Posts Tagged 'secularism'

Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for ekathimerini.com [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.

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Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

Liberalism and the burqa

By Harry van Versendaal

One of the most common arguments put forward against recent steps by some European governments to ban the full-face veil, known as the niqab or burqa, is the small number of Muslim women who wear it. Lawfulness, however, is not based on numbers. It is illegal to kill another man, even if only a few people wish to do so.

Of course, there are more arguments against such ban. Outlawing the burqa, opponents of the move say, is racist, intolerant and undemocratic. But it’s hard to miss the fact that the call for multicultural tolerance is coming from one of the least tolerant, mono-cultural segments of society. Interestingly, defense of the burqa has also drawn support from misguided liberals and leftist multi-culties (who seem to forget that many women in Muslim countries are still beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their faces) as well as some in the Christian right who are wary of losing their own “sacred” rights and privileges.

Leaving security concerns and the demeaning of women aside, one question that needs to be answered is why a majority should be subjected to the cultural whims of a minority? Doesn’t it make more sense for an immigrant to abide by the mores and values of the land where he or she has chosen to live rather than the other way round? And even though the West should not go down the oft-used reciprocity argument – “We must not allow Muslims to build mosques in Europe until they allow Christians to build their own churches there” – because a place like Sudan or Saudi Arabia cannot serve as standard for any modern European nation, it seems fair – in fact it is very crucial – to state that liberal states have no reason to give in to the yens of their culturally assertive minorities either. Yielding to one demand will naturally spawn further similar demands, and the list is already too long: sexually segregated swimming pools, the abolition of certain textbooks at schools, special medical treatment for women, calls for polygamy and forced marriages and so on (and, alas, we must not leave the defense of Enlightenment values to the extreme right).

Each time it gives in to segregationist demands, liberalism is effectively giving up a chunk of itself. In going out of their way to accommodate these customs, liberal states are helping to create a state within a state, a segregated society where people live in accordance with their own rules and values. For what does a woman clad in a full-face garment convey other than her willingness to separate herself from the rest of society? It’s like saying: “I am not one of you; I do not belong here; you are impure.”

Living in an open society is all about freedom, transparency and interaction – and the individuals who wish to participate in such society ought to, at least, be identifiable.

Sledgehammer tactics

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Long the self-proclaimed guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s secular legacy, Turkey’s once-powerful military is now fighting for its own survival.

In an unlikely role-reversal for a country used to the generals’ interference in the political system, the Islamic-rooted administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has detained some 70 military officers, retired as well as serving, for their involvement in an alleged coup to overthrow his elected AKP government one year after it came to power in 2003.

“Operation Sledgehammer,” laid out in some 5,000 pages of documents leaked in January to Taraf, a small Turkish daily, involved planting bombs in mosques during prayers and downing Turkish fighter jets in a bid to sow chaos and prepare the ground for intervention from the country’s ever-meddling generals.

Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star general and alleged mastermind of the plot, has denied the accusations saying that the whole thing was no more than a “simulation exercise” drawn up for an army seminar.

Many generals feel they have been framed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic preacher and leader of the Gulen brotherhood that is supposedly seeking to make Turkey an Islamic state. Although moderate in its stated goals, the powerful and very organized Gulen movement has certainly made a priority of placing its adherents high in the Turkish system, according to Hugh Pope, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, who spoke to Athens Plus.

“There is however nothing proven about the involvement of the Gulen movement or any other group,” Pope added.

The dramatic pre-dawn raids targeting prime suspects, leaks of colorful details and charges in pro-government media before they reach the prosecutor’s office have raised eyebrows among the Turkish public, some media, and independent observers who see at least some degree of political motivation behind the probe.

“The idea that 162 officers discussed a coup plot in 2003 and then nobody said anything about it for seven years is absurd. Such a thing would not have been done like this, in a seminar,” Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, told Athens Plus.

“The details do not make sense. There are simply too many absurdities and contradictions; it’s hard to take all this seriously,” Jenkins said.

Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition party, has rebuffed the operation as a “political showdown.” “Why did you wait for seven years?” he asked recently. “These are commanders who now wear pajamas and slippers.”

An ongoing trial concerning a separate anti-government plot by a shadowy ultranationalist network known as “Ergenekon” has also been criticized as an act of political vendetta. Some question whether the group even exists.

For most analysts, Jenkins included, developments mirror a tug of war between the established elite and an emerging pious Islamic segment of society.

“These arrests are the latest act in a struggle for power between two groups: the urban, highly secular but rather authoritarian establishment and military, who founded the republic of Turkey in 1923, and the more religious but pragmatic people from the Turkish countryside who have flooded into the cities since the 1960s, and whose political representative is the AKP,” said Pope, who has however expressed doubts that this is just a “witch hunt” against the army.

The army has staged three coups since 1960, but the Turkish public has grown sensitive to army interference in civic life. The latest bid, the so-called “e-coup” of 2007 when the military’s website criticized the presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, backfired. Erdogan called a snap poll and won a resounding 47 percent of the vote. AKP again won 39 percent in the 2009 election and polls still give the party about one third of the vote, ahead of any other party.

The once-untouchable generals are against the ropes, but the chances of another coup, analysts say, are remote. “The events of this week signal another step toward full control of Turkey by civilian authorities. The country has come far from the military coups in 1960, 1971 or 1980 and is now far too complex and integrated into the global system to face another one,” said Pope.

The generals may be down but they are definitely not out. Despite its declining power, mostly thanks to AKP’s EU-minded reforms, as well as its dwindling popularity, the military is still the most trusted institution in the country. “If the civilian government should lose its way and lose popular support in a few years’ time, it is possible that the military will once again be tempted to act in the name of what it sees as the silent majority,” Pope said.

The standoff however seems to have galvanized the army which has in the past been divided on whether the chief of staff should be more assertive in safeguarding secularism. The chief of staff, Gen. Ilker Basbug, who has in the past stressed that the era of military coups is over, has lashed out at what he calls an “asymmetrical psychological war on the army.”

“Developments have had a demoralizing but also unifying effect,” Jenkins said. “They have united the core of the military rather than dividing it,” he added.

Greek commentators have expressed concern that the coup probe could harden Ankara’s policy on Greece as the Turkish premier would not want to give the impression of being a softy on a traditional rival, particularly during a standoff with the hawkish generals.

But foreign analysts beg to differ. “Turkey is becoming more introverted, more obsessed with internal affairs,” Jenkins said, suggesting that Greece was not a real priority at the moment.

Under the influence of its energetic Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu Turkey has pursued a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors. Erdogan this week said that Ankara will pull its troops out from divided Cyprus should the two sides reach a peace deal.

However, Pope warned, the spat is certainly sapping time and energy from other priorities such as electoral and constitutional reform – a flashpoint of potential friction between the government and the pro-secularist judiciary – as well as tilting Turkey away from the perennial goal of EU membership, a Cyprus peace deal and normalization of ties with Armenia.

When swinging a sledgehammer, you always risk breaking more than you intended.

Liberte, egalite, fraternite?

By Harry van Versendaal

No wonder Hassen Chalghoumi receives death threats these days. The Tunisian-born imam of Drancy, an industrial suburb northeast of Paris, has come out in favor of a French government proposal to ban face-covering veils in public places.

“The burqa is a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist indoctrination,” the 36-year-old Chalghoumi told Le Parisien daily last week, adding that if Muslim women wish to cover their faces, they should move to a place where this is acceptable practice. “Like Saudi Arabia,” for example. Not exactly the words you’d expect to hear from a Muslim cleric.

The burqa debate has spawned confusion in France, first of all over the ulterior motives. The proposed ban has widely been scoffed as a political tactic aimed at swaying center-right supporters and undermining the xenophobic National Front ahead of regional elections in March. But such cynical interpretation underestimates the French preoccupation with Frenchness: the usual animating myths about French exceptionalism — much of it delusional fluff but a preoccupation nevertheless.

Oddly, the controversial imam seems to have a clearer idea about what it means to be French than most of France’s political leaders. An ongoing national debate on French identity, launched last year by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has generated more ambiguity than clarity. Politicians’ comments have often tread on the frontiers of political correctness, while a purpose-built website has turned into an outlet of extremism and xenophobia. “Being French means being white. That’s all,” one contributor wrote, according to an AFP report. “Being French means learning to park your car in a garage to avoid having it torched,” posted another in a reference to the riots in the banlieues in 2005.

A parliamentary panel set up to discuss the issue recommended on Tuesday that France ban the wearing of all-enveloping veils in public places like schools, hospitals and public transport, reasoning that the burqa (or more accurately the “niqab,” a face-covering veil with a slit for the eyes) is “contrary to the values of the republic.” The report, some 200 pages that took 6 months to prepare, said among other things that civil servants should refuse to serve veiled women who turn up at public offices.

The 32-member commission fell short of proposing an all-out ban on burqas, although earlier comments by French politicians had presaged otherwise. In his state-of-the-nation address last year, Sarkozy described the burqa as “a sign of subservience and debasement” that is “not welcome” in France. Andre Gerin, the communist head of the parliamentary commission, has in the past lashed out against “the French Taliban who force women to be veiled.” However, concerns that a ban would be unconstitutional and fears of terrorist reprisal (al-Qaida in the summer threatened to “take revenge” on France) seem to have induced second thoughts.

About 6 million Muslims live in France today — the largest Muslim community in western Europe — yet no more than 2,000 wear the full veil. Wary of being accused as racist, Sarkozy has sought to portray the move as a security threat and as an attack on French secular values — most prominently “laicite,” a militant form of secularism born out of the 1789 revolution, which keeps faith strictly limited to the private sphere. Visiting an oft-vandalized Muslim cemetery in northern France this week, Sarkozy said that secularism “is not the negation of religion” but “an essential component of our identity.”

No other European country has so far introduced similar laws but the debate is gaining momentum across the Continent. Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, still dealing with the ramifications of the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005, said that the burqa and the niqab have no place in the Nordic country because “they symbolize a view of women and humanity that we totally oppose and that we want to combat in Danish society.” The Dutch government is mulling legislation banning the veil for teachers and civil servants, while several districts in Belgium have already banned the garb under local laws. Across the Channel, Britain, known for its liberal live-and-let-live ethos, has so far resisted pressure from the right. Education secretary Ed Balls last week said that such ban was “not British, it is unfair, it is not consistent with our traditions of liberty and freedom.”

It was an interesting formulation, if only because the French claim to be defending those very traditions. Balls’s comments highlight the philosophical complications — even paradoxes — surrounding the veil ban, exposing the blurred boundaries between freedom and coercion as western states seek to impose their liberal norms and values on newcomers.

In British eyes, the French are more concerned with “egalite” than “liberte.” The truth is, the French have a different, more aggressive understanding of liberty, what philosophers call “positive liberty,” whereby the state has an obligation to protect individuals against the diktats of culture and religion. Proponents of negative liberty, meaning the freedom from something (i.e. the freedom not to be forced to do something, like remove one’s veil), claim it is preferable to positive liberty because the later is open to state abuse. But it’s hard to sympathize when you see a young girl wrapped up to the eyeballs.

It seems fair to say that it is Muslim migrants who need to adjust to Europe’s secular values, not vice versa. More than a sign of female subjugation, the veil is a sign of separation; it’s like saying “I am not one of you, I do not belong here.” Xavier Bertrand, head of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, had a point when he said recently that the full veil “will make no one believe a woman wearing it wants to integrate.”

Again, Chalghoumi was the first to agree. “Having French nationality means wanting to take part in society, at school, at work,” he said. “But with a bit of cloth over their faces, what can these women share with us?”

If only integration was simply a matter of lifting the veil.


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