Religious Symbols in France
Why the confrontation on the hejab?
On the banning of religious symbols in France
The Islamic veil (hijab) is undermining the secular Republic of France. To push back political Islam, French nationalism with the help of classic liberalism and Chirac's communiqué banning conspicuous religious symbols in state-run institutions and schools hammered yet another nail in the coffin of post-modernist jargon, which no longer has any consumption value in France. The French bourgeoisie made the church retreat during the great French revolution for freedom and equality. To protect their political and class interests, however, they stopped half way. Eighty-two years later, the Communards in the first international workers' revolution announced: France has died; long live humanity! In a brave and yet unclear move on 17 December 2003 the French bourgeoisie consolidated its position against a force that had come out of its grave. Despite this move, removing the influence of religion from the social lives of people both in France and elsewhere as well as surpassing the pseudo and human-made concepts of nationality, race and replacing them with 'long live humanity' still remain the task of today's Communards.
The Background of Today's Confrontation
The issue of banning the hijab and other religious symbols in France is an important one and is not confined to the defence of secularism. The explosive nature of this issue in Europe and Islamic-stricken countries and the consequent formation of the political forces involved are indicative of the political confrontation in today's society. The French government's move and the reaction of the political Islamic movement (be it the Islamic Republic of Iran or other states in the Middle East or Islamists in Europe) reflect the continuation of a historic and universal class battle between political forces and movements in today's society. Hijab is another channel for addressing a much older and basic issue with newer forms. Contrary to the empty claims of religious currents, post-modernist intellectuals and fringe 'Left' forces, the hijab is not just 'Islamic clothing' but also a banner representing political Islam's bloodshed, terrorism and reactionary values. The hijab is this era's logo for Islamic apartheid and religious fascism. It represents a bourgeois and right-wing movement that emerged as a result of cold war politics with the support of western governments, including France. The purpose of which was to prevent the Left from taking power in the Middle East. This movement is now acting as part of the bourgeoisie in these countries to protect its interests and political and economic power. As long as the extent of massacres, killings and rights violations imposed on the people of the Middle East were limited to that region, it could be tolerated and explained using post-modernist and cultural relativist theories. Today, however, the same movement is carrying out attacks and terrorist activities in the heart of liberalism and western democracy. What we are witnessing is the de-secularisation of western society by this movement and its replacement with Islamic norms and laws. This trend has been made possible following the domination of right-wing policies during the 80s, the fall of the Eastern bloc in the 90s, and the emergence of right-wing, religious, tribal and religious forces. One should bear in mind that this trend was not limited to the Islamic movement. Attempts to limit secularism and critiques of religion - even introducing a ban on criticising religion in some western countries - and concessions to the Church were all used by the bourgeoisie to intimidate people. The theory of cultural relativism and policies deduced from it provided the perfect breeding ground for the growth of Islamic currents in these countries. The emergence of Islamic ghettos, mosques, religious schools recruiting for the Islamic movement's terrorist forces, fatwas against opponents of Islam, imposing the veil on children, honour killings, and brain washing children with the Koran's teachings are all part of this policy and advance the political Islamic movement.
Political Islam is one side of the political force present in the crisis centres of the world, including the Middle East, the Baltics, Russia and North Africa. The other side is the victorious capitalist countries of the post-cold war era. Political Islam extended its terrorist operations in forbidden regions. After September 11, the relations between USA-west with political Islam were redefined. The events after September 11, the military invasion of Afghanistan, and the downfall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein deepened the rivalry between Europe and the USA. Following the war against Iraq, as we predicted, political Islam grew and turned the world into a realm of terrorism and Islamic holy war. Citizens of the world are witnessing and are the defenceless victims of the Islamic groups' terrorist operations. Although banning the Islamic hijab and other religious symbols in schools in France is partly in defence of secularism in France itself, it is mainly France's response to political Islam as a model for Europe.
Banning the hijab and religious symbols in educational institutions will not be limited to France. In fact, it has long been taking place in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany and recently England. Considering the relative consolidation of this policy in France, it will soon turn into a burning question in Europe and the world. The political Islamic movement in Europe does not have noticeable means to oppose such a trend. The main obstacle is the power of religion in the constitution of the political structure in these countries. With the exception of France, there is no secular state in Europe. The struggle to establish a secular state is still an ongoing one. There are two sides playing roles in this battle: state forces, the conservative bourgeoisie and the religious apparatus on the one hand and political Islam, post-modernist intellectuals and the nationalist and 'anti-imperialist' Left on the other hand. The third side comprises of workers, socialists and the civilised people of the world who do not benefit from any of the aforementioned sides. The warm and positive response of people in Sweden and Denmark to efforts to ban Islamic veiling for children and stop honour killings in direct opposition to Islamic groups and the concessionary stance of these governments is proof enough. Workers in Europe do not have any interest in the division of their class according to religious beliefs. Women do not have any interest in sexual oppression and the imposition of religious laws. Advanced political and social movements do not have any interest in turning the clock back in keeping with traditional religious frameworks. Progressive people cannot accept double standards regarding women's and children's rights. Progressive people are part of the force that created the 15 February movement and stood up against the war of terrorists. It opposed the right-wing's advances from Seattle to France. If this force was safeguarded from the mass media, the bourgeoisie's intimidations and the racist, religious and nationalist propaganda of the ruling class, it would think and act on aspirations for welfare and freedom. This force can make its mark as the bearer of advanced humanity in today's battle.
Although the issue and today's social battle is taking place in Europe, it stretches beyond the political-geographic sphere of Europe. The main power point of this battle lies in the Middle East. One should bear in mind that the question of 'minorities' and 'Muslims' in Europe is a direct reflection of the power and influence of political Islam. For this reason, the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the just resolution of the Palestinian question will destroy political Islam in one of its birthplaces and will hence revolutionise the question of 'minorities' and 'Muslims' in Europe. By the same token, the worker-communist movement present in Iran and Iraq will be at the forefront of the movement against political Islam in Europe too. Worker-communism in Europe has a long history. Seven years before the new French legislation, this movement made headways in countries like Sweden, Denmark and Germany against political Islam, against the imposition of child veiling, against honour killings, in support of banning religious schools, and in defence of children's and women's rights in Muslim communities. Worker-communism, as part of the force engaged in this battle, welcomes efforts against political Islam, be it in Iran, Iraq or Europe. Worker-communism is a potential majority force that rejects the interference of religion in people's lives and the concessionary position of states towards religious groups. With the backing of this massive force, worker-communism must fight back governments and religion for the expansion of freedom, secularism and equal and universal civil rights in Europe.
Basis of a Progressive Policy
Our method, as a worker-communist movement, for freedom and liberation of people from religious suppression, poverty, exploitation, is the establishment of socialism. At the same time, we are at the forefront of any attempt, however small, for equality and freedom in the present society.
1- We support the French government's recent action but do not consider it sufficient. This law is very important because it saves many children and women from the claws of Islam. However, limiting the law to state-run schools alone still leaves the risk of private religious schools thriving. All religious schools must be closed. 2- We are for the complete separation of religion from the state. We are for the banning of religious education at schools and combining and explaining the school curriculum with religious values. 3- One cannot impose a retreat of political Islam in fortress Europe under the name of secularism, while being on good terms with states in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Islam-stricken countries. This is the continuation of cultural relativism and against the universality of human rights. The secular and progressive movement to overthrow the Islamic government in Iran has risen. We call for European governments to break all political and diplomatic ties with Islamic governments and organisations as terrorist forces. The people of Europe must rise in defence of the people's struggle to overthrow Islamic governments in the Middle East. 4- If the hijab and religious symbols is in contradiction to a secular education, if the French government claims that it is at the forefront of a secular state in Europe and the world, then it would be expected to push the same legislation in the European Union, United Nations and international conventions for approval. Leaving the people in Islam-stricken countries to be trampled upon by political Islam and justifying it under the name of 'respecting their culture' is racist and Euro-centric. 5- We actively participate in the discussions around the question of secularism in Europe. This discussion can once again expose the old classic issues of fighting religion, state and a secular society, modernism, universal human rights verses post-modernist and cultural relativist views, and more importantly the issues of civil rights, freedom and equality. Our movement is at the forefront of these debates. 6- Society's political and institutional laws must be modern, secular and advanced, based on the separation of religion from the state. It should put an end to any law or value that divides citizens according to their nationality, race, gender, and ideology or violates the right of expression, thought, and scientific advances of the society.7- Society is responsible for the security and the physical and emotional welfare of children. Children should be protected from any physical or spiritual interference from religious institutions. We call for the banning of the Islamic hijab for under-aged girls; the banning of recruiting children by religious cults; and the banning of children's presence from religious institutions and ceremonies.
What does the Opposition Say?Following the approval of the French legislation, and the consequent loss of schools as one of the places to reinforce religion, Islamic groups have now barricaded themselves behind the walls of democracy and claim that the French law contradicts 'freedom of clothing and religion'! They say this law ignores the rights of 'minorities'! This is the same argument as that of cultural relativism and the nationalist 'anti-imperialist' Left but with one difference. They add that educating public opinion about secularism is more effective than legislating laws. Other religious currents in Europe, Christianity and Judaism, are also against this trend. They have the support of the conservative forces in power as well as an entwined link with the financial and tax system of these countries with the backing of the church and the synagogue. However, it is political Islam that constitutes the main side of the argument.
Political Islam's claims of 'democracy and individual rights' is a contradiction in terms. There is no freedom of clothing or religion in any Islam-stricken country, or in Islamic community ghettos in the west. They don't even tolerate converts. Their answer to any criticism or expression is Islamic execution, terror and stoning. More than 150,000 people have been executed in Iran for not being Muslims! Their claim is nothing but propaganda and pretence for western governments. They hide behind democracy, in order to buy more time for the consolidation of their Islamic apartheid in the region. Let's have a look at some of their arguments:
Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion and atheism is part of our principles. Adults are free to choose whatever religion or none at all. It is everybody's right to practice his/her religious beliefs in private or in public religious places of worship. It is everybody's right to be atheist or materialist. Religion is a private and not a social affair. Here we are talking about schools, universities, offices, hospitals, etc. as public places that must be neutral. People, in public places are present not as representatives of a particular religion but as citizens with private (personal) beliefs who have gathered in these places for a common social, educational, or work purpose. Talk of freedom of religion here is nonsense and goes against the social reason why people gathered there in the first place. People do not enter social life as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists, but rather they exist as citizens, colleagues, pupils, and workers in a school, factory or office. If the definition of society was based on 'freedom of religion', and social functions were organised according to religious beliefs and affiliations, then we would not be having a human society and all life and social activities would be disrupted. If religious affiliation superseded humanity, then society must be organised according to different religious categories. Or the classrooms would have to be planned based on religious beliefs or lack of it. Is this possible? Even if it were, would it reflect religious freedom? Is it favourable? This argument has no chance.
Individual and social freedoms must not contradict each other. They are interlinked and constitute the basis of a free society. In order to safeguard humanity from religion, one must demand the removal of all religious elements from the civil laws of the country. There should be no official religion. There should be no reference to people's religious affiliation in official documentations, or religious titles in official papers and the mass media. A free society can only emphasise people's human character as the common and equal characteristic of its citizens. Disregarding religious and national beliefs is the only possible way for the cohabitation of citizens. At the same time, freedom of religion or atheism in the private lives of citizens should be secured and defended.
Freedom of Clothing
We support 'unconditional freedom in choice of clothing. Abolition of any official or implied requirements on the amount or type of clothing that men or women should wear in public. Prohibition of any form of discrimination or restrictions on the basis of people's clothing and appearance (A Better World, programme of the Worker-communist Party, writer's emphasis). In public mean streets, parks, cinemas, entertainment centres, buses, trains, etc. It means places where one individual chooses what to wear according to his/her taste without interference from anybody or any authority. The hijab in educational institutions, a Mullah's gown in the operating theatre of a hospital, or religious symbols in offices are not 'freedom of clothing'. This is equivalent to imposing a religious dress code in a non-religious place. For example, a telephone operator can answer the phone wearing any clothes s/he wants, but somebody who receives visitors in an office cannot do her work with a burqa or hijab. A miner cannot enter the mine without wearing a safety helmet and the right uniform. A football player cannot play in tribal, religious and traditional clothes. In many places, the job necessitates a special dress code. These rules contradict freedom of clothing, according to the Islamic 'democrats' and the 'Left'. Nobody can participate in a parliamentary meeting wearing an evening dress! In some countries, schools require school uniforms to prevent prejudice based on economic differences. Some jobs by nature require special uniforms that are recognisable by the general public. There are millions of such examples. Do these violate freedom of clothing? Of course not.
I don't think anybody would agree to different newscasters with different religious clothing appearing on TV every night. Nobody would feel comfortable being turned over to an officer who differentiates him/herself with the religious clothing s/he is wearing. The moment freedom of clothing, like other individual freedoms such as freedom of speech, interfere with social freedoms, they become conditional. In other words, individual freedoms should not limit social freedoms. They must complement each other. As Karl Marx said in the Communist Manifesto, the individual's freedom is the condition for society's freedom and society's freedom is the condition for the individual's freedom.
We are social beings and live in society. Banning religious symbols in educational institutions and workplaces where human characteristics take precedence over religious, national, tribal and racial ones is the way to respect the social and human character of people. This concept is either upside down or non-existent in the views of the religious, nationalist, and post-modernist Left.
The Question of 'Minorities'
It is said that the French law does not consider the rights of 'minorities'. This view presupposes the existence of different categories such as 'minorities' and the 'majority'! It takes for granted that the main elements of the society are national, religious and racial differences! By the same token, democracy is the system that coordinates the relations between these categories in the society, and that undermining democracy is tantamount to a disturbance of this relationship! The worker-communist movement does not regard these as the prerequisite of human society and fights against it. I must emphasise that humans, individuals or social beings, have their peculiar character and nature, and nobody has the right to take that away from them or use that to discriminate against them. Everybody has the right to choose his/her religion or any other belief, and society must safeguard one's right to express her/himself. Our objection is the framework in which it is adopted, namely the fact that a more important and extensive right has been questioned, i.e. the human character and nature of people as free and equal citizens. We do not divide society into religions, nationalities and beliefs. It is only in the present system that you witness an Imam or a mullah suddenly becoming the 'advocate' of a section of the society and turning the lives of many women and children who happen to live in a Muslim community in the heart of European democracy into hell. It is exactly these relations that pave the way for honour killings, recruit soldiers for Islam, impose different norms in the society, and terrorize people. All this is done while barricading behind the wall of 'democracy', 'freedom of religion' and 'minority rights'! This is apartheid and racism. We do not accept it. We say citizens should be equal before the law. Religion, race, and no 'minority' or 'majority' defines individuals and the civil rights of citizens. It is simple mindedness to think one can justify the attempts of the Islamic movement in Europe by democracy or individual freedoms. On a political level, such views strive for federalism and to turn the clock back to an era when society comprised of tribes. On a legal level, it includes all into this or that religion or nationality. On a cultural level, it prefers the old fashioned and antiquated ways and manners to that of human advances. Such view cannot talk of freedom and equality for all. It is itself the source of racism and consolidates the state and bourgeoisie's racism. It washes its hands from the questions and difficulties facing society and replaces it with the power and influence of the Imams and nationalist representatives. It claims that the legal system is not the answer and that one should engage in enlightening the general public. Very well, one can do that. However, what do you do when that Imam or mullah in Sweden, Germany or England is still not convinced by your post-modernist enlightenment? Do you advise women in Islamic communities to wait and tolerate torture, intimidation and humiliation? So far nobody has claimed that little girls are not forced to wear the veil, women are not locked up in their homes, freedom of clothing is allowed, and non-Muslims are not threatened as a result of such enlightenment. In fact, it has been the opposite. This view criticises or blames fundamentalism in order to find its allies amongst the so-called less savage Islam. This has been a fruitless attempt. We are, in fact, witnessing the daily expansion of the Islamic movement, insecurity in society, victimisation of more and more women and children, violations of the most basic human rights and political, cultural and social degeneration.
Everybody is entitled to adhere to any ideology, nationality, religion or race. Everybody is entitled to express his/her opinion in any way. Most importantly, the society has the duty to provide the possibilities of realising such rights. However, nobody is justified in imposing his/her beliefs on the lives of others. Nobody - including Islamists, their post-modernist allies or governments - is justified in denying women and children an education, which by definition is secular. Human society has advanced and achieved concepts like citizen's rights and civil rights. The present universal laws are the result of the long, hard and bloody struggle of many progressive people and movements. Our task is not that of regressing these gains, but their expansion. Our duty is to protect humanity from religion and capitalism.
The recent French law weakens the political Islamic movement and gives an opportunity for the advancement of the movement for freedom and equality. The bourgeoisie in France and other countries will not be able to seriously impose religion and political Islam's retreat as a whole, since it needs religion as a tool for the growth of capitalism, and also because of its incapability to confront the issue to the end. One thing is for sure, though; the debate as it is so far will provide the grounds for the emergence of other political movements and forces. The movement for equality and freedom must take the lead and show the way towards a better world.
The slogan of the Communards: 'long live humanity' must be realised. This is a task for the worker-communist movement - the Communards of today.
Translator from Farsi to English: Maryam Kousha. This was first published in English in the Worker-communist Review 1 dated June 2004.