An insult to Bastille Day

August 11, 2010

Benjamin Silverman finds an irony in the date of a French vote on banning the burqa.

JULY 14 was the 220th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, one of the high points of the French Revolution.

It was on that day in 1790 that the impoverished and hungry people of Paris, fearful of a possible attack by the military, stormed the Bastille fortress, a symbol of medieval tyranny, to acquire weapons and free prisoners. This event and came to symbolize the French Revolution, one of the greatest achievements of humanity, as the people threw off the shackles of feudal aristocracy in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

But 220 years later, much has changed in France from those heady days of ideals about freedom and equality. On July 13, the lower house of France's parliament voted 335 to 1, including some members of the French Socialist Party, for a ban on any veils that cover the face in public places. The French Senate is expected to vote on this bill sometime in September.

This bill is designed to specifically target the burqa, the full-body covering worn by some Muslim women. The bill comes on top of an existing 2004 law that bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. Though this law was supposed to affect all religions equally, its true target was, again, Muslim women who wear the hiqab, or head-scarf.

This brutally ironic historical coincidence made me think about what the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass would have said. To adapt his July 5, 1852, speech at Rochester's Corinthian Hall, I imagine it would go something like this:

What, to the French Muslim, is your Bastille Day? I answer; a day that reveals to him, and above all else her, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which she is the constant victim. To her, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your shouts of equality, unrivaled hypocrisy; your promise of fraternity, a callous swindle; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your speeches on multiculturalism and tolerance, are to her, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hollow mockery--a thin veil to cover up the fact that you are a nation run by bigots.

If there is not a nation on this earth guilty of crimes against the Muslim people more shocking and bloody than those of Israel, and the second being the United States, then you France are a close third.

Or at least that's what I think he would say. For I imagine on this Bastille Day the long dead tyrant kings of France can look down and smile at their country--republic or monarchy, the wheels of authoritarian oppression keep on turning.

IN THE supposed name of secularism and separation of church and state, Muslims in France, Switzerland and, of course, the United States are being targeted, oppressed and prevented from practicing their religion.

But what does separation of church and state even mean? It means that the state is totally neutral to the question of religion--it is neither for nor against any religion and all religions. A person's beliefs and faith are their own business, just as much as their sexuality is.

Freedom of religion is an absolute right that most be defended. For an attack on any specific group in society, ethnic, religious or otherwise, opens the door for the potential attack on all others. We cannot have a truly free society--of human beings interacting in a truly mutual way--when something as basic as what a person chooses to wear on their head is not up to them.

The sick thing about these laws in France is how they're being portrayed as somehow "feministic." For nothing screams feminism like forcing women to behave and dress in a certain way for "their own good." Apparently, Muslim women aren't capable of ever making decisions for themselves.

On the one hand, if you believe the stereotypes, some archetypical Muslim husband, father or brother is forcing them to wear the hiqab or burqa. To combat this, on the other hand, the state, school authorities and police must now tell Muslim what to do and wear. And if any Muslim woman replies that she wears these articles by her own choice, that she is an ethnic and religious minority in a Western nation totally hostile to her race and religion, and so she wants to hold onto her cultural practices and beliefs in such contexts, well, they'll just ignore that.

The fact is that women's liberation and secularism must be the project and struggle of the people in question themselves. It isn't possible for these things to be imposed on from outside from the barrel of a gun, for that is cultural imperialism.

There is a great disease among some on the left, and that is a near fanatic hatred of all religion and the religious. Propagated by the likes of "comedian" Bill Maher, this view holds that those with religious beliefs should be held in the utmost contempt. They are sheeple, ignorant and easily fooled--and we, the financially well-off liberal atheists, have every right to look down our noses at them. Religion is painted as the source of all evil and reactionary backwardness in the world. People fight crusades, wars, blow themselves up, all in the name of one or another faith.

The ahistorical idiocy of this idea is laid bare by its implementation in interpreting the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. If the two sides, Jews and Muslims, were to suddenly become atheists, the nature of the conflict would not change one iota. It would still be based on a colonial settler state stealing and occupying the land of an indigenous people.

It is certainly true--and it would be foolish if not outright dangerous to ignore it--that religion can be, and often has been, used to propagate fundamentally reactionary things, from attacking LGBT people, to rolling back women's right to choose, to defending feudalism. That is why we should confidently defend an individual's right to practice religious beliefs in their personal lives, but attack whenever those beliefs are being used as the justification for the imposing on the rights of others.

But there is another side to this. Time and time again, religion and religious institutions have become rallying points for the oppressed in their struggle for justice. In Palestine, in Tibet, in Poland for the Solidarity movement, in Chiapas for the Zapatistas, for the civil rights movement and the abolitionist movement in the U.S., for people like John Brown, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, religion has been a source of inspiration for progressive and libratory forces.

BUT BACK to the main point. There is a 500-pound gorilla in the room on the issue of Muslims and the headscarf that few on the left in France or here will acknowledge. And that is the "war on terror."

Every attack on Muslims and Arabs, whether the minaret ban in Switzerland, the headscarf ban in France or the controversy around the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, must be viewed in the context of the "war on terror." Muslims and Arabs are now the number-one favorite scapegoats for the ruling elite of the world to divide and conquer all of us, and the worst possible thing that the left can do is become just another bulwark to this logic.

All politics are contextual and this is the context--the United States is engaged in a global war of conquest, pillage and plunder against mostly Arab and Muslim countries. At the same time, France, which historically was an imperial power with colonies in the Arab world, notably Algeria, is joining up with the rest of Europe and the United States in a right-wing war on immigrants from the Global South.

Those in the international left most do everything possible to fight against these tendencies and stand with those who are being scapegoated and oppressed by their respective governments. It is then and only then that the motto "liberty, equality and fraternity" can have any real meaning.

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