John Mullen, lecturer in Paris and member of the NPA discusses the recent conference debate over Muslim women and the veil.
The NPA and the veil
Mid-February, the New Anticapitalist Party in France held its first national conference since its founding conference two years ago. Two questions dominated the event and the regional conferences preceding it. Firstly, what alliances are possible or desirable with other parties to the Left of the Socialist Party and secondly whether or not Muslim women who wear a headscarf for religious reasons should be banned from being NPA candidates at elections. This article is to look at the second of these two questions. (1)
It was already very bad news that, in a country where islamophobia is very much on the rise, the only question debated at conference should be the question of having veiled NPA candidates for elections. In France today, mosques are tagged and attacked (occasionally with guns), discrimination against practising Muslims applying for jobs has been thoroughly documented, the Far right concentrates its fire on the Muslim threat, and the government has passed a law banning women who wear the niqab from walking in the streets. This wave of islamophobia has been met with staggering indifference at best from practically the entire Left. Many Left parties are worse than the NPA and supported the law against the niqab, a law which was the brainchild of a Communist party MP.
The law against the niqab
The NPA opposed the anti-niqab law in principle, but did nothing to act against it, because the issue divided the party very deeply, and because action would involve working with Muslim groups, which all but a small minority of the party do not want to do. (“Didn’t you know that religion was the opium of the people, comrade? It was Karl Marx who said that, you know… bla bla bla”)
Worse, the leader article in the NPA newspaper, which expressed our opposition to the anti-niqab law, and was written by an experienced woman comrade, made sure it insulted the women who wear the niqab, calling them “birds of death”!! The article concluded that the party should make sure it did not lend the slightest support to the campaign for a law against the niqab. Not the slightest support, but not the slightest active opposition either, as it turned out. Practically nothing in the way of leaflets, articles, demonstrations or meetings. Because the NPA is a very democratic party, the weekly paper did carry opinion columns by those who saw the Muslim veil as purely and simply a sign of submission to patriarchal values or a standard for the Jihad, and also staggeringly patient articles by those who felt islamophobia needed more active opposition.
The leadership was very much divided on the issue. On one side a small minority who wanted to actively fight against islamophobia, on the other a minority who insisted that islamophobia did not exist or should not be combated, and in the middle quite a lot who saw no way forward except to avoid the issue. In September, when a rally of a few dozen was organized by other groups in front of the Senate as they debated the anti-niqab law, the NPA leadership announced its support for the demonstration – six hours before it took place, in a classic tactic of planned passivity.
Who can be candidate?
Meanwhile, accidentally, the question of veiled candidates came up in the NPA. The NPA is very much a federal organization and the decision was made in one region to name fourth on their slate of candidates a young Muslim woman, Ilhem Moussaïd, who wore a headscarf. A dynamic young anticapitalist activist, well known in local campaigns, Ilhem was immediately reduced, in the media and even in sections of the party, to her headscarf, although the national NPA spokesman Olivier Besancenot defended her. The leader of the Left reformist Parti de Gauche denounced her candidacy, representatives of the Socialist Party and the Communist party criticized the choice, almost everybody pandering to islamophobia. One young Muslim woman, out of 400 candidates of the NPA in the regional elections, had become a threat to the French republic and everything it stood for! The media and other parties accused the NPA of deciding to stand a veiled candidate in order to court popularity with Muslim voters. The reality is that the decision was a local one which an embarrassed national leadership was forced to defend against a barrage of hostile criticism. Instead of openly defending the right of veiled Muslim women to participate fully in the party’s activities on an equal basis with other comrades, the leadership constantly fudged the issue. NPA spokespersons even insisted on the fact that Ilhem only wore a “light” veil!
Ironically, the media coverage has been very useful in that, on the Left, many thousands of people have been obliged to recognize that it is possible to defend workers’ struggles and women’s rights and also wear a Muslim headscarf, so perhaps the clash of civilizations stuff was all nonsense. However many thousands more remained entrenched in their views that covering your hair for religious reasons meant you were championing patriarchal domination, and any other consideration was secondary. The majority of activists in established feminist networks were aggressively anti-veil (with some impressive exceptions such as historic feminist writer Christine Delphy). In a period when attacks on women’s rights are common, a number of activists have seized on fighting the veil as the symbolic issue for defending women’s interests. Inside the NPA a minority campaigned against the idea of ever again allowing a veiled candidate to stand for the party.
This mistaken position absolutely did not come from the fact that the French Left is full of racists. You can easily find people who have been active against racism for decades who have a horrific position on the veil. It came from a mix of a century old tendency to equate being Left wing with mocking or hating all practising believers, and from the influence of stereotypes of Muslim culture in a post 9/11 world.
The conference debate
So a motion was put to regional conferences which proposed that women with headscarves could never again be NPA candidates. This was thoroughly discussed in pre-conference bulletins, and we found a surprisingly high level of support for treating headscarf wearers the same as everyone else (we had been so used to being in a small minority). Support for actively fighting islamophobia is something else though – more on that in a moment.
A second group of comrades suggested a compromise – there could be veiled candidates as long as a committee checked that they weren’t putting religion before the party programme. The debate was lively and not always completely honest – some not hesitating to quote three words out of a fifteen word poster to “prove” that Ilhem had been putting religion first. Other comrades showed a certain lack of revolutionary backbone, by complaining that we couldn’t have veiled candidates because it lost us votes. Some people left the NPA in protest over Ilhem’s candidacy. Ilhem and a group of friends eventually left themselves under the pressure and have set up a local campaigning organization.
When the results came in from the regional conferences, the proposal to ban headscarf wearers as candidates got 1297 votes, 1044 members refused the ban and 521 abstained. On the different compromise motions the situation was unclear, but it was pretty much fifty fifty to allow veiled candidates as long as the national committee checked on each case.
Surprisingly, at the national conference a slightly rewritten motion to ban headscarf-wearing candidates lost by two votes. That is to say, the national conference was somewhat less anti-veil than the membership, although the millions of Muslims making a revolution in Egypt may have swayed some of our delegates to allow veiled candidates.
At this point, the atmosphere at conference was extremely tense and noisy. A second motion from the anti-veil members proposing that a two-thirds majority on the national committee be necessary to approve such a candidacy was defeated, and a simple majority will be enough.
Conference proceedings were interrupted, and after the break one more motion was presented. Given that the regional conferences and national conference did not agree, it was proposed that a specific national delegate conference be organized on this issue in a few months’ time. This was partly a manoeuvre by anti-veil delegates, and partly a pragmatic move to enable conference proceedings to continue.
But the decision is probably a good thing. We who think that fighting islamophobia is crucial do not want to “win” by two votes at conference. We want to continue to explain, argue and convince comrades of the danger of islamophobia and the need to fight it actively (even if it can be wearing).
The motion about veiled candidates was very much an abstract one. After the pressure that Ilhem was subject to, and the fact that the NPA does not actively fight islamophobia, or even talk about it much, it is hard to imagine a practising Muslim woman even wanting to be an NPA candidate. But defeating the ban on headscarf-wearing candidates could be the first step towards getting the NPA to launch an active fight against islamophobia in society. At a time when the rest of the Left, and in particular the Left reformist “Parti de Gauche” are even more strongly influenced by islamophobia, the way the NPA attacks this question in coming years will be crucial.
The situation is a little like the situation thirty odd years ago with the Left and gay rights – it was a long struggle to get the Left, even the anticapitalist Left, to take gay rights seriously; many gave up first, but it was done in the end.
John Mullen February 2011
(1) To answer a common question, there is no connection between the debate on strategy and alliances and the question of the veil. In other words, all three major platforms within the NPA are divided on the subject of religion, feminism and secularism.
John Mullen is a member of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in the Paris region. His website is at http://www.johncmullen.net
For more background
The NPA in France and the fight against islamophobia (December 2010)
Translation of a contribution to the conference debate: “The NPA must actively fight islamophobia” (November 2010)
Anticapitalism, elections and the “Muslim headscarf” (2009)
The very fact that this debate took place is a good illustration of the depth of Islamophobia in French society. People who are perfectly reasonable on all sorts of other subjects have an alarming knee jerk response to the very notion of a woman choosing to display her faith in public. It’s often wrapped up in a brand of militant secularism but is indistinguishable from anti-Muslim prejudice.
In that respect the NPA’s debate was something of a mirror of attitudes in the country and it’s clear that this argument will have to had repeatedly in the coming years.
I’m not sure that it is indistinguishable from anti-muslim prejudice, I remember some voices amongst the muslim community arguing that the ban on the hijab in schools was a good thing as it offered some sort of protection for young women who may have been forced to wear it. Its too easy to say that all those on the left those who find the hijab difficult to accept are coming from the same anti-muslim perpective of the racist right. The latter are motivated by racism (using women’s rights as an figleave) whilst many of the former are genuinely motivated by a concern for women’s rights. The issue is a passionate one given that women in some countries are forced to accept strict dress codes and have died trying to resist them.
Having said that, it is clearly wrong to side with the state on this issue , or to exclude candidates who choose to wear the veil, for basic principles of rights to religious expression and the the need to counter state racism (all religions oppress women, why single out Islam). Such a position also misunderstands the complexity of motivations for donning the veil which can go beyond religious observance in the context of anti-Muslim racism. Asserting one’s religious and cultural identity becomes all the more important for many Muslims in the current climate, some women may feel empowered by wearing the veil just as some women may feel empowered by adopting dress codes which emphasise their sexual attractiveness. Just as feminists of latter years may have felt empowered by the boiler suit and the Doc Martens. Why we dress the way we do is complex and the state should butt out.
However, we can still discuss and have an opinion on these things. Adopting gender related dress codes for religious reasons is not a good thing, neither is the objectification of women as sexual playthings. What is lacking today is a women’s movement (preferably a working class one) in which women can explore their place in society and provide solidarity to those who are trying to escape the bonds of oppression, both explicit and implicit. Such a movement would have to be open to all women, whatever they choose to wear, whatever the motivation. Liberation is a work in progress.
Yes, I think it’s quite fascinating how siaocl media is transforming the way we live and the way politics works. It’s all just unfolding in front of us, and rapidly too. I do think public figures will have to be careful as to who they are friends with to me it does seem to imply a tacit (or even explicit) approval if one is friends with someone. There are lots of people I would NEVER be friends with but as none of them have ever heard of me, I guess I’m pretty safe on that score
CP is right, and we could add that the wearing of religious garb is both religious and cultural. Many young women Muslims don’t wear even a headscarf as we have seen in Egypt. Some wear the niqab, others the burka, for a few it is voluntary, for most it is imposed by the society they live in eg Afghanistan. It is a symbol of the oppression of women, by their religion, by their husbands and fathers, and by their male dominated societies.
And socialists, Liam, fight to end it. Not by supporting state bans but through and ideological and practical struggle against religion. Suggesting that even debating the question at the NPA conference is somehow “islamophobic” is the AWL technique of accusing anyone who challenges Zionism of being “anti-semitic”.
The fact is that John Mullen’s post reflects the position of the British SWP on religion (not surprising he is a member of that tendency). It is a position closer to the opportunist Second International position on religion than to revolutionary Marxism, and Socialist Resistance has much the same line. It makes impermissible concessions to religious groups and as a result abandons the struggle against religious oppression and the oppression of women both in countries like Afghanistan and in minority communities in Europe.
The debate in the NPA should have been about how a Marxist party combats religion while working alongside those religious communities oppressed by state bans and suffering racism and exploitation. Not an easy thing to do but one the Bolsheviks managed very successfully between 1902 and 1917. We could learn some lessons from it in Britain and so could the NPA.
If the NPA is to establish itself as an anti-capitalist ie Marxist party then it will have a materialist and non-religious outlook, and a party programme to match. Its class conscious cadres will, of course, be atheists. The Bolsheviks had a long experience of struggle with religious prejudices in Russia, indeed Lenin said one central task of the RSDLP was to “fight against all religious deception of the workers. For us, the ideological struggle is not a private matter, but one that concerns the whole party, and the whole proletariat.” (Socialism and Religion 1905)
Marxists have fought not only ideologically against religion but to cut off the material support for religion from the state, which is why in their programme they demand the separation of church and state, the ending of all religious schools, the banning of religious indoctrination within them etc. But at the same time we fight all forms of state repression of religion – restrictions on building of places of worship, preventing people wearing religious symbols at school, work or in public, obstructing dietary or prayer requirements in everyday life.
Marxists are champions of the oppressed. We fight alongside oppressed Muslims and against islamophobia, discrimination and exploitation at work. We fight every attempt to divide workers along religious or cultural grounds. And in those struggles, the fight against religion – for atheism – is secondary. We don’t make our main task in such united fronts the attack on religion, the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of women etc, but neither do we hide or disguise our policies on them either.
The question is why would a committed or practicing Muslim, Christian or Jew wish to become a parliamentary representative for an openly anti-religious and atheistic Marxist party? Where they would be under the strictest caucus discipline to argue against such things as religious schools and religious public holidays and proclaim in parliament on such matters that religion is “the opium of the people”.
It seems an unlikely event unless the NPA at national or local level has been unclear on the nature of a Marxist party and its programme; the political discipline expected of elected representatives of the party. It would absolutely normal that the national party leadership should take the decision on such religiously committed candidates proposed locally. They must make sure they know what is expected of them (and it should apply to candidates of any religious persuasion, Freemasons, creationists, flat-earthers etc). The alternative is that you get the George Galloway syndrome.
Stuart King, Permanent Revolution
I think Stuart makes some good points and the general tenor of his argument is sound.
If a revolutionary organisation had a candidate wearing an open display of religious affiliation it is not at all prejudiced to debate or discuss this and I agree with Stuart that the description that to debate the question of a candidate with a hijab is necessarily ‘Islamophobic’ is inaccurate.
I also agree that the party should be for the strict separation of religion and state, against religious schools and state funding of religion. However, if a candidate supports the fundamental programmatic positions of a party, its class struggle action points then being religious doesn’t in my opinion necessarily preclude selecting her/him and if s/he was a strong candidate who didn’t compromise on any fundamental programmatic positions I could imagine supporting such a candidate. The hijab though is a further step than simply being religious- it is a public display of faith and of restrictions on dress codes for women. I think it would be a negative point against a candidate for a revolutionary organisation (this would be different if it was say an anti-cuts candidate or a TUSC or Socialist Alliance type candidature) but even then not necessarily a conclusive one: after all we want to mobilise the working class in direct action class struggle against capitalism and win them to revolutionary socialism. Part of this is arguing against religious restrictions but we should accept as members of the party or revolutionary organisation active religious practisers as long as they accept and argue for the program.
Jason Travis, Permanent Revolution
(though I should point out that my opinions are proabbaly more of a minority position within PR to Stuart’s more orthodox position- an article expressing some of our views on the niqab and Islamophobia can be seen here http://www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/1232)
Certainly the NPA conference marked a big step forward from a situation a few years ago in the LCR. Five years ago in the LCR I was involved in a campaign to defend muslim women who had been banned from accompanying school outings which their children were going on, because the mothers wore a veil. Most of my branch were indifferent. I was able to write a short piece in the local LCR public bulletin. A few members of the branch announced they were refusing to distribute this bulletin.
Thevery few veiled women who tried to join the LCR were generally hounded out, and I choose my words very carefully there.
One of the continuing difficulties is the incapacity of many many on the Left to imagine French muslims as being muslim and French. Comrades will immediately talk of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia exclusively. To listen to them one would think that these countries held the majority of the world’s muslims and were entirely typical.
In discussing French muslims, one will constantly hear comrades say”in their country bla bla bla”. But “their country” is France.
I think I place myself between the positions of John Mullen and Stuart King. I think Stuart over-emphasises the religious signficance of the hijab for some people: it can be more cultural/habit than worn to make a religious statement. And now, of course, it can be worn as a statement in defiance of islamophobes. In that respect, I think it probably can be less generalised as a religious symbol than a cross. However, I must CONFESS that I wore a cross as a young, hippy-ish IMG member in the ’70s and didn’t consider myself to be wearing a symbol of christianity. I was just cool.
I do think that revolutionary organisations should make public critiques of religion, or at least belief in god, on the grounds (to summarise briefly) that superstition is incompatible with rational thinking. It should obviously also combat oppressive religious doctrines and special privileges for religious institutions, while at the same time defending basic rights to practise religion. I’m half-convinced by the idea that children should be protected from religious indoctrination – a policy Dawkins would probably approve of. But all this is currently entirely secondary to combating islamophobia, as everyone here agrees.
John Mullen doesn’t make any reference to arguments at the NPA conference defending the purported secularism of the French state. If there wasn’t any, that is a step forward. As far as I can see, the French state is to all intents and purposes, catholic. Just for starters, it owns every catholic church (plus protestant churches and synagogues) in the country and allows the church to use these free of charge. Although this was apparently a big anti-clerical move when the takeover happened in 1905, now it amounts to a massive subsidy for the church, much more than anything that exists in theocratic england.
I was interested in the point about the way comrades discuss French muslims, indeed also other members of ethnic minority communities in France. Many seem to describe them as “immigrants” when the majority were probably born in France. Here, that would not be acceptable, but perhaps the meaning is different in France?
THE DEBATE ON THE VEIL!
(What does it really obscure?)
The question of the Burkha, the Niquab, (headscarf) or the Veil, all items of clothing worn by women in Islamic communities, is once again elevated to a matter of principle and divides many people. So too the question of Islam. European and North American racists and fascists seize upon these two factors in an attempt to create a scapegoat for the current problems facing their communities. The fundamental problems actually being unemployment, poverty, bad housing, low wages and rising prices. Intellectually many of these racists and fascists are the modern counterparts to the ‘flat earth’ advocates who after staring at the horizon deduced from what was immediately in front of their eyes, the fact that earth could not possibly be round. Anything more complex or requiring more thought than what superficially seemed to be obvious was therefore ignored. These modern ’flat-earther’s’ see immigrants coming into their respective countries, requiring jobs, housing, schools, religious buildings and medical care and draw the conclusions, that it is their fault and they should be castigated. But they ignore the fact that their respective governments and industrial leaders, have invited these immigrants, into the various countries precisely in order to lower wages and thus make larger profits. They conveniently ignore the fact, that their governments and commercial leaders, have for generations propped up dictators and ruined the economies and cultures from which these immigrants have but recently escaped. They choose to ignore the fact that reduced expenditure on new housing and medical care along with rising unemployment and prices, in their own countries are the result of policies dictated by their own governments and the financial elites in banking and speculation. The elephant in the room for racists and fascists, which they are unable, refuse to see, or deliberately obscure is the economic and political system of global capitalism.
They also ignore recent cultural history. There are some clear examples, starting with religious buildings. Only a generation ago, the streets of UK and other European towns and cities, were inundated with chapels, Methodist halls, churches, cathedrals, Abbey’s, meeting houses, Minsters, Kirks, vicarages, deaneries, monasteries and nunneries, before religious traditions gradually weakened. They additionally ignore the fact that there are religious fundamentalists in Judaism and Christianity, and that two leaders in the west, Bush and Blair, were convinced they were doing God’s work when they illegally and immorally invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Arguably western, Christian-led state-terrorism is far more destructive of life and infrastructure than anything the militant Islamists get up to – as bad as this is. This prejudiced perspective also ignores the fact, that only a generation ago most of the women in their own countries never wore trouser-suits or jeans, and vast numbers, particularly among the working class in 1950’s northern Britain, for example, regularly wore a headscarf, when going out on the street. This headwear was never seen as an expression of backwardness, militant Christianity or subservience to the men in their lives. In the case of the racists and fascists, the fixation on the veil and their phobia over the religion of Islam reveals their intellectual bankruptcy and extreme cultural prejudice. It also serves to obscure their essentially pro-capitalist agenda. It is perhaps to be expected that such selectively prejudiced people cannot, or will not, see further than any immediate appearances which are dangled temptingly in front of their eyes. However, the wearing of a headscarf or a different form of female attire is causing a great deal of confusion elsewhere.
The liberal left and some of the anti-capitalist left have also been severely critical of women wearing the veil and other middle-eastern items of clothing. Most recently, the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France was divided at a conference, on precisely the issues of the veil and the question of Islamophobia. Since capitalism is not an elephant in the room for some of a left persuasion, there must be other reasons for them being caught on the horns of this particular dilemma. I suggest that among many on the left there has been a crude and dualistic thought process in the automatic linking of an item of clothing with an ideology. There may be many reasons for wearing a veil or not wearing a veil, just as there may be many reasons for the wearing or not wearing any other form of clothing. However, I suggest, it would be to completely under-estimate the complex and dialectical cultural processes at work in the globalised world, to automatically and directly identify any piece of woven cloth with a systematic static ideology. The problem of should the left be actively against Islamophobia or stay quiet on the issue, because of opposition to militant forms of Islam, also continues to cause divisions.
In this regard, there is no question that Islam in theory (according to the whole of the Qur’an) is a totalitarian form of religious governance. For some believers it should also be so in practice and they enthusiastically promote such a possibility. Yet it is often overlooked that the monotheisms of Judaism and Christianity were also totalitarian, until circumstances (the Reformation for one) altered. They were then challenged and relegated by popular demand to less-direct political areas of life. There is a genuine fear in many people of being subjected to Sharia law and the whims and whimsy’s of a theological elite, but this fear, like the fear of the veil, is an illusion promoted largely by the existing western political elite. The only modern Islamic theocracy is the one in Iran and this faces severe opposition, as the realisation sets in among Iranians, that a theocracy does not answer any of the basic problems, created by the domination of capital and the hierarchical structuring of social life. The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere additionally demonstrated clearly that Islamists were not a leading part of it and do not seem to represent the views of the majority of those interested in a political revolution. The posing of a choice between Islamophobia or Islamophilism obscures the fact that these are not the only two positions possible. The solution to the difficulty is not to be drawn into a simplistic dualist framework of reference in this as in many other questions. A revolutionary, but humanist position, on the religion of Islam would be to defend believers in Allah from attack and discrimination, but openly criticise and not support the political aspirations in the Qur’an and of militant Islamists to forcibly govern, their own communities and non-Muslim communities. A similar position in relation to the wearing of the Burkha, Niqab or any other item of clothing, would be to advocate and defend the women’s ‘right-to-choose’ to wear it – yet rigorously criticise any attempts to impose it or ban it for whatever reasons.