Tuesday, January 06, 2004


An excellent post by Scott Martens, over at Fistful of Euros, on the creeping spread of anti-Islamic headscarf paranoia among demographically threatened, mostly secularized Europeans, this time in Belgium. I've already had my say on this issue; suffice to add that I agree completely with Scott's proposal:

"It is my hope that these kinds of laws will never be passed, and that if they are passed, that national courts will strike them down. Failing that, I hope the European Court of Human Rights will do its duty. But in the meantime, I hope that French students will take matters in their own hands. This sort of hypocritical nonsense is just begging for some civil disobedience. I suggest that French students make headscarves, yarmulkes and big crosses the fashion accessories for 2004. Make sure that no kid is cool if they don't wear something religious. Use that teenage hatred of authority to actually accomplish something."

That being said, I do thing Scott's reasoning on this issue is less than thorough: while it's certainly not wrong to interpret these kind of debates in light of women's rights and/or dress codes, he seems to me to be unaware, or at least dismissive, of how significantly the issues of nationality, secularity and identity are tied up in this argument. This is both unfortunate and odd, because a couple of points he brings up as part of his condemnation of Chrac's and others' decisions actually underline, as I see it, the abiding relevance of these very issues. For instance, he makes reference to the Catholic institutions of Belgium, how they have long since, after many long struggles, been peacefully and consensually incorporated into Belgian life, so much so that any talk of "banning the appearance of religious allegiance" would be, in Scott's view, enormously controversial. I would think properly so: identity is an ongoing argument, and the public institutions of Belgium reflect that argument, an argument which is there own, not anyone else's. In other words, these are issues which require some kind of communal, historical, and/or national context within which to be worked out: if secularism is to be achieved, it will be (whether its adherents recognize it or not) a particularized secularism. Part of what plainly bothers Scott is that these proposals to ban Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to school are not emerging from any process of particularization: their proponents are not addressing the real, varying Islamic populations of these coutnries with their disparate needs, but are rather dressing up their proposals in terms of "the defence of secularism and universal values." No wonder Scott suspects their rather empty rhetoric is a "crock of shit," a mere cover for xenophobic pandering.

Scott's second point makes this even more clear. He about how the RCMP in Canada dealt with the challenge posed by Sikh men, who always wear turbans, joining their ranks. Rather than forcing the Sikh Mounties to wear the traditional hat, or creating an arbitrary exception for them, they came up with "an official RCMP turban, made of blue cloth held together with a maple leaf pin." A brilliant solution, which correctly, as Scott concludes, "said that being Sikh is not only compatible with being Canadian, but....that there is a Canadian way to be Sikh." I couldn't agree more. But then Scott goes on to say that:

"The idea that there is some conception of Frenchness, Belgianness or even Europeanness to which immigrants must comply is an idea that deserves to be consigned to oblivion. Instead, governments ought to advance the idea that just as Arab Christians are still Arabs, and that [as] Christians in the Middle East have distinctive institutions that are different from those found in Europe, [so too] European Muslims need to have distinctive institutions of their own too. Institutions which are at once Islamic and European, which are not necessarily shared by their non-Islamic neighbours but which aren't shared by their extra-European brethren either, will do far more to advance the cause of a common identity than social integration at gunpoint ever will."

I agree with that concluding sentence--but in what sense does it require the first? On the contrary, it seems to me that if one wishes to develop, in the long term, French or Belgian or European ways of "being Muslim," then it is absolutely essential that you know what is and isn't proper (historical, particular) to that "way." There couldn't be a Canadian way to be a Sikh if there wasn't something which was properly Canadian and essentially Sikh. So, as opposed to what seems to be Scott's anti-national wishes, it is exactly the preservation (or, at least, the continuation of the argument about the nature of) Frechness, Belgianness and Europeanness which will make it possible for the rituals and institutions he hopes for to emerge. Without strong sense of the difference between one identity and another, no productive hybrids or bridges between them will emerge. Consequently, if Europe--especially the French-German-Benelux core--is to adequately respond to Islam, then it will need to ever more clearly think about and express the historical and communal particularity of its response; otherwise, the amount of denial and distrust on both sides will only grow.