Economics and politics - comment and analysis
20. August 2016 I Will Denayer I Europe, General Politics

The row about the burkinis is dangerous and degenerate

The discussion about the burkini painfully illustrates to which degree tolerance, pluralism, diversity and democracy itself are under attack.

The row erupted after several French Mediterranean towns banned the garment on beaches. The mayors received support from the majority of the political class, from the left to the far right. According to Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, the swimwear proves the ‘enslavement of women’ and is therefore incompatible with French values. Characteristically, no one went further than him. Last Wednesday, he explained that the garment represents ‘provocation’ and embodies an ‘archaic vision’ in which women are ‘impure and should therefore be totally covered. That is not compatible with the values of France.’ He added that ‘In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself.’ And: ‘I support those who have taken measures. They are motivated by the will to encourage social unity.’ The minister for women’s affairs, Laurence Rossignol, expressed similar sentiments (see here).

Feminists also argued against the burkini. Remarkably – and typical for this class of liberals who do not see a problem to speak on behalf of half of humankind just because they happen to share the same physiology – none of them asked what Muslim women think about it.

So, what do Muslim women think? Sabah Hamamou wrote that ‘when you force women to wear the Hijab or you force them not to wear the burkini, you are violating their right to choose in both cases.’ Rim-Sarah Alouane mentioned that police officers wander on beaches in order to check out people and fine offenders. ‘Let sink that in for a second.’ According to Yasser Louati, the burkini ban highlights deeply rooted racism within the French elite and their irresponsibility for igniting further conflicts (see here).

Arundhati Roy said that:

‘When (…) an attempt is made to force women out of a burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it is not about liberating her (…) It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It is not about the burqa. It is about coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one’ (see here).

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Picture: Women on a beach in France (source: Google images). 

Many Muslim women find themselves in the middle between extremists from both sides. This always happens in times of ideological polarisation. There is a video on YouTube that shows a speech by president Nasser, addressing an enormous crowd in Cairo (see here). Nasser explains that representatives of the Muslim brotherhood came to see him. When he mentions the reason – they demanded that all Muslim women in Egypt should wear a head scarf – the public in the hall bursts into loud laughter. That was in 1953.

It is not that long ago that, in Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of a public bus after the white section had filled up. It was in 1955. Parks and others (she was actually not the first) were arrested for civil disobedience, the case became famous in the modern civil rights movement and she became an icon in the struggle against racial segregation. The ‘thinking’ then was the same as now: black second rate citizens, far below the white man, had to bow and obey rules which discriminated them, lest they were considered in violation of the law. Just as segregation made –and still makes – clear, every day again, to black people that there is a white world and a black world, Muslims are being reminded, day after day, that there is a Western world that refuses to accept them.

In 1843, Marx made a point which is still relevant. At that time, the discussion in Germany revolved around the question whether Jews should be legally emancipated, i.e. become full German citizens (see here). In the first part of the text, Marx argues in favour of the bürgerliche Emanzipation as he considers it evident, while in the second part he warns against it. His point is that legal emancipation should not be confused with human emancipation. The question is to what Jews (and others) are emancipating into. This is still a good question. Are we (good) citizens when we wear a bikini,  ask ourselves no questions, participate in the great spectacle of society with its mindless consumerism and his privatised and de-politicised visions of everything? Should we not be ‘citizens of the world’ and help ‘emancipate’ others, such as for example those who currently find themselves in and around Aleppo? Some 1.5 million people are for the moment on the run from American bombs, British bombs, French bombs, Russian bombs, Syrian bombs, Saudi bombs, the violence of ISIS and ‘less’ radicalised movements which also rape women, decapitate people and destroy everything on their way. Instead, we talk about burkinis without finding this especially ridiculous, empty or degenerate.

When I was a small boy, I used to watch documentaries and the news on television – at that time the news lasted for a full hour. These documentaries were about dangerous people – the black power movement in the USA, Irish republicans, the ANC in South Africa. What did they want? They fought for equality, an end to oppression, political rights, decent employment opportunities, decent housing, decent education opportunities. No government on earth has to right to dictate people what to wear. Every government has the duty to work towards a society without discrimination and equal chances. Look at how we are regressing. This week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published the biggest ever review of race equality in the UK (see here). Its findings show that black people in Britain are more than twice as likely to be murdered as white people and that they are three times as likely to be prosecuted and sentenced. The report finds that since 2010 there has been a 49 per cent increase in long-term unemployment among 16-to 24-year-olds from ethnic minority communities, compared with a 2 per cent fall among young white people. Black workers with degrees earn on average 23.1 per cent less than their white counterparts. The review examines education, employment, housing, pay, health and criminal justice and found an ‘alarming picture’ of rampant race-based inequality entrenched and rampant within Britain. Pakistani/Bangladeshi and black adults are far more likely to live in overcrowded homes – 8.3 per cent of white people were reported to live in overcrowded accommodation, compared with 26.8 per cent of black people and 31 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi people. The mortality rate of black African women in the UK is four times higher than white women. It is not only coloured people and Muslims. It is not only a question of race or religion. In the UK, today, a young male growing up in a social council estate has practically no chance to ever make it to university (see here).

Pierre Jacquemain’ book Postures et imposteurs au sommet de l’Etat (‘Postures and impostors at the top of the state’) comes out in a few days (see here). He wrote an opinion piece for Le Monde, ‘Ils ont tué la gauche’ (‘The have killed the Left’) and gave several interviews. Jacquemain worked as a researcher for Myriam El Khomri, but resigned in disgust when the new law social law was under consideration (see here). This law is so regressive that it would have been impossible for the Right to pass it. It took a so-called socialist government to mount the biggest attack on social rights since the end of the Second World War. If the Right would have proposed it while the Left was in the opposition, the Socialist Party and the all unions would have vehemently opposed it. ‘It is impossible for anyone who considers herself progressive to support this law,’ says Jacquemain (see here). He explains:

‘Not only is the Left gone, democracy is also gone. We call this the El Khomri law (because El Khomri is minister of social affairs), but in reality, she has almost nothing to do with it. The law was pushed through by the president (Hollande) and the prime minister (Valls), who, in turn, were backed up an apparatus of unelected technocrats which have been ‘in power’ behind the curtains for decades, regardless of which government is in power. (…) Khomri was stripped of her real prerogatives, she was a bystander, she did not conceive the law, she did not write it up and she did not negotiate it. It is a law made by the technocrats and for the technocrats to manage the pauperisation of France’ (see here and here).

No wonder that Valls need to find a scapegoat in order to divert attention away from the real provocations, the real dangers, the real threat to ‘social unity.’ The same is happening in Belgium. After some burkini related ‘accidents’ in swimming pools, the president of the Flemish social democrats, who at some point was considered the ‘Belgian Corbyn,’ wrote an op-ed piece saying that immigration has gone too far and social democracy has been too lax for too long.

As long as these people are in power nothing will change in Europe. The Right will not vote for them because there are ‘better’ (sic) alternatives, the Left will not vote for them because they disagree and the majority of the population cannot discover a difference between social democracy and the neoliberal parties. Hence, the neoliberals and the racists win everywhere, with the extremely notable exception of the UK where Labour started to win as soon as it moved to the left. Things will change when people start working together and not before. This is what the elites try to avoid at all cost.