Posts Tagged 'terrorism'

Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

soti_web

By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

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The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

Violently happy

By Harry van Versendaal

The seemingly subdued reaction to the deaths of three bank employees during a demonstration against austerity measures in central Athens on May 5 indicates that it’s not just the protests which are seen as natural in Greece but also the violence that accompanies them.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science and director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University, talked to Athens Plus about the cultural roots of the rioting and destruction, the misguided role of the left and the long-term impact of recent developments.

Contrary to the massive protests in the wake of the police shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008, recent demonstrations in protest of the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank on May 5 have been extremely modest in size (a recent demo on Syntagma Square, which had no political affiliation, only gathered some 150-200 people). What is the reason for this?

For a number of historical and political reasons, Greek society remains very sensitive to loss of life caused by agents of the state compared to other types of victims. In turn, this sensitivity is further reinforced by the capacity of various leftist parties and groups to mobilize people whenever state forces are seen as exceeding their authority. Indeed, this type of situation is critical for these groups, as it provides a unique recruitment opportunity for them. Lastly, the mass media, staffed by many journalists who came of age politically right before and after the fall of the Colonels’ dictatorship, in 1974, are happy to reinforce this type of sentiment through a highly emotional coverage.
In contrast, no political organization called for, let alone, organized public protests for the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank; likewise, the emotional reaction of the mass media was much less intense. In fact, there were several attempts to displace a part of the blame for these deaths toward the bank management, using a perverse way of reasoning — it was argued by some the bank building lacked effective fire protection.
I think that this biased attitude also explains why no one seems to care much about the tens of deaths caused on Greek roads by avoidable traffic accidents and other similar instances.

Some commentators have branded the events of December 2008 a “popular uprising.” Do you agree with that description?

If by “popular uprising,” we mean a sustained mass protest seeking to challenge a political regime, as is now the case in Thailand for example, then it is pretty clear that the events of December 2008 fail to meet this definition. What happened in December 2008 was a convergence of two distinct events. On the one hand, many high-school students protested peacefully against what they perceived, with good reason, to be the unjustified killing of one of their peers. On the other hand, several extreme leftist groups used this opportunity to generate widespread mayhem and destruction. They were helped in this by the fateful decision of a fearful government not to challenge them.

Some analysts appeared to read too much into the December 2008 protests, while certain politicians on the left sought to capitalize on the events. What degree of responsibility do they share for the current violence?

In my opinion, they share a considerable degree of responsibility. By fanning the flames, they sought to gain political advantage. The electorate thought otherwise, however, as indicated by the results of both the European and general elections, which sanctioned these politicians.

Greece’s left lost the Civil War but it seems to enjoy a peculiar type of political and cultural hegemony, which has made it largely immune to criticism from the right. Would you agree with this?

Yes, this is correct. The collapse of the dictatorship in 1974, which had appropriated the right-wing narrative of the Civil War, caused the total delegitimation of this narrative. Almost by default, the counter-narrative of the left became the official version of the history of the Greek Civil War, further enshrined in books, school textbooks and art. However, because the left-wing narrative is so closely associated with the so-called “metapolitefsi” period, i.e. the post-authoritarian era, it is unlikely to outlast the present economic crisis, which has brought this era to an end.

It has been argued that Greece has a “culture of violence.” Is violence in Greece seen as a legitimate part of the political game? Could violence be legitimate under a particular set of circumstances?

It is true that a certain culture of violence persists in Greek politics. This culture is primarily verbal and highly ritualized. Insofar as it is physical, it generally targets objects rather than people. Terrorist activity remains, on the whole, beyond the pale, even when it is not condemned as vigorously as it could, and should, be.
I find it very hard to think of circumstances that would justify the use of violence under a democratic regime. The biggest achievement – indeed the very content – of democracy has been to decouple conflict from violence.

Does violence in Greece stem from the flawed relationship between the state and citizens?

There is, indeed, a flawed relationship between the state and its citizens in Greece – but it is also a contradictory one. On the one hand, several studies have shown that Greek citizens view the state with distrust. On the other hand, the same people expect the state to also employ them and assist them with all kinds of high-quality services. This flawed relationship can be traced to a history of polarized conflict and the domination of the state in political and economic life.

Do you agree that – much like homegrown terrorism – anarchist violence is, first of all, a question of social tolerance?

Absolutely. How else to explain the impunity that allows this type of violence to go on? According to recently released police data, there have been 5,952 firebombings during the last 12 years; and yet, one only finds 20 convictions during the same period. It is difficult to find another explanation for this type of impunity than social tolerance sanctioned by political decision. However, I think that the Marfin deaths may mark a turning point in this respect: There may be support now for the application of the law.

Do you think that lingering economic and political crisis will turn ours into a more violent society?

Only if these extremist groups are allowed to continue to operate with impunity. Controling them should not be a difficult problem; after all, their numbers are small. If these groups are placed under control, the crisis will likely generate only peaceful protests, not violence — unless, of course, a huge shock, such as a bank run, takes place.

Do crises like the current one expose the primal elements of a nation’s psyche?

Not necessarily. Take the recent violence: There is nothing new about it. Four people died in a similar incident, during protests that took place in 1991. There have been several close calls since then. Street violence in Greece has been a constant, not a variable. This is what many foreign correspondents seem to miss when they attribute the violence to the crisis.

Do you see the recurring riots leading to a more aggressive police state?

Only if the street violence problem is not addressed. Indeed, the issue is not to move toward a more aggressive state but toward an effective state — one that applies the law. Failing that, there is a point where a majority will demand order at any cost. There is no question that this would be a negative development.

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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Sveta, 17, next to her favourite chair #pool

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