Special Reports / A new or an old war? Secular state and faithful believers

Covering up – a new form of exhibitionism?

Oliver Roy in conversation with Jarosław Kuisz · 2 September 2014
Does the burqa ban amount to discrimination? According to French Islamic Studies scholar Oliver Roy, not at all. Wearing the burqa, Roy argues, is an individual decision, made by a small group of well-educated and by no means submissive women. That the ban threatens multiculturalism as an European project, he says, is an equally misguided assertion.

Jarosław Kuisz: The European Court of Human Rights has recently rejected a complaint by a young French Muslim woman, claiming that the country’s ban on face-covering garments in public places was an infringement of human rights. What do you think about the verdict?

Olivier Roy: The Strasbourg court gives member states plenty of leeway when religious matters are concerned. It assumes that the relations between the church and individual states have evolved in unique ways, and that the place of religion in society differs strongly from country to country. France is a traditionally secular state, whereas in Ireland and Poland the Catholic church is a dominant force in public life.

Does it mean that enforcing human rights depends on a national context?

Religious freedom is not an abstract right. It doesn’t exist in a void. In this case, another factor must be kept in mind. Scholars of Muslim law (alims) are themselves divided on the necessity of wearing a burqa rather than a simple headscarf. Whether or not to cover the entire body comes down to every woman’s individual decision, her own interpretation of religious laws.  This made it much easier for the European Court found to support the French state’s position. The right of separate individuals, rather than communities, to adopt full-body covering can be more easily curtailed as contradicting French social norms.

No one wears a burqa on arrival in France. It’s a kind of religious reconstruction, usually embarked on by second-generation immigrants or converts. It is also a form of exhibitionism.

Olivier Roy

The burqa ban impacts, at most, a few hundred women. Are you not worried that it will be used by populists to attack the Muslim minority, rather than a solution to real problems?

Support for this regulation – both from the National Assembly and the general public – has been overwhelming. Its paramount dimension is symbolic: society needs a way to demarcate the boundaries of fundamentalism. The ban on burqas does not extend to headscarves. This was well understood by the Court of Cassation when it decided the Baby-Loup case [in which a creche was sued for sacking a childcare worker who refused to remove her headscarf]. The judges underlined that the ban on headscarves at the workplace was by no means a universal rule, that it extended only to those on an employment contract. We can see that a search for compromise is under way. We need to distinguish between laws relating to different kinds of covering, the burqa and the hijab.

In an interview with this magazine, Martha Nussbaum said that Europeans should radically rethink their approach to Islam. She proposes a model of mutual accommodation between Christian and Muslim communities, pointing out that it stirs up much fewer social tensions than strictly secular approaches. The European court ruling effectively forestalls such a solution.

I don’t think the mutual adaptation model works well in the case of burqas. It assumes that we are dealing with two separate communities, the hosts and the newcomers, both of which demand recognition for their cultures. This is simply not true. The majority of burqa wearers are converts to Islam, not women born into the faith. Apostasy and conversion will always provoke strong emotions. It is therefore not a case of negotiation between Islam and secular values, but between society and individuals. Unlike circumcision, halal or kosher food, or even the headscarf, all of which stem from communal and religious rules, putting on the burqa is a purely individual matter. Those covering their faces do not demonstrate their affinity to any group, just personal choice. Consequently, their acts remain beyond the scope of any debates on multiculturalism.

The first generation of Muslims in Switzerland wished to build Turkish-style houses of worship. However, the state forbade the construction of minarets. Today’s mosques are well integrated into the landscape; that’s a result of adaptation, not violence.

Olivier Roy

The burqa did not come to France with any specific cultural group. No one wears a burqa on arrival. It’s a religious reconstrution embarked on by second-generation immigrants or converts. It is also a form of exhibitionism.  Muslim women keep speaking about it in the media, loftily denouncing the discrimination they are faced with. They tend to be single; most have top-notch education. Many embrace a form of feminism, fiercely opposing pornography, raising issues of bodily integrity etc. It needs to be pointed out that burqa-wearing women are by no means submissive.

Martha Nussbaum would surely say that a host society which cherishes hospitality as a value should not ban the burqa – even if covering up is a result of personal choice.

This sounds like empty moralising. It’s not a question of being hospitable towards immigrants. What is at stake is the status of religious symbols in the public sphere, vital rules set out in the 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and State. The law does not ban religious symbols from public spaces; however, it sets out the conditions of their use. The burqa debate is therefore about reconfiguring the public sphere, adapting it to a new set of religious rules. This is not a matter of compromise between groups. The largest French Muslim organisations do not campaign for the right to wear burqas, although they oppose a ban on headscarves.

Perhaps your approach is too conciliatory? Alain Finkielkraut was much more outspoken on the issue when we interviewed him. He said that all new immigrants need to adapt to local cultural norms.

This cannot be serious. It would imply that Finkielkraut thinks in terms of a clear-cut French identity. The problem is that such a thing does not exist. There is no homogenous French society suddenly exposed to exogenous elements. Society in this country has always been heterogenous, with secularists battling Catholics, communists challenging everyone else etc. The struggle between secular and Catholic forces raged on until 1984, when the controversial Savary Law curtailing the autonomy of private schools was abolished.

Multiculturalism does not exist and it never did. Focusing on it leads to a complete distortion of any debates about religion.

Olivier Roy

Should we therefore distance ourselves from the discomfort of Muslims, who may feel out of place in French society?

It’s not a question of discomfort. We are talking about adapting a certain set of religious norms to a secular public sphere. It took the Catholic church 70 years to do this. With Islam, the process seems to be quicker, although it generates considerable tension – especially when it comes to what I call formatting. Let me give an example: the first generation of Muslims in Switzerland wished to build Turkish-style houses of worship. This met with impassioned European opposition. In the end, the state forbade the building of minarets, which is obviously different from a ban on mosques. What is prohibited is the use of a cultural sign linked to a place of worship, but not strictly required by religious law. Today’s mosques are a far cry from their Eastern forebears. That they are well integrated into the landscape is a result of adaptation, not violence.

One question remains: what results will this approach yield in the future? Will it not lead to the suffering of people seeking to strengthen and affirm their religious identity?

Far from it. We are witnessing a crisis in the relations between society, the nation and the state. European integration and the resulting retreat of the nation state is another issue. Add to this a steady influx of immigrants, and – last but not least – the economic crisis. Not every social issue has to come down to this fabled problem of identity, fashionable as it is to talk about it. Identity is no more than a magic word; an instrument of wishful thinking, a rhetorical trick obscuring real problems. It is much more constructive to talk – quite simply – about the suffering caused by xenophobia. Racism is real, and has little to do with a fear of Islam.

Would you agree with David Cameron and Angela Merkel, who now say that multiculturalism has failed?

Multiculturalism does not exist and it never did. Focusing on it leads to a complete distortion of any debates about religion. It is enough to look at second- and third-generation immigrants: they hardly ever demand the right to speak Arabic, to eat Arab food and wear traditional garb. What they want are religious rights. This does not fit into current debates about multiculturalism. The underlying question is religious freedom, which has always been controlled on this continent, and a certain European tradition of letting political norms permeat and modify religious life.