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April 7, 2016


Rufo Quintavalle

Great post - one of the few nuanced discussions of the issue I have seen.

I think some of the older French feminists are upset (and at times overreacting) because they see things as slipping backwards, i.e. if a Balkan woman arrives in France with her headscarf so be it but if someone brought up in France starts wearing a veil this is seen as a retrograde move that undermines the progress the feminists fought for.

For me the crux of the matter is that people on the French Left are confusing a symbol for the underlying issue. French citizens of Muslim origin who did not practice their faith have been targeted by proselytizing Islamic groups for decades. The fact that some French women from these communities are now wearing veils is a symptom of this process rather than a problem in itself. If you are opposed to fundamentalist beliefs - I am since I believe they hinder the full expression of human potential - then it is the proselytizing itself which is the problem not the visible consequences of it. So one needs to do a better job counter-proselytizing (which has never been pluralism's strongest point).

And yes there is a certain irony in American commentators defending fundamentalism in Islam and simultaneously feeling terrified at the prospect of a Ted Cruz presidency.

Jeet Heer

I'm sorry but from this side of the cultural divide, it seems to me that you are engaged in strawman arguments against anglophone left. Nobody says fundamentalism shouldn't be challenged and that fundamentalist encroachments on the law shouldn't be resisted. The point is that voluntary and individual manifestations of religious piety that don't harm others (wearing the veil, not offering ham at the deli) should be permitted. Secularism is something to be argued for in the public sphere, not imposed by state dictate. it would help if you actually engaged some of the the anglophone theorists of multiculturalism like Charles Taylor and Will Kymlica rather than arguing with imaginary foes that only exist in your own mind.

Justin E. H. Smith

Hi Jeet, Thanks for these comments. I'll talk about Taylor and Kymlicka in a follow-up post. Just to be clear, I certainly agree that secularism is something to be argued for in the public sphere, not imposed by state dictate. This is not however what the Bolsheviks thought, or Atatürk for that matter. It is in the same spirit and the same historical crucible that French laïcité laws emerged. Our friends on the Anglo-social-media left at least need to face up to and account for their departure into a multiculturalism that has no place in left thought prior to the past few decades, and that in fact has a very clear non-left or anti-left pedigree. Again, also, it is not unreasonable to distinguish between the case of ham and the case of the veil. At issue is who is taken as the agent: if it is the woman wearing the veil, she is not harming anyone of course; if it is the men in her life exerting pressure to limit her sartorial choices, then the relevant agents are harming someone (just not us). Again, again, I do not think it is the state's business to make any determinations on this question (finding the relevant agent), but it is very striking that in the culture of Anglo social-media activism we so often see demands that boys and girls brought up in our culture not be given separate treatment of any sort on the basis of gender (e.g., different toys, pink-vs.-blue attire), coupled with an equally strong insistence that the gender-sorting work that is done with religious headgear is either none of our business or is in fact something positive. This looks to me like at least a curious double standard. I am for cultural self-determination, even where it might trump individual self-expression, when the only other choice is state intervention. But I am also for talking about double standards and trying to make sense out of the historical legacies of political positions with which I disagree.

Ján Tiliki

I was hoping you’d post something about this, although I was also hoping it would decisively clarify things for me and it hasn’t.

My attention was brought to Charlie’s bomb via a Facebook post by Teju Cole that came across my feed. Teju wrote that:

“Now, the people of Charlie—who in my view were simultaneously the victims of a terrifying, unspeakable crime, and the producers of an antic and gross publication (nothing wrong with that) that was at the same time deeply prejudiced—finally step away from the mask of ‘it's satire and you don't get it’ to state clearly that Muslims, all of them, no matter how integrated, are the enemy.

“Historical analogy can be tiresome and too easy, but sometimes it's the sharpest thinking tool around. Reading this extraordinary editorial by Charlie, it's hard not to recall the vicious development of ‘the Jewish question’ in Europe and the horrifying persecution it resulted in. Charlie's logic is frighteningly similar: that there are no innocent Muslims, that ‘something must be done’ about these people, regardless of their likeability, their peacefulness, or their personal repudiation of violence. Such categorization of an entire community as an insidious poison is a move we have seen before.”

“Read the piece yourself—don't just react,” he urged. “Read the piece and think through who you wish to be in relation to the kinds of arguments it presents.”

So I did. I saw no clearly stated claim that “Muslims, all of them, no matter how integrated, are the enemy.” I saw no logic presented according to which “there are no innocent Muslims” and “that ‘something must be done’ about these people.”

But I wasn’t left with a clear and certain sense of what it was that the author (Riss, as I now know) was really saying. I looked for commentary, and found that others shared my lack of certainty about what’s really being said or meant with this editorial.

A blog post at “Harry’s Place” says that “[w]hile some frame it as a piece about the dangers of accommodationism others interpret it as an attack on all Muslims as potential fifth columnists.”

One commenter said: “I thought the editorial was either poorly written or poorly translated (my French is not good enough to know). An editorial should not be like poetry open to many interpretations… An editorial is an essay that is a statement of opinion. I came away from it scratching my head, and wondering what the opinion of the author was. To me, that is not good writing, or it is a bad translation.”

Another said: “Isn't it saying that none of these Muslims is personally guilty of trying to undermine French culture? They're just doing their thing, and in doing so shifting the ground.”

I'm still not sure what to think.

Rufo Quintavalle

"I am for cultural self-determination, even where it might trump individual self-expression, when the only other choice is state intervention."

This is quite clear: there is a hierarchy of ideal, imperfect and worst scenarios that allows the author to choose the lesser of two evils and avoid the contradictory positions of the "Anglo-social-media left".

But bear in mind that cultural self-determination (which is here presented as a half way house between genuine freedom and state control) can itself be influenced by a variety of different internal and external pressures. If a previous generation of French Muslims chose not to wear the veil it was partly because of the secular ideologies within which they were brought up in France and North Africa; not wearing the veil was part of their cultural self-determination. If a small but growing number of French Muslims are now choosing to wear the veil it is in part because of the proselytizing of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. So what looks like "cultural self-determination" could also be interpreted as another variant of "state intervention" - not by France this time but by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

If we frame the question as a choice between state intervention by the democratic state in which you live (and over whom you have some power as a citizen) and state intervention by a foreign state over whom neither you nor its own citizens have any power at all then we might come up with a different response.

Ultimately I believe that the pluralistic secular model is strong enough to win on its own terms - resorting to the top down approach is almost an admission of defeat. But it would have been a whole lot easier if we had started doing this a few decades ago rather than wandering down the multicultural alley.

Vic Lanser

Your interesting blog post certainly reaches parts many have failed to do.

However, you have what I take to be a US aversion to "state control", assuming it's the bureaucrats who instigate dress rules. It isn't, they come from elected representatives, along with, say, the prohibition of nudism etc. Politicians might well, of course, have nefarious agendas -- Valls has just advanced plans for rules to apply in unis, a "populist" move to distance himself from Hollande's evident unpopularity.

Multiculturalism might have reactionary origins in your cultural history, but to my knowledge it came from the cultural relativism deriving from studies in social anthropology, backed by a basic egalitarian, non-judgemental approach.

Transferred to complex advanced societies it has of course played out with more mixed results than the originators hoped! But ghettoisation is not peculiar to that approach -- it's one of France's biggest problems, owing to its longstanding racism.

France's "laïcité" is somewhat mythical. After the Ch Hebdo atrocities, it was not the bells of the Paris H de V which rang out, but those of Nôtre Dame. It's Catho-laïcité, but the increasingly secular society doesn't seem to care.

EXCEPT many young people of all backgrounds -- yes, I do mean "whites" too -- wanted no part of "Je Suis Charlie", seeing it as a coming together for warmth of a racist ruling élite with as many docile fodder as they could hoodwink. Some of this spirit persists in the Debout La Nuit movement right now.

I'll stop here; your blog was too long for me to remember it all, and at my age it's bedtime. Best wishes.

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