France, the Left and the burkini ban: It’s complicated

By Nora Mulready

My reaction to the burkini ban and ‘that photo’ was not quite in step with most people on the Left. Yes, the state shouldn’t be telling women what to wear but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the reaction is a bit over the top. The French Courts have already ruled that the ban is unlawful and must be lifted. There will be push back from the mayors, and this one will likely run on for a while longer while they fight is out in the courts. Personally, I have mixed feelings. Do I think it was a great idea? Probably not. Am I outraged? Not really. Am I going to jump to the defence of an item of clothing that only exists because women and girls have been taught that it is ‘immodest’ to swim in public without covering their entire bodies? No.

I have by now read countless tweets, articles, facebook posts etc with reference to some variation of “a woman was forced to strip at gunpoint by the French police.” I’m sorry, but this didn’t happen. The French police carry guns. If they give you directions, did they tell you to tourner à gauche at gunpoint? No, of course not. There was never any threat that the woman would be shot, and to suggest there was is either deliberately dishonest or genuinely daft. This is France, where they subscribe to Human Rights law, it’s not the wild west of an ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. She was never in any danger from the police. Further, there was no ‘force’. A woman was asked to comply with a publicly advertised dress code, or leave the beach. She was given a choice. She choose to stay on the beach. In Venice recently I wasn’t allowed to enter St Mark’s Basilica without covering my shoulders. I had a choice, wear a shawl given by the church security, or don’t come in. I wanted to go in, I made a choice, I complied. It’s infantilising to suggest that women are incapable of making such a choice without feeling mortally offended, feeling vulnerable, feeling violated. We’re pretty robust, rational creatures these days, capable of weighing up our options and making decisions.

A big problem is that the Left has erected an impenetrable mental barrier to discussions of Islamic dress, from headscarves to burkas, to burkinis, supplementing what should have been years of legitimate, and healthy, public discussion and debate with the Pavlovian response:”it’s their choice”. We have nothing to say about the reason why people make these choices, we make no attempt to try and persuade women and girls that they don’t have to cover up (in fact, the very idea of saying that is considered insulting, even racist), we abandon Muslim women (and men) who makes these arguments, we abandon ex-Muslims who make these arguments. If our state schools taught all girls that they should cover their hair and hide their bodies, would our society accept that? I hope not. And yet for countless girls, we don’t just accept it but defend it in the name of equality.

I see the bukhini ban as an example of this conflict between secular liberalism and conservative religion, something France is having to grapple more than most. ‘Rights’ is a messy moral and legal area. Rights conflict. That’s why we have Human Rights law and Human Rights courts. Your right to swing your fist stops precisely where my nose begins, as they say, and very few such conflicts are as clear cut as that one. France is a secular Republic, its citizens’ right to secular public spaces is integral to its very foundations. Religious dress is integral to conservative Islam. These things clash, of course they do, and unless our answer is simply that one should always give in to the other, there are going to be messy clashes as we navigate our way through. One of the most helpful things everyone can now do is talk about it all, openly, honestly, and as far as possible, without fear. That requires a new acceptance that it is legitimate to discuss – and, if people so wish, to criticise – overt symbols of conservative Islam, including when manifested in women’s clothes. It also requires an understanding that in the current climate of Islamist extremism, a particularly raw subject in France, overt symbols of conservative Islam are going to be seen by many as more than an expression of personal faith or individual expression. This may be unfair, but it is the reality of the times we live in.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I am certain of is that we will make our way through it all far better if people of all perspectives can speak openly about how they feel. I’m not asking for bans, I’m asking for conversations, and for an acknowledgement that silence leads to tensions. I’m asking that political leaders on the Left stop leaving it to the far right to give voice to the secular instincts of secular Europeans, because as we are seeing in France, if the Left don’t help find answers, the Right will. I’m asking that if girls are gong to be taught that they need to cover up, they are also exposed to arguments that say they don’t have to. I’m asking for a bit of honesty on the Left about why an international context dominated by Islamist violence means there are likely to be stronger reactions to overt symbols of conservative Islam than to those of other religions. And I’m asking for the Left to see that if we want to help make things better, as opposed to standing on the sidelines as the diversity and equality we cherish is destroyed by extremists of all sides, we don’t only have a right to make these points, we have a duty.

In the fight against extremism the Burkini is the wrong target

By Deanne DuKhan

Yet another incendiary issue is upon us, being hotly flung back and forth on social media, and predictably a common starting point for exchange is a straight flush of generalised assumptions. This debate, over the burkini ban, didn’t heat up because of the ban itself but in response to images of it being carried out -and indeed it wasn’t pretty. I am one of those who recoiled at the sight, but it didn’t take a photo to trigger unease over police being given a remit to force women to peel off long coverings if they wished to remain beachside. The thought had already given rise to questions and to visions of frankly ridiculous scenarios. Who, for instance, would distinguish between inappropriate ‘provocations’ and perfectly appropriate uses of long sleeves and scarves to protect, say, sensitive skin from the sun? It’s hard not to picture it: “Officers, I overdid it yesterday, I look like a boiled lobster, it’s just to keep me from blistering” – “Ah, ok Madame, as you were then, bonne journee”.  And off the cops go, looking for a legitimate misuse of cloth.

What a triumph over extremists this vision suggested. Imagine the fear instilled in them, looking at the reality, pictures of four police officers showing who’s boss, wielding zero tolerance for fabric. A sillier use of police time and resources in an area where a terror attack has recently occurred I feel hard pressed to find.

In search of a measured defence of the ban, to consider arguments supporting it, I came across this http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/france-right-ban-burkini/ in The Spectator, which effectively lists examples of incidents in France as illustration of a mounting problem in the form of Muslim fundamentalism. The author’s argument is that the more fundamentalist norms go unchallenged, the more their practitioners are emboldened to be intolerant of any other values. Nicolas Sarkozy gave us a similar argument, that the burkini should be outlawed in order to prevent an irreversible cementing of a growing sense of entitlement to impose fundamentalist practices on others. A confidence in warning targets of their choice to comply or face hostility and possibly aggression.

No one who isn’t a fanatic wants to see that outcome. And few would attempt to argue that the burka is not an instrument of oppression. So if France is indeed increasingly beset by fundamentalist vigilantes, looking to culturally embed the same powers over women they would expect in countries where the veil is required by law, is the ban not a fair line in the sand?

Before I attempt an answer, I should point out exactly why I feel even remotely well placed to do so. I know the French clash of cultures well. During high school I lived in Nanterre, then a delightful shithole of a place, a banlieue of Paris, where a passage through one of its three RER stations by a woman alone late at night will often instantly yield first-hand experience of the type of harassment the Spectator piece refers to.

My time there was in the late 80’s in case anyone feels a need to frame this as a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. It wasn’t my first experience of it either. Earlier I’d spent my childhood in the Israeli city of Bat Yam, another gem of a locale, still today awash in the undercurrent of a proprietary Middle Eastern brand of seething hatred for women who don’t know their place; and that was in the 70’s, when it was far worse, when people knew how to do a shithole properly.

As a lily-white girl from semi-rural Connecticut, wearing shorts when it was hot out, in places like the number 10 bus from Bat Yam to Jaffa, I was unusually conscious of how steeped in hostility to women the local culture was. There was a contrast from what I’d known back home that told me it didn’t happen everywhere. Not all of said hostility, by the way, was from Muslims. I found region to be more common a denominator than religion. There were plenty of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who treated all females with contempt, while some Muslims, and some Jews, would go further, approaching females with a sense not just of superior status, but of a kind of collective ownership. It was a view one encountered regularly.

There is nothing about a set of views that inevitably resulted in menacing harassment that is defensible. How regrettable it is to see the West be so passive and accepting of the mainstreaming of such behaviour in certain communities, missing opportunity after opportunity to build up Muslims and Middle Easterners who fight this from within, who promote legitimate religious practice and respect for equality of the sexes and for human rights. After all, no one should get special dispensation to not abide by the law, under any circumstances. And as for the burka, the idea that women should be treated as akin to cattle, to be subject to full control by men, is indisputably disgusting and enraging.

These are my views and my personal experience of men using cultural cover to subjugate and denigrate women. It’s intolerable.

But I find it difficult to conclude that the burkini ban is anything but a nonsense.

There have been thoughtful articles this week. We’ve heard the perspectives of feminists, conservative and reformist Muslims, liberals and secularists. We’ve even seen some rather grand invocations of laicite, the uniquely French iteration of secularism.

What is getting lost in this current conversation is what gets lost in a lot of public conversations about reactive policies, particularly those enacted in times of crisis. And they’re not secondary considerations:

  1. Direct cause and effect, in other words what the policy is actually meant to accomplish, and whether in practice, in situ, it will be even remotely effective in achieving its ends
  2. the implications for the people directly and tangibly affected; which in this case, is not those men who do impose the veil on the women in their lives, but the wearers themselves

Like a lot of other poorly conceived policies, instead of being precise and occupying a defined, critical space in a broader strategy, the ban is a clumsy, poorly targeted, blunt instrument. The ban’s highest value is in providing cover to nervous politicians who currently haven’t an inkling of how to confront a problem that they happily averted their gaze from for decades. It gives an animated, outraged public something to gnaw on until somebody comes up with something resembling a real, comprehensive plan of action. That in this instance the public is rightly animated and outraged, by both what has happened in their country and by the notion of ‘modesty’ dressing, does not make the policy response an appropriate one, never mind the most effective.

We’re not even getting our terms of reference right. For starters, the Burkini itself is not a version of a burka, which would cover the face and must be loose fitting. It can’t be seen as expression of, or adherence to, militant extremist views. To militant extremists a woman on a beach, mixing with men and women in various states of undress, is unthinkable.

Keeping the focus on the burkini specifically, surely the core question must be whether such costumes are worn voluntarily. If they are, it’s no use trying to argue that oppression or misogyny are the issues, because if they are, the ban wildly misses its mark. At the moment the simplistic proposition seems to be that all burkini wearing women around the world are either oppressed – forced to wear it, or, in choosing freely to wear it, too gullible, stupid or weak to think for themselves. To overcome generalisation, we must make a clearer distinction between environments where women do not have a choice, and those where they do, a French beach being an obvious case of the latter. A wearer there is not subject to laws and/or cultural penalties if she opts for a bikini or even to go topless. She may well face punishment from a husband or family or community, but in weighing a national law, it has to be in context of an environment where she is legally at least, free to choose.

The picture of oppression is not the conceptual monolith we tend to use for discussion. So-called modesty dressing is required for women in different forms by different means in different places. Even in those places where a burkini wearer is not doing so of her own free will, or is consciously complicit in promoting militancy, she is still at best an end user; the last, lowest cog in the well-developed, well-oiled machine of an ideology. Attacking her is a long, long way from attacking the machine or the fuel that’s driving it forward. In practice it only calls time on the options of individuals. It does nothing to strike at the heart of any promulgation of specific options nor the sources. As part of a comprehensive strategy, a ban could at least theoretically act as a step on a ladder or be significant in its symbolic representation. As a policy that is alone on an otherwise empty field of battle, however, it is in reality merely a case of police officers scanning beaches for too much clothing, and nothing more.

If we are meant to be rolling back a new variant of creeping cultural misogyny, an encroachment on civil rights through an expansion of extremism, where are the policies that that do have direct impact? What punishment, for example, awaits those who deny the women in their lives free choice? What are the penalties for harassment of girls and women? How strong is enforcement? In many cases these are so weak as to make religion-based coercion effectively legal.

It is fair to counter argue that the focus on the burkini is a focus on more than clothing, since in the West, ‘modesty’ dressing is the most visible, mainstream emblem of those branches of Islam that do not accept any equality of the sexes. But even if viewed as a straightforward, universal symbol of fundamentalism, extremism, militancy, or all three, a symbol is still all it is. Symbolism is all the burkini ban could ever successfully target. At a time when we are facing so many immediate threats we do not have the luxury of fighting proxies, we must take on the real thing. As long as we continue to misdirect our fire, the true agents and pathways of oppression emerge as unscathed as ever.

 

Brown Men Can’t Wear Tweed

By David Paxton

‘Hit piece’ is a pejorative. Something trashy, something demeaning to the writer. It attempts to diminish its target under the guise of objective reporting and will use low tactics to get there. What makes a piece of journalism a ‘hit piece’?

Nathan Lean’s New Republic latest, What Does Maajid Nawaz Really Believe?, provides an object lesson.

Maajid Nawaz is a former Islamist who now heads the counter-extremist think tank Quilliam. Lean’s title suggests an emphasis on the ‘really’. There is the Nawaz that we see, hear, and think we know, and then there is the truth which Lean seeks to expose.

Glenn Greenwald shared Lean’s article, calling it a ‘great investigation’. What were the methods of investigation and what truth has it revealed? Why is Nawaz so worthy a target?

The opening paragraph hints at where we are headed.

…It’s January 2013 and the British activist, sporting a slick black tuxedo and a gelled coiffure…

He was wearing a dinner suit, the standard formal attire for a debate at the Oxford Union. On its own this is just some mediocre scene-setting but it ties in with a later passage.

Before long, the scrappy son of Essex had a book deal, and traded in his prison garb for Harris tweed waistcoats and red corduroy pants—a get up he described as “versatile and smart” in his 2014 Sunday Times “Masters of Fashion” profile. “My day can include being in the Newsnight studio or with friends or at Downing Street, so dressing is tricky,” he said.

It’s practically impossible to talk about your appearance during an interview for a fashion feature and not sound a dick when you’re subsequently edited and quoted. It’s easy ribbing, and I dare say, fair game.

Nawaz likes his clothes. I disapprove of his winged collar and dislike the way he keeps his blazer done-up when he sits but… is this meaningful? Why include it? The last time a hit piece came his way, disappointingly via the Guardian, meeting him was described thus:

…a buzzy private members’ club in Covent Garden. I find him in the second-floor bar, crisply turned out, ready with an engaging smile, sipping a skinny flat white.

His coffee, his clothes, his up-town location. These expressed irrelevancies, noticeable by their level of detail, form a pattern. It’s part of a wider narrative, Nawaz the “turncoat”. The “scrappy son” who abandoned his authentic roots for the temptations of The Man. Tweed, red trousers, dinner jackets, the uniform of the overlords, part of the establishment. He has sold out.

Lean continues:

Nawaz jet-sets from Ivy League lecture halls to annual gabfests in the Colorado mountains; from the stages of TED talks to awards galas; and from the backrooms of British officialdom to Senate hearings in Washington

‘Jet-sets’ is to ‘travels’ what ‘quaffs’ is to ‘drinks’. Have you got the picture yet? You must have, because it isn’t aimed at the reader who appreciates subtlety. We fight The Man, he draws from his teat.

he says, gazing out at a farrago of ambassadors, journalists, and luminaries.

David Cameron tapped him as an adviser on combatting extremism, Tony Blair gushed admiration in a front-cover book blurb, and George W. Bush picked his brain about torture at a backyard barbeque in Dallas.

Success in Nawaz’s stated mission means meeting politicians and raising awareness wherever possible. So the more successful he becomes the easier it is for the ‘sell-out’ narrative to be supported by such snark.

indications, they say, of a turncoat who cares more about being a well-compensated hero than he does about the cause he champions.

…shown Maajid a way of attaining the sort of fame and status he desired

[Maajid and Ed] were in a unique position [and] one that would equate to fame and riches, but rationalized it to themselves that they were fighting a good fight against Islamists

Such is Nawaz’s playbook for achieving fame…

He had an “insatiable lust to be recognized,”

Accepting the tale of Nawaz the turncoat and that he saw riches, wanted them, and acted accordingly is made easier by the idea that he never really believed in the fundamentalist ideology in the first place. He has always been about the fame/money/prestige.

“He is neither an Islamist nor a liberal,” he said. “Maajid is whatever he thinks he needs to be.”

Nisbet remembers Nawaz as a guy who wasn’t particularly religious, but labored to appear committed to Islamism in an effort to win popularity and promotion.

This is all psychological conjecture. To support it, Lean supplies us with quotes and opinions obtained from “interviews with his friends and relatives”. One must ask how many of these friends are still friends. Lean doesn’t always let us know which are ideological enemies with motivation to attack, which remain Islamists, or which are still Hizb ut-Tahrir. In one case, that of Ian Nisbet, he does state that his interviewee is currently a member of that Islamist group, a fact that would lead most journalists to discount his comments entirely: of course an extremist doesn’t have a favourable view of a counter-extremist. So which of the others isn’t an extremist? A credible piece of journalism would furnish the reader with relevant context such as this. But this is a hit piece. Information isn’t the aim.

Barely a paragraph of Lean’s passes without an obvious internal contradiction, cheap shot or half-truth. He claims that because Nawaz wasn’t vocally disavowing his Islamism while locked up with a plethora of Islamist hard nuts this amounts to something of a contradiction. He claims Nawaz became more radical and not less.

Even assuming Lean is correct about this, it would be proper to have considered that an intensified radicalism is among the things you could expect from someone losing the faith. Upping the ante and trying to drown out the doubts would be a reasonable expectation.

Lean draws inferences from Quilliam’s funding. If I were more of a ‘follow the money’ sort I would make a big deal of the fact that Lean is director-of-research for the Pluralism, Diversity and Islamophobia project at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. This centre being funded to the tune of $20m by the aforementioned Saudi prince.

His timing was curious. Nawaz broke ranks with Hizb ut-Tahrir the same week that his Newham College classmate and ex-party member, Ed Husain, rose to quasi-stardom with the publication of his kiss-and-tell memoir

‘Kiss-and-tell’ is an interesting choice of description. It smacks of betrayal. Did Husain really rise to ‘quasi-stardom’ in a week? From a book? Was this when Nawaz insta-flipped from one thing to another?

Nawaz’s version, explained at length in his book Radical, seems far more plausible than the idea he saw somebody get some attention and immediately decided he wanted a piece of the action. Does his new-found fame, his income, his status please him? Probably. Does he have an ego of note? Perhaps. Has Lean come even close to demonstrating that this is all he is about and that we should doubt his ideas accordingly? No.

There’s value in ad hominem arguments to explain that which cannot be explained logically. Once you have exhausted attempts to understand somebody’s views by the validity and consistency of the arguments then there is room for analyzing other motivations. But as so often with discussions of Nawaz, this isn’t even attempted. This is about Nawaz serving ‘The Man’. This is the crux of the entire piece.

One might choose to call The Man, ‘liberal democracy’, or ‘the rule of secular law’, but in this story it is the rich oppressor. Nawaz extols and evangelises the former but it’s the latter Lean insists he’s part of. This is the ‘Uncle Tom‘ line of attack.

Lean has previously called Nawaz a ‘native informant’ and Sam Harris’ ‘Muslim validator‘ and ‘lapdog‘. Follow the thread below Greenwald’s tweet or run a search for “Nawaz+Uncle+Tom” to see how rife this abuse is. Nawaz is unable to be a man with agency, or with beliefs he has developed over time; he has simply crossed to the other team, the enemy, and has done so for corrupt reasons. A brown man in a suit speaking with non-brown men of importance. How dare he.

A search of who was keen to promote this article hints at why the ‘Uncle Tom’ narrative gains traction: Glenn Greenwald, CJ Werleman, Murtaza Hussain, and Nafeez Ahmed; are all fine examples.

The story of Uncle Tom is from a time of slavery. It is expressly racial. As a modern insult, he is on the side of the oppressors when he should be with his own side, the oppressed. The Regressive Left and their Islamist fellow travelers are well placed to see a parallel.

The former see the world as a relativist mush of identity politics and power dynamics. Secular democracy is not superior and there are no universal values. Under pure relativism, moral status is inversely proportional to power and the West is powerful.

The latter endorse all the Islamic grievance tropes they can find. There are reasons why those blessed with the final revelation aren’t running the world and these include the nefarious tactics of the Infidel. It is manichean.

Those who believe in ideas, those who believe secularism superior to theocracy, have little difficulty accepting a brown person, or even a Muslim brown person, supporting universal liberal values. Those who believe in identity politics do. They see a race traitor. They see an ‘Uncle Tom’

When this comes purely from Islamists it is explicable and expected. When it comes from those who claim to be of the Left it is as depressing as it is commonplace. The racism of the anti-racists. The know-your-placeism which drives the useful idiots of jihad to protect the extremists by attacking the moderates.

…many of his former close acquaintances …see him as an Islamic Judas Iscariot, a Muslim who turned his back on his fellow believers when state coffers flung open—and their testimony reflects that sense of betrayal.

Correct. They do. But these ‘former close acquaintances’ are Islamists. As the writer Jamie Palmer put it, “I’m pretty shocked to discover from Nathan Lean that Maajid Nawaz’s former Islamist colleagues think he is a traitor. Who’d have thought?” The real shame is when they are supported by those who should know better.

Stripped to its essentials, all we have in this piece is a description of some Islamists unhappy with Nawaz fighting Islamism. Oh, and that he’s an easy mark for tailors. That’s it.

In response to a complaint that the ‘lapdog’ comment was personally insulting rather than substantive, Lean said the following.

Yet somehow, the satisfaction I get at seeing how much it irritates your tribe, is, indeed, worth it.

Lean is in a tribal fight and will take satisfaction from saying what hurts rather than what informs. And I don’t need a juicy quote from an ideological enemy to demonstrate it. Lean is of course free to do this but The New Republic continues its destruction of its own reputation by enabling him.

Nawaz doesn’t obfuscate. He “jet-sets” to “Ivy League halls” and to stand on “stages” “crisply turned out”, sometimes “sporting” “tweed”, sometimes in front of a “farrago of ambassadors, journalists, and luminaries” and he clearly explains his views. Those views are not hard to find, he works hard to make sure you hear them. The New Republic could easily pay for a writer to engage with those ideas. What business has it giving space to a pitifully ineffective hit piece?

I would condemn a great hit piece as ethically poor while respecting its quality, but Lean has managed to do nothing bar produce a lesson in poor journalism and throw away any residual credibility he might have had. He is the sappy suicide bomber who forgets to find a crowd before detonating and only manages to kill himself.

For a writer, character assassination where the only character assassinated belongs to the assassin is a short-term gig. But others will come along to have a go. The more frequently such pieces appear, and the more the likes of Greenwald promote it, the more you know Nawaz is damaging the narrative and credibility of those who should be damaged. If there’s truth to the adage that you should know a man by his enemies, then Maajid Nawaz appears to be well worth the knowing. In spite of his taste in clothes.