Special Reports / Are religious women a threat to democracy? Martha Nussbaum argues with Alain Finkielkraut

Damn the security!

Alain Finkielkraut in a conversation with Jaroslaw Kuisz · 28 July 2014
French philosopher rebuts arguments of Martha Nussbaum, which are criticizing French immigration policy. According to Alain Finkielkraut, covering face by a woman means taking away her personality.

JK: Reviewing a book by Martha Nussbaum “The New Religious Intolerance”, you have accused the author of ignoring the problem of violence against women, by incorrectly interpreting cultural habits of Muslims in France. You wrote that accusing France of Islamophobia hides lack of capabilities to fight discrimination of Muslim women.

AF: The attempts, which are currently fashionable, to equalize violence against women in the West and religiously and traditionally sanctioned subjugation of women in the Muslim world, are a proof of ignorance and a shameless lie.


Because of the position of women in French society, which they achieved even before the Revolution. It is not possible to describe the public sphere in France without taking into account the role of women. They are present, their beauty is celebrated, they are not being kept hidden. They constitute a vivid accent of social life, they add charm to the world by their coquetry. At the same time, in many Muslim societies emancipated women are still seen as prostitutes.

Aren’t you exaggerating?

These women are badmouthed, teased, abused. That is their everyday reality. Violence and sexual frustration is the reality of women in Muslim societies. For that reason, comparing it to the French reality is pointless. It results from a very common will to accuse the West and absolve all other cultures.

In her book, Martha Nussbaum argues that the bias in relation to one’s own way of living, civilization and culture to which one belongs, is the archetype of a “moral sin”. That’s the whole crux of the argument. In other words: you live in France, but the French civilization does not have any kind of sovereign power, the primacy of culture in relation to the newcomers. There is no such thing as the nation. There is no such thing as the way of thinking, the lifestyle, there are no reference points and values that are to be respected by everyone. Meanwhile, in my opinion, putting equalizing all communities living in the same space is an attack on the culture of the host country. This is probably entangled in the American myth of a “multicultural” utopia, which does not bring peace, but – at its best – brings cultural separatism and – at worst – a civil war.

Who would start this war?

If such a war broke out, Nussbaum would probably charge with responsibility those who ran out of politeness to agree on the Islamic headscarf, on food coming from ritual slaughter of animals, on burqa that covers the entire body. She would be explaining that if some women wanted to wear a burqa, covering them completely, then violence within Muslim community, which I was talking about, does not exist. I think that interpreting the cultural and religious behaviour from this perspective is a mistake, and even an insult to women. Permission to wear burqa means an acceptance of the sufferings of French citizens, a violation of their rights.


Because uncovering woman’s face is enough to arouse the men. Paradoxically, burqa transforms the woman into a sexual object. And no woman agrees with such degrading image. So when a French woman sees a woman in burqa, she both feels for her because of the subjugation, even if voluntary, and revolts against such image. One has to completely live under the illusion of analytical philosophy not to get it.

 Multiculturalism never worked. We are moving in the direction of societies characterized by increasing violence.

Alain Finkielkraut

Objectification of women, that you associate with Muslims, is not unique to the religious fundamentalism. In Western culture we come across many practices that can be seen similarly, such as the cult of the body and widespread plastic surgery. Fashion is also a form of constraint for women – a purely secular limitation. 

Indeed, but the context is different. Afghan women in burqas don’t have access to education, they are excluded from the public life. There is a completely different weight and social meaning to clothing. Could the unaware transfer of this model to France be called tolerance? In Europe, burqa symbolises systemic degradation of women.

Nussbaum claims, that French cultural policy is anachronistic and a change to it would serve security on the streets. A lot of unrest and rioting in France has been caused by the immigrant youth.

Damn the security! This concept, promoted as so-called universal, is superficial and sheared off its local context. Covering one’s face equals taking this face away. Veiling is an offence against humanity. Dehumanization cannot be the foundation for a social order!  The multicultural model of society – either in French or American sense – hasn’t worked out. We’re heading towards the most violent societies. Part of the Islamic world has declared war on Europe, on her values and her civilization. This is reality. Concealing this reality with the imperative for impartiality and denouncement of xenophobia is ridiculous.

In Nussbaum’s opinion, acculturation has to process as mutual adjustment. For this reason alone we need to adapt to Muslims, rather than simply lecture them on who we are… otherwise we will radicalize even the moderate Islamists.

France is the host country, therefore the guest should adhere to local customs. Perhaps it’s different in the US, but here it’s clear. Strangers should adapt to us, not the other way round. This is not about divesting one’s identity. We do not want to convert Muslims to non- religious. They are free to erect mosques and places of worship – there is more of them than churches and synagogues these days. Bear in mind the evident asymmetry – in Arabic countries there are hardly any churches. So there is space for Islam in Europe, definitely bigger than for Christianity or Judaism on Middle East and in the Maghreb.  But the Muslims who came to France have to adapt to French civilization. If they don’t like it, they can move somewhere else. France is not only a state – it’s a magnificent culture. Beautiful language, literature, outstanding landscapes – all it has on offer is unique. Accepting all this entails bounding by the public law. The Republic may now require from the Muslims what was asserted from the Catholics years ago.

 In many Muslim societies emancipated women are still treated as prostitutes. Violence and sexual frustration is their everyday life reality.

Alain Finkielkraut

If I understand correctly, you completely reject mutual cultural adaptation.

Concession for Muslims would constitute a redundant precedent in the history of France. Public authorities have a monopoly on exerting legal violence – usurpation of this right, oppression of Muslims by Muslims is a blatant violation of the constitutional order. In any case, France does not require renunciation of Islam, but that it holds less control over the lives of its followers. Truth be told, I do not think this is too much to ask. You know, after all, that in Islam, the rejection of faith carries capital punishment. A republic cannot accept this. A Muslim has to have the right to convert to another religion. Acceptance of the Republican law does not deprive the Muslim of freedom, but broadens it – without threatening the reason of state.


The second generation of migrants – people born in France – has already manifested other aspirations. They do not believe in France as the land of milk and honey and consequently cease to see the purpose for adaptation.

Therefore it is crucial to set the rules at the very beginning. And stigmatize any violation. Otherwise France will become the blurred land of jihadism.

Making a concession, Islamization of Muslim- dominated neighbourhoods would be a fatal mistake. Imagine we let wearing burqa at school, then we change the curriculum, rejecting prospectively offending content – such as the history of cathedrals, or perhaps Christian Middle Ages as a whole…   What is left? Nothing! We cannot become dependent for the sake of adaptation.

The activity of socialising institutions – schools, families – based on religious authority is not as obvious as you claim. According to the research carried in the US, there is more violence in the ‘traditional’ American families than in the Muslim ones. 

Sociologists manipulate data figures because of political correctness. Islam has to be untouchable.

In France too?

Of course! This kind of discourse is completely ridiculous and scandalous. Even if we agree with the opinion that education system in France is in crisis, it does not mean we should be grateful to people who want to devastate it. Reform cannot mean that institution should be subordinate to the principle of the strongest or the most numerous. This is a sheer cowardice in disguise of morality, anti-racism and open-mindness. I am strongly against such attempts. There is no place for multiculturalism in France. We have an obligation to preserve domestic culture and pass it on the next generations. France has chosen the republican model.

 Similarly, as I do not accept racism, I do not believe in multiculturalism. I wish for an authentic hospitality, which would be thoughtful and self-critical.

Alain Finkielkraut

Aren’t you afraid that -if the immigrant policy doesn’t change – the situation from a decade ago will recur? In 2005 riots took over Paris, Nantes, Rennes, Rouen, Lille, Toulouse and Lyon.

Riots don’t break out for that reason! Quite the contrary. The more concession we make the more riots break out. It is a cry of hate towards the civilization we want to benefit from and which we have already tasted. Peace is certain only when the majority decides about the form of social ecumena. People need at least minimum of the homogeneity in order to facilitate common existence.

In the book which was has been published a year ago and gained great popularity “L’identité malheureuse” (“Poor identity”) you criticize the concept of cosmopolitanism. How – in the context of your theses– should we judge the victory of the right- wing National Front in the May elections?

Well, the French have always seeked for parties with determined ideological identity. I don’t demonize the electorate of the National Front. I understand them, but I think that the causes of the success of the Front are lying somewhere else. The secularity, integration and assimilation issues should be the concern for centre and left-wing politicians, but they gave them away to the opposition. After all, France has something to offer and the large republican groups should remind us about it. What Martha Nussbaum would recognize as the certain form of the dominance, is an actual gift. But also a challenge – which Marine Le Pen doesn’t handle. I don’t accept the racism that emerges from her statements the same way I don’t believe in multiculturalism. I hope for a true and authentic, reflective and self-critical hospitality. That’s why I didn’t vote for The National Front.

Do you think that French civilization is prone to self-criticism?

It is constantly subjected to self-criticism. It is one of the essential dimensions of European civilization, and the key to understand the identity of Europeans. Healthy skepticism sets us apart from the Muslims. The capacity for self-criticism should not – as wrote a Mexican essayist Octavio Paz – fall to the level of moralizing masochism, which I find in the books by Martha Nussbaum. Acceptance of her diagnosis would mean staying in crisis, and probably it’s deepening. Today, it is worth re-raising questions such as: Are we heading towards a clash of civilization, or whether we can avoid it? Will Muslims agree on adopting the European standards, or hatred will take up?

Take a look, what is now the memory of the Holocaust. European peace project was founded on the awareness of the painful history. Currently, the Jews do not feel quite safe in the Old World. And it is not about old European anti-Semitism, but about a new type of anti-Semitism. It was manifested by the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels two months ago or the attack on a school in Toulouse in March 2012. What is being done to avoid it? How to react? How to prevent? This is the problem that is facing Europe and that Europe must solve immediately. I do not see any more pressing problem able to lead to the mobilization of the European forces.

Such mobilization is hard to imagine when the extreme right-wing parties are given legitimate power in many European countries.

I find it hard to define the causes of their success. Perhaps Europeans want to remain European, recover continental identity. Weird, isn’t it? Perhaps they want more democracy? It’s not about ‘escaping the freedom’, a Renaissance of fascism. National Front voters wish for some sovereignty that they find for instance in migration control. They think Europe is being devastated with inefficient bureaucracy and the continent no longer believes in modernization. They lack sense of security. They want to be down to earth instead of constant change. We’re all human beings, but Brussels treats us with – as Zygmunt Bauman called it- ‘liquid life’, undefined, widespread liquidity. People prefer something substantial!