement of women’s bodies,” she said. True, she said, some women favor this type of fashion. But, she added, it was also true that some black people in America had supported slavery.
Though she later regretted having used the word “Nègres” — a French equivalent of “Negroes” — her condemnation of Western-designed Islamic fashion resonated. Agnès B, a respected designer involved in social causes,
“Involved in social causes” implies someone on the left.
said she would never design such clothes, “which have a political and religious element.”
Sylvie Kauffmann might have added: “And the wearing of such clothes is not a fashion statement, but an act of Muslim defiance against the laic state.”
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, admitted that she found modest fashion “a little upsetting.” In an interview with Le Monde, the feminist author and philosopher Élisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of such brands.
Ms. Badinter, 72, has predicted trouble before. A longtime critic of radical Islam, she thinks a part of the French left, “nurtured on the cultural relativism of Claude Lévi-Strauss” and convinced that “all traditions and religions are equal,” has “lowered its guard.” As early as the 1990s, she said, warnings from feminists from Algeria and Iran were ignored, while “in French neighborhoods, many girls started to wear the veil.”
This is a wrenching time for European liberals, when taking a stand on such issues may meet approval from the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and anti-immigration quarters.
A “wrenching time” for all European liberals? No, only for those “European liberals” who still are fearful of expressing negative views of the Muslim head scarves and burqas, lest that appear to align them with, and win approval from, “far-right” leader Marine Le Pen. But now, as Kauffmann has just informed us, three prominent women, Elizabeth Badinter, Agnes B., and Laurence Rossignol, who have always been on the French left (the first a “feminist,” the second a “social activist,” the third a member of the Socialist cabinet), are expressing those negative views, and are not experiencing a “wrenching time.” This signifies a historic break within the Left.
Sociologists and experts on religion are divided, as are French Muslim women. In a book last year, “Des voix derrière le voile” (“Voices Behind the Veil”), the journalist Faïza Zerouala drew portraits of 10 young Frenchwomen who voluntarily wear the head scarf. “Some people feel uncomfortable in the company of a veiled woman, but what makes her uncomfortable are naked women on billboards,” she said. And what feminist would argue that such ads are liberating?
Whatever else Victoria’s Secret lingerie may offer, wearing it does not constitute a political statement; wearing the head scarf or burka in France, on the other hand, does.
Confusion also reigns in the continuing debate over the New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne, Germany, and the way they were analyzed by the Algerian author Kamel Daoud. In an essay published in Le Monde in January, he blamed the “sexual misery of the Arab-Muslim world” and its view of women for the attacks. “In Allah’s world,” he wrote, “the woman is denied, refused, killed, veiled, locked up or possessed.” He wrote later, in a similar vein, in The New York Times. But while many praised his argument as brilliant, some European academics, most of them French, attacked it as Islamophobic. The quarrel still rages.
Why does Sylvie Kauffmann use the word “Islamophobic” in earnest, sans quotation marks, and thereby give it legitimacy? She might have written something along the lines of: “How curious it is that the left-wing defenders of Islam have chosen to attack a Muslim Arab man when he dares to defend Muslim women against the misogyny of mainstream Islam. Who, after all, can deny the accuracy of Daoud’s description of that Islamic world where ‘the woman is denied, refused, killed, veiled, locked up or possessed’? Apparently, those who keep trotting out the tiresome charge of ‘Islamophobia’ can.”
So what is a European liberal to do? France’s Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, has committed himself to fighting alongside Ms. Badinter in “an essential battle for culture and identity.” He refuses to leave this fight in the hands of the far right. His warrior tone worries many activists, who fear further antagonizing the disenfranchised suburbs.
In other words, it is dangerous to stand up for French values, because it is only causing trouble by “further antagonizing the disenfranchised suburbs.” When were they “antagonized” before? When some French apparently resented the constant challenges to the principles of the laic state, as exemplified by the burka ban and limits on wearing the hijab? Or resented being attacked by domestic terrorists? Or refused to recognize Islam’s “No-Go Areas” and treated all places in France as…places in France? Are those Muslims – we know that is who Kauffmann means, because in French the word “suburbs” (banlieues) stands metonymically for the “Muslims” who live in those suburbs — prevented from voting, or from exercising any of the civil or political rights, or from taking full advantage of any of the generous government benefits, available to non-Muslim French citizens? No, of course they are not. So why describe them as “disenfranchised”? If the Muslims in France insist on not integrating into the larger society, that is, if they choose not to participate as fully as they could in the political system, why should non-Muslims be blamed? And what of the role of Islam in teaching its adherents to distrust or despise democracy and not to take part in its workings? In Western democracies like France, after all, what gives a government legitimacy is the will expressed by the people, however imperfectly, through elections, while in Islam the government’s legitimacy depends on its following the will expressed by Allah in the Qur’an. French Muslims are not disenfranchised; they disenfranchise themselves.
But similar doubts over traditional liberal views are being voiced in neighboring countries. In Germany, Social Democratic and Green voters are notably less open to immigration than they were six months ago, according to a poll published by the French Public Opinion Institute.
Why are even the left-wing Social Democratic and Green voters now “less open to immigration”? It is simply that they have had six more months to observe the behavior of Muslims in Germany toward women, as in Cologne on New Year’s, and to begin to make sense of it. And if they have become, as a result, “less open to immigration,” so what? When did the “immigration of Muslims” become a duty for the West, as Kauffmann may be implying? There is no such duty. Is it a bad thing when many on the left (Greens, Social Democrats) overcome their fears of being labelled “Islamophobic” and dare express “doubts” about enduring even more societal disruption, expense, and physical danger that have been the direct result of mass Muslim migration into Europe? And that does not mean that these leftists are now becoming the “far-right,” but that they are at long last seeing things steadily and whole.
Speaking in Berlin, the sociologist Paul Scheffer, a member of the Dutch Labor Party, argued that the sharp debate occurring in countries that want to stay as open as possible — Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands — proves the need to “reinvent the moral middle ground.”
If you live in France, you may be experiencing a degree of veil fatigue. Yes, the agonizing of liberal democracies over which values to safeguard first has been around far too long. Yet if if moderates, both Muslim and non-Muslim, cannot solve these issues, the battle over culture and identity will be left to far-right populist movements or Islamist fanatics.
Kauffmann here states things incorrectly. It is not only “Islamist fanatics,” but mainstream Muslims who take issue with the French government and society on the veil and many other matters. And on the other side, it is not only “far-right populists,” but such well-known leftists as Agnes B., Laurence Rossignol, Elisabeth Badinter – as Kauffmann has just told us in her report — who in France have been most ferociously opposed to the Muslim treatment of women, including the imposition of a dress code that violates French law. And still other French intellectuals who have never had anything to do with “far-right populism” – such as the writer Alain Finkielkraut and the journalist Ivan Rioufol – have consistently been the most articulate and relentless critics of Islam and Muslims in France.
It is disturbing that French values, French culture, French identity, should now be blandly discussed as up for debate (“the agony over which values to safeguard first,” “the battle over culture and identity”). In a well-ordered society, sure of itself, as France famously was until recent decades, none of this would come up as a subject for debate, but the Muslim invasion of Europe has caused France to lose its mental footing. The French who want to keep France France (Badinter, Rossignol, Agnes B., Finkielkraut, Rioufol, Valls, Sarkozy among others), do not feel obligated to compromise French values and French identity because of Muslim demands.
Most maddening of all is Kauffmann’s last sentence:
“If so [that is, if debates over culture and identity “are left to far-right populist movements or Islamist fanatics” rather than the “moderates”], the terrorists will have won.”
Think about what that means: Kauffmann is claiming “the terrorists will have won” if the “far-right populists”control the French side of the “debate” with the Muslims, and refuse to compromise on matters of “culture and identity.” But the whole article has shown that it is not “far-right populists,” but left-wing feminists – Agnes B., Elizabeth Badinter — who have been most determined not to yield an inch to Muslim demands. Kauffmann’s “the terrorists will have won” is meant to warn non-Muslims: if your values are attacked, don’t fight back, because that fight is “just what the terrorists want.” Bin Laden “wanted to start a war between civilizations.” (That war – of Islam against the West — was already 1300 years old, and hardly needed bin Laden to rekindle it). Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and a dozen other groups are all just trying, according to Kauffmann, to goad the Infidels into retaliating. They want that larger conflagration. According to the weird logic of the sentence, if you don’t fight back, but instead yield to “moderate” (!) Muslim demands, then there won’t be that conflict so ardently wished for by “the terrorists,” and “the terrorists will have lost.” Give them some of what they demand, and they lose. Don’t give in at all to Muslim demands, and the terrorists win. Of course. It all makes perfect sense.