You may have noticed that Cannes, Nice, and a dozen other beach towns in France have just now adopted regulations banning the Islamic “burkini,” or full-body female swimsuit, from their beaches. And, as a result, we are right now undergoing a new outbreak of the by-now traditional and even folkloric American consternation over France and its antipathy to certain kinds of Islamic attire—the American consternation that, for a dozen years now, has rested on a single unchanging and unexamined assumption, as if nothing has changed during all these years, and no new information has emerged.
The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.
And yet, the American interpretation acknowledges a complicating point, which is this: The French, who are hopelessly racist, do not appear to believe they are hopelessly racist. On the contrary, they have talked themselves into the belief that, in setting out to regulate Islamic attire, they are acting in exceptionally high-minded ways—indeed, are acting in accordance with a principle so grand and lofty that French people alone are capable of understanding it.
This principle is a French absurdity that, in its loftiness, cannot even be stated in down-to-earth English, but can only be expressed with an incomprehensible, untranslatable and unpronounceable French locution, which is laïcité. Over the years, the word laïcité has figured repeatedly in the American commentaries. The French, we are told, invoke this word to defend their unjustifiable and racist persecutions. And yet, like all words that are untranslatable and incomprehensible, laïcité turns out merely to be a cover. It is a ten-dollar word employed to justify France’s fear of the “Other”; France’s zeal for maintaining the racial superiority of the non-Muslim French; France’s enduring imperialist and colonialist hatred for native peoples; France’s obsession with telling women what to do; and generally France’s urge to be parochial, petty, ultraconservative, and intolerant.
So argue the American commentators. I invite you to look up a dozen years’ worth of reports and judgments to see for yourself. Now, the American commentaries are, to be sure, not wrong in every instance. But they are wrong fundamentally, and the ways in which they are wrong seem never to diminish or vary or to yield to new information—which ought to alert us to their folkloric quality—namely, their origin in a folk belief about America. This is the belief that America is the home of the free, and France is not, and any desire to arrange things differently from how we Americans do can only be an aggression against common sense.
In reality, the Islamic veil has a history in France. The North African immigrants who began arriving in France after World War II and especially in the 1960s were not fundamentalists, and they were not Islamists, and they did not normally dress in ostentatiously Islamic clothes. In the 1980s, the Islamist movement began to prosper in North Africa, however, and, after a while, a few imams with Islamist affiliations made their way to the French immigrant suburbs and housing projects. The Islamists recruited disciples. And they set about constructing their dreamed-of Quranic community as best they could—their proposed return to an imaginary 7th-century Medina, their effort to keep women out of sight or under wraps, their theory of a supernaturally evil Jewish conspiracy, and everything else. And the first step in their program was, of course, to impose the Islamist dress code on women. This meant obliging women to dress in a style that is indigenous to the Arabian peninsula, though not to North Africa—in clothing that is designed to conceal the female form and face, which the Islamists describe as authentically Islamic.
The French controversy over the veil—which, in the French debate, has meant the Islamic headscarf or hijab, too—got underway not with the arrival of the Muslim immigrants, but with the arrival of the Islamists. This was in 1989. Schoolgirls in the town of Creil, outside Paris, began to insist on their right to wear the Islamic veil in school. This was unprecedented, and the school authorities forbade it. The schoolgirls insisted, even so. And the question of how to interpret this dispute became, very quickly, a national debate in France, with plausible arguments on both sides.
To wit, pro-veil: Shouldn’t a woman and even a schoolgirl have the right to dress in accordance with her own religious conscience? Isn’t religious attire a matter of individual right and religious freedom? More: If Muslim schoolgirls are displaying fidelity to their own religion and its traditions, shouldn’t this be deemed an enrichment of the broader French culture? Shouldn’t the French welcome the arrival of a new kind of piety? And if, instead, the French refuse to welcome, shouldn’t their refusal be seen as the actual problem—not the pious immigrant schoolgirls, but the anti-immigrant bigots?
To which the anti-veil argument replied: No, the veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.
The French have engaged in a very vigorous and nuanced public debate over these matters. And yet, for some reason, in the reporting by American journalists and commentators, the nuances tend to disappear, and the dispute is almost always presented in its pro-veil version, as if it were an argument between individual religious freedom and anti-immigrant bigots, and not anything else. To report both sides of the dispute ought not to be so hard, however. The French government held formal hearings on these questions, with both sides represented. It was just that, once the hearings were over, the anti-veil side was deemed to have been more persuasive. Crucially influential were Muslim schoolgirls who, given the chance to speak, testified that, in the schools, Islamist proselytizers had become a menace to girls like themselves. And the National Assembly passed a law banning the Islamic veil, along with all “ostentatious” religious symbols, from the schools. The purpose of this law was not to suppress Islam. Students could continue to wear discreet symbols in school, according to the new law, and anything they wanted, outside of school. But ostentatious symbols were banned from the schools, in the hope of putting a damper on the Islamist proselytizing.
Naturally, the hearings and the passage of a law (about school dress) and then another law a few years later (about full-face veils in public) and the issuing of various regulations did not bring the argument to an end. That is because these controversies are, by nature, without any obvious resolution. On one side, in France, there is good reason for immigrants and their allies to complain about imperialist holdovers and larger bigotries in the culture, and reason to worry that anti-Islamist laws and regulations may spill over into an anti-immigrant campaign. And there has been no shortage of pious Muslim women willing to say that, in their own instance, they are not victims of the Islamists, and they wish to wear Islamic attire strictly for reasons of individual religious conscience, regardless of what anyone might say. These arguments are unanswerable.
Then again, the French public as a whole, ancestral Gauls and new arrivals alike, has had every reason to grow ever more frightened of the Islamist movement, which has grown over the years, until by now it has come to dominate the young generation in entire neighborhoods in the immigrant districts—which means the French as a whole have every reason to look for simple regulatory ways to discourage the movement, beginning with legislation against the Islamist dress code. This argument, too, is unanswerable. Here, then, is a debate that will not come to a close.
And yet, to read some of the American reporters and commentators, you would suppose that France has been consumed with these continuing quarrels, and that France’s Muslim population as a whole has been shuddering in resentment over the laws and regulations. But France has not been consumed, and the Muslims as a whole have not been shuddering, even if some have been. The most controversial of the laws was the first one, banning ostentatious religious symbols in the schools—which led a good many people to predict that, once the law was put into effect, the French Muslims were going to react furiously. But only the Americans were furious. President Barack Obama himself denounced the law (in his Cairo speech of 2009). A great many French Muslims appear, on the other hand, to have accepted and approved the law. It was because Muslim parents do not want their children to be drawn into a reactionary medievalist religio-political cult. They want their daughters to grow up to be Muslim Frenchwomen with the rights and privileges of other Frenchwomen. If the Islamists and their dress code are suppressed in the schools, then, this can only be good.
But then, some commentators have always found it difficult to remember that Islamists are not the voice of authenticity for the Muslim immigrants in France. The Islamists are a threat to the immigrants, as well as to everyone else. And if the laws and regulations succeed in making life harder for the Islamist movement, the great mass of the French Muslims will be the first to benefit.
What about laïcité, then—this French concept that gets invoked in the debate, yet cannot even be expressed in English? In reality, laïcité is entirely translatable. It means secularism. There is no reason for English speakers to use the French word. And the concept is perfectly comprehensible. It is the Jeffersonian principle of a wall between church and state, in its French version. The Jeffersonian principle in America means that, regardless of what the churches may do or say, the American state will remain strictly nonreligious. The French version is the same. The public schools, for instance, must not become creatures of the churches—which, in our present situation, means the Islamist imams.
It is true that, in France, people take their secularism a little further than Americans tend to do, and this is partly on historical grounds. In America, we worry about freedom of religion, but in France, where everyone remembers the Catholic past and the religious wars, people worry about freedom from religion. They do not want to be tyrannized by theological fanatics. The Islamist movement is, from this point of view, all too familiar to the French—one more clericalist current that wishes to imposes its theological doctrines on everyone else. And, in the face of the Islamist fanaticism, the French are grateful for their secularist traditions and laws.
Then again, the French take their secularism a little further than we Americans do also because they are willing to grant government a larger administrative role than Americans tend to do. Americans are allergic to government regulation, or pretend to be, but the French do not even pretend to be. I realize that a great many Americans believe that, as a result of the French willingness to accept government regulation, France has become an impoverished Communist despotism. But have you been to France? Perhaps it is true that labor regulations have lately become an obstacle to high employment. Even so, France is, in many respects, a better-run country than the United States. And the French naturally look to the government to apply secularist principles even in areas of life that Americans might regard as outside the zone of government, local or national. The permissibility of religious attire, for instance. And the French see something attractive in their government regulations.
Republican secularism is not, after all, merely a negative concept, useful for fending off religious fanatics. Republican secularism is a positive principle. It offers something to the individual. This is citizenship. In its French version, republican secularism says to every individual: The “rights of man and the citizen” are your own rights, regardless of what some church might say. The aspirations of the French Republic are open to you, as well as to everyone. These are the aspirations of the French Revolution. You have access to political freedom and a modern education and a modern culture and an advanced welfare state. At least, you ought to have access, and, if you find that you do not, you have a right to march in the streets and to vote for the political party that speaks for you. You have a right to be a Muslim, or to adhere to any other religion, or to none, and this right is yours precisely because, as a citizen of France, you enjoy rights on the broadest of scales. The French republican idea, with its secularism—this idea is, in short, grander than anything the Islamists can offer. The Islamist ideal is an ugly and deceptive promise. It is a self-oppression. But the French republican ideal is a liberation—at least, in principle.
The entirely comprehensible and translatable laïcité, which is the secular republican ideal: This is what most French people want—even if some French people are bigots. The secular republican ideal is what most French Muslims want—even if some French Muslims have been seduced by the Islamist manias and hatreds. This is what the immigrants from North Africa came to France in hope of finding. The debate over how best to contain and suppress the Islamist movement has taken place within the framework of that idea. It has been a good debate.
Is it too much to expect the American commentary on France to show a little more respect for how seriously that debate has been conducted? Alas, it is too much to expect. In France, there is an ancient and curious habit of mindless and self-flattering anti-Americanism, and in America, there is an ancient and curious and equivalent habit of sneering mindlessly at the French. This is the American habit that, for a dozen years now, has led the American commentators to see in France’s republican secularism a racist attack on individual freedom, instead of an antiracist defense of individual freedom.
To read more of Paul Berman’s essays and criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.