The “Décathlon hijab” case: secularism in the broad sense or racism?

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The “affair” of the running hijab is the latest development in the debates on the place of Islam in France. These debates seem endless since 1989 in a context of increasing influence of fundamentalist tendencies among Muslims in France (without any possiblity of accurately determining which ones can be grouped under the term Islamists). It is also the context of a greater visibility in the public space of the presence of the adherence to this form of Islamic practice, particularly by women, through the display of clothing.

This development is taking place in a context marked by terrorist attacks claimed by Islamist jihadism, and committed by French people or young men who grew up on French soil. This can only lead to be suspicious that any form of Islamist fundamentalism could be colluding with this violence. A violence that is never blind, since it has targeted victims and places that are quite clearly identified.

The decision taken by a wholesaler to market this garment to women could only provoke tensions, because it was once again bringing back to the centre of the debate the question of the place of women in the Muslim religion and its relationship to men. Behind this anecdotal fact lies the haunting question of women’s control of their bodies, the question of the obligation that can be imposed on them to cover themselves or even hide in a society that has seen French women, through their mobilization, gradually become masters of their bodies since the 1960s and thus break, for those who so wished or could, with the crushing prudery that still crushed them in our country.

This malaise is further accentuated by the place took in this debate by the former Charlie Hebdo journalist, Zineb El Rhazoui, a true victim of Islamism and a courageous activist for the liberation of Moroccan women. In this respect, it is very difficult for men who have always lived freely in a Western country to go and tell her that she is wrong about the oppression suffered by women because of the religious rigour shown by some Muslims, that this is an illusion and that there are no constraints here and elsewhere on women who adopt this or that clothing practice that is supposed to be in line with an orthodox reading of Islam. And it is all the more difficult to object to her that she may be mistaken that young veiled children exist, that teenage girls wearing the veil because of the direct or indirect constraint of the family or social environment in which they are inserted, because that also does exist.

In other words, intervening in this debate without adopting an alleged “republican” (in the French meaning) line of condemnation and offense against this initiative is very difficult. There are only blows to recieve and, at best, being called an Islamo-Leftist. So, let’s not wait and remove this hurdle.

On a personal level, I remain an advocate of the 1905 law but also of the 2004 law. Fifteen years later, I remain convinced that this law was necessary, that the school does not have to be the place where one’s particular identity is constantly affirmed, that the wearing of ostensible religious symbols of any kind may be considered a form of proselytism, and that the school grounds don’t need to be the place in which this temptation to propagate a religion or a form of expression of it,. A child or adolescent has ample time to wait until adulthood to express in action and among adults his or her choices of belief.

We have other things to do at school than to worry about each one and other’s beliefs, or the conflicts that these beliefs can create with the knowledge transmitted or between competing beliefs. And I remain firmly convinced that we wouldn’t have reached this point today if politicians had had the courage to hold in 1989 a clear speech, that would have affirmed that Islam had its place in France as a religion, that it was no more illegitimate than other monotheisms in the public space, but also that primary and secondary schools, which educate minors still forming themselves were in no way places of affirmation of any belief.

I am also convinced that if this law had not been passed, we would today be faced with a school that is even more fractured than it is, that in the current context, the presence in numbers of veiled girls in middle and high schools would have led many other students to flee at the initiative of their parents for fear of Islam, and that we would find ourselves on the way to a one school for each student system, according to each one belief, lack of belief, or supposed identity.

For one more proof of the difficulty of intervening in this debate with a somewhat moderate line, just look at the lack of support got Aurélien Taché, who was clumsy but at least had the merit of holding the original liberal “macronist” line on the question of the place of religion in the city, and was trying to not shout unanimously with the identity entrepreneurs for whom fear of everything that is directly or indirectly in contact with Islam has become the basis for their media audience. This MP was let loose by his own camp and that gave the signal for a new offensive of these Identitarians, under the guise of defending secularism, against what they consider to be an offensive of Islam against the Republic.

They are jumping with feet first into the trap set by those they consider to be dangers to the Republic, who never thrive as much as when they can claim to be victims of the phobia of their enemies, and who knew very well all along what the commercialization of this piece of fabric would generate in the public debate. While the Anglo-Saxon press was able to rightly mock the ridiculous nature of this new development in the French veil business, it nevertheless reveals at least two essential issues.

The first being the future position of the President of the French Republic on the issue of the place of Islam and its symbols in France. The “Printemps Républicain” and its relays weren’t mistaken about it, and they are currently leading an all-out offensive against the small fringe of macronists who remain attached to a policy of conciliation and reduction of tensions and resentments with the vast majority of French Muslims, who remain foreign to Islamism but intend to practice their faith, in a Republic that recognizes freedom of religion and conscience, it should be recalled. They want to be able to influence what will be the line the President will adopt and they may have already won.

The second issue is the redefinition of the perimeter of French secularism. First conceived as the neutrality of the State and its agents in 1905, French secularism was then extended to the neutrality of pupils attending the Republican school in 2004 and then in 2010 a new law extended its scope to the general public by a law that partially prohibits the total concealment of the face under specific conditions.

From now on, under the influence of the very same “Printemps Républicain”, the term is being overused. And when the supporters of this pressure group finally want to include developments that have nothing to do with the current legal definition, they even begin to speak of secularism in the “broad sense” (sic). (we must also remember that, at the same time as being a principle of our republic, French secularism is a legal principle that is defined by the law and regulations… and therefore it is neither flexible nor left free to define for any professor of political science) they begin to speak of secularism in the “broad sense” (sic).

For example, we do not really see how wearing this garment in the context of adult sports or outside school would contradict secularism as defined by law in our country today. A very surprising concept that this “secularism in the broad sense” and which would deserves that its designers have at least the courage to define it precisely. Is it about the prohibition of any form of religiosity in the public space, of any signs, any clothes, any headgear? Or is this only the last avatar of the misrepresentation they would play concerning secularism, by specifically targeting one religion and its signs, which, we can only guess, has for them all the signs of otherness to the identity of our nation, at least the nation they envision.

The link between French secularism and universalism is still essential today. It is in fact a sine qua non condition of our ability to create a society. This secularism must be able to be articulated with the defence of women’s rights to be free from all forms of oppressions, but also with the guarantee of the freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including beliefs, even in a society like ours, where the majority of us have turned our backs on all forms of faith. This secularism must never be confused with the obsession that some people have with one particular religion, because the expression of this obsession contributes as much, if not more, to the affirmation of racism in France, than to the display of religious symbols. We cannot and must not ban all behaviours on the sole ground that displeases us because they seems to us opposite to our modernity.