Issue 43, July 2004
What the Islamic veil unveils about French universalism
The heated debate that the headscarf issue is provoking in the country of Voltaire reveals a crisis of anthropological magnitude of the French secularist model. The draft law adopted by the French Parliament to ban "signs and clothing which visibly display a religious affiliation" in public schools, is in fact designed to react against the wearing of the Islamic veil by a few hundred female students. It will probably not resolve the problem that France has with its second religion; however an anthropological analysis may reveal what is at stake.
The French demographer Emmanuel Todd has showed in many of his books that social phenomena and major ideological systems (Catholicism, Islam, the Reformed Church, etc.) are intellectual edifications and transpositions of fundamental values that the main familial structures of humanity reproduce. This ‘families game’ - which can be declined in many alternatives and combinations (egalitarian, authoritative, nuclear, communitarian, endogamic and exogamic) - puts in scene different metaphysics of humanity that can be ranked mainly in differentialist and universalist approaches.
Anglo-Saxon differentialism is deduced from a strong individualistic and unequal family structure (e.g. inheritance law) and implies the ‘rights to difference’ but does also materialize itself through the 'difference of rights'. On the other hand, the French and Arab-Muslim models are fundamentally egalitarian. French and Islamic universalisms are compatible in many ways, when for example both affirm that ‘all men are brothers, free and equal’ whereas the Anglo-Saxon model would state that ‘all men are brothers, free and different’ (and here ‘difference’ might also mean an inequality of status). French and Islamic universalisms however diverge on two points: the expression of the cultural difference and the legal status of women. The French model assimilates skin color, physical appearances and ethnic origins, but it can be intolerant to the cultural expression of diversity. During the past fourteen centuries the Islamic model has shown that it was more inclined to allow religious, ethnic and linguistic pluralism. The French model insists rightly that ‘All men and women are brothers and sisters, free and equal’, where Islamic universalism would rather place the woman in a situation of a minor (e.g. inequality in inheritance, divorce). This situation is becoming increasingly untenable, as witnessed by the positive developments in many Islamic countries such as Turkey, Morocco and Malaysia, to name but a few.
These powerful anthropological forces, which express the interplay of differentialism and universalism, are deterministic but are nevertheless subject to evolution and contingency. The current resurgence of a political Islam, e.g. Islamism, paradoxically may mean the secularization of contemporary urban societies - but not necessarily along the same tracks that the West followed. The wearing of the veil, which the average Frenchman sees as a sign of subordination of women, often appears to be also, according to many sociological studies, an individual choice, a 'marker' emancipator for teenagers and young women who, veiled, can thus escape family control and pressure and have access to public transport and space, to schools, universities and employment. ‘With the veil, the contemporary Muslim young woman appears, without it, she simply disappears’, the Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni of CEDEJ (Cairo) observes, after having worked several years on the multiple sociological facets of the veil in Europe and the Middle East. French Muslim women are never more visible than when they wear the veil: French intellectuals and politicians are focusing on this veil, but it is in reality the visibility of these women, which disturbs them profoundly. Finally, whether it is the wearing of the veil or the beard, the 'halal' stores or the mosques, in the last resort, it is the expression of Islam itself, which is problematic to the French of old.
France certainly does not admit racism and even less segregation based on the color of the skin, but the cultural difference irritates it so much that it essentializes its opposition to it, even if, confronted with the neo liberalism supported by Anglo-Saxon differentialism, France in the name of Europe does claim the ‘right for cultural exception’. The debate on the veil unveils both the contradictions and limitations of French universalism just like the debate on the women status reveals those of Islamic universalism. The two models are tied to their respective traditions while transnational horizons widen their sphere of influence well beyond the anthropological zones, which once saw their emergence.
Political polarities and rivalries within the International Relations can also be interpreted through the 'anthropological grid', which unveils the hidden patterns behind differentialist and universalist perceptions of the world. The confrontation between universalism and differentialism can also contribute to the explicit and persistent French opposition to the quasi-instinctive American unilateralism.
The war in Iraq has indeed illustrated on a global level the divergence of views between Anglo-Saxon differentialism and French universalism vis-à-vis another universalism, the Arab-Muslim model. It is very interesting to observe that the three models are in a sort of rivalry and yet at the same time all challenged by the exponential pace of change that affect contemporary societies and their cultural traditions.
What the secular 'traditionalists' would like to obtain from French Islam is that it remains invisible and inaudible. During several decades, in order not to offend the French of old and their tradition, the establishment of Muslim places of worship was tolerated only in the urban periphery and in basements of all kinds (cellars, garages). Consequently, the obscurantism quickly propagated on the bed of ignorance and poverty, through preachers of very low caliber exported by Bedouin States scorned but courted by the Republic and its present and past governments.
The French secular model, in one way or another, will have to evolve vis-à-vis the expression of a cultural diversity that it defends in the international arena when its own cultural heritage is in danger. It will also have to accept the visibility of Islam and its universality (one fifth of the world population) when it is proposed to interact directly with its interiority and consequently to promote the equality man-woman which is nowadays an essential indicator of human development. The day when in France, Islam - as civilization, cultures, spirituality - will be taught in a non-artisanal way within the framework of university studies and diplomas delivered by the State, in theological faculties directed by professors trained in traditional religious sciences and scientific techniques of research, when Arabic will be taught in a decent way in the secondary cycle, France will have inseminated a critical knowledge, crossing between the Enlightenment and the Judeo-Arabic ideals of Andalusia’s Golden Age.
Then would emerge what the late French historian Jacques Berque called a 'gallican Islam' born from the unpredictable encounter with French universalism. This Islam - deeply-rooted and creative by the quality of its ideas - would immunize against any form of extremism and would radiate within the Mediterranean basin, this old attractor of cultures and civilizations.
Reda Benkirane is a sociologist from Morocco. He is the author of La Complexité, vertiges et promesses. 18 histoires de sciences (Paris, Le Pommier, 2002) and editor of Jacques Berque’s posthumous book, Quel islam ? (Paris, Sindbad-Actes Sud, 2003).