Tuesday, 12 April 2011

On Burkha's, Euro-Nationalism, Anonymity & The Internet

The French ban on burkha's in public spaces seems a confused response to the vaunted ideals of democratic tolerance that have echoed through the ages since the French revolution. Even now, one can find inscriptions of "Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite" inscribed on the various buildings that dot the French landscape. The French revolution is credited with stimulating global changes, including the fight against slavery, and as such it has occupied a special place in the imagination of oppressed peoples everwhere and throughout the ages. It is a mandatory textbook study for many children and teenagers everywhere in the world and often captures their imaginations in profound ways, depending on the context within which they reside. Freedom means a great deal to those who've never had it. To those who have it, it can sometimes go unnoticed.

So the French ban on the burkha can be expected to raise both the ire and support of those who have contrary positions on this new development in the constitution of French identity. And indeed, that is what it is. It is a proclamation of what is French and what is not. That is, a law such as this begins to determine the boundaries of national identity and relegates it to the realm of legislature, and not society.

And when culture and religion start to become regulated by law, ironically, secularity itself is threatened as secularity relies on tolerating and respecting a variety of religious, traditional and cultural beliefs that are in operation in the public sphere. Secularity is not the eradication of religion from the public sphere in total. Indeed, it can be argued that this can never be achieved. Imagine if all religious symbols were removed from the public domain - church steeples that resemble the cross, chains of crosses, tattoos of crosses ... nose rings with the aum sign and the like ... it would render the public domain a sterile, modernist pharmacy of nothing but brand logos and symbols (which can - in my view - be twice as offensive as anything religious - at least religious iconography is coupled with deep historical lines and is integral to tradition and culture).

I find it hard to envisage a world where church bells are done away with but McDonald's arches are celebrated. It would be a perverse inversion of what we hold dear and what we celebrate within the public sphere ... a world of brands, devoid of historical and cultural meaning, perhaps even replacing them. But perhaps, this is what we will have to get used to - a world where corporate and brand slogans dominate the public sphere but a prayer is banned. I am not religious by any means, but I do have a cross tattooed across my back, and its symbology has been extremely comforting to me and is interwoven with my personal identity. To me, having this tattoo etched into my skin was an act of liberation, of wearing my personal cross where it belonged ... behind me. In front of me I am led through the heart, and behind me is all the pain. It's a reminder to move into the future with love and to carry my own burden. All this meaning inscribed in a simple tattoo that years later looks like something that might have been the product of boredom in a prison cell, or a gang initiation. Whoever sees it may project whatever they like into it, but it is ultimately mine, and will always be, as I am the one who wears it every day. It is part of my body and my identity and were it to be removed by force it would be a violation of the sanctity of my body and my freedom to be who I want to be.

In my lifelong interaction with (and embedded within) the Islamic community I have learnt many things that go against the Orientalist, western notion of what constitutes Islam, and I have developed a deep respect for the fundamental beliefs that Islam professes. Indeed, there has been a migration towards deeper orthodoxy in Islam over the past thirty years, yet Islam is not alone in this trend. The same is true of religions across the world. Changes in the world that have brought modernity onto the doorstep of almost every nation has threatened traditional cultures, religions and the beliefs and values associated with them, causing them to entrench their beliefs deeper and to dig their heels in -so to speak- in the face of changes that threaten to overwhelm them. Going into 'purdah', or wearing the veil, emerged as a viral phenomenon in my lifetime, spreading into Islamic cultures that never before adopted Saudi dress or rigidly followed Sharia law. Initially, when these trends emerged the moderates in Islam were the first to notice it, and to distance themselves from it in terms of how they led their own lives.

Yet at the same time they tolerated it, and with good reason. Anyone who has been party to conversations with women who wear the veil will get a very different version than that professed by observers residing in Europe and the west in general. While some women are forced into wearing the burkha - an act which is unmistakably a violation of women's rights - there are also many women who choose to wear the burkha. Ironically, they choose to wear the burkha to obtain a freedom of their own i.e. a freedom from being regarded as a sexual object in the public domain, and being interacted with on the basis of that sexuality. Many women who have chosen the burkha (the vast majority of those which I interacted with were converts to Islam) regard it as a liberation from being sexualised in the public domain. It is an irony, because the idea that women in Islamic cultures have no rights and are the mere victims of outdated patriarchal traditions that seek to 'own' a woman's body resides more strongly in the minds of those who have had very little contact with Islam - another product of the Orientalism that has assailed the Arab and Eastern regions. Yet the women who choose the burkha choose it precisely to escape the very same patriarchal treatment that feminists seek to eradicate i.e. being viewed as an object that can be owned, enslaved and traded in the public and private spheres. This is not to romanticise the veil or to excuse the actions of Taliban-oriented groups who seek absolute control of men over women, often under the threat of violence, but to emphasize that Islam is not monolithically a bunch of gun and whip-toting Talibanis that seek to play God in daily life. There are many women in Islam who make the choice to wear the veil, and they should not be denied the opportunity or right to this choice.

And in reference to claims that the new law is an attempt to 'free' Muslim women of their shackles the reality is that women who both deeply believe in wearing the veil, and those forced to wear it, will now have little or no access to the public domain in the shape and form they wish to appear in. That is, in contradiction to the aim of liberation, these women will now become ever more confined to their homes, unable to go out into the public sphere and interact with society. Surely that is bound to further entrench the isolation and opportunities for oppression of women in Islam rather than helping to bring about their freedom. You cannot 'force' someone into your notion or conception of freedom. You have to allow them to negotiate it on their own terms. That, is freedom.

Yet there is more that disturbs me about the ban on the burkha in France than the rights of women in Islam, or any other veil wearing religion for that matter. It is the right to be anonymous in the public sphere. I know that this is not a guaranteed right, and I don't know much of the history or philosophy that might be associated with it, but I feel it is a right that we will only miss once it has been taken away. One platform in which anonymity is celebrated is the internet, and this has opened up a vast array of potentialities and actualities for expressing dissident positions, new opinions, whistle-blowing and for exposing wrongdoing. Indeed, even the now famous hacker group is named anonymous. Isn't it a logical step that if anonymity is no longer allowed in the public sphere (i.e. physical public sphere) then pretty soon it will be eradicated from the virtual public sphere. And imagine the power that can be lost through this - indeed, the very same power of expression that has found transmission across various communications platforms and helped bring about the uprisings in the middle east would be challenged. The only winners in this equation will be states and governments, who will increasingly be able to regulate, threaten and control its citizens and what forms their opinions are allowed to take in entering the public sphere. It is not a large stretch of the imagination to understand this ... the freedom to be anonymous in the public sphere is as important as the freedom to be an aggressively public identity. The two comprise a necessary duality for pluralism and freedom to exist.

Even mass protests rely on the anonymity that numbers afford the congregated masses and emboldens them to speak their views (or take action) without fear of being targeted as an individual. That is why it is an anarchist tradition to take to the streets in urban gear that can easily be transformed to hide one's identity from the state. This itself has proved a profound and critically relevant avenue for expression, no matter how destructive a shape or form it can take.

Yet ultra-nationalism, in itself a right-wing view of nationalism, would have both the freedom of religion and the freedom to remain anonymous in the public sphere eradicated from society. Some may disagree with my diagnosis and prognosis, but in my view it is clear is that once boundaries are declared on nationalism it follows the slippery slope towards fascism and extremism. Once one group - even the majority - take ownership of the national identity, public violence is not far off. In this case the arrests are a form of state violence against women who choose to wear the veil, and it will be met by extremist violence that will use this new law to justify its violence as a response to oppression. Bear in mind that in Islam it is a duty to fight for the oppressed. In many ways this makes it unique amongst religions and the Judeo-Christian traditions. Both sides that are divided by the law banning the burkha will be prejudiced and victimised by the law. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Lastly, the idea that somehow public safety will be improved is sheer nonsense - showing the lower portion of ones face in public will not make the public sphere any safer. I have yet to see a suicide bombers head wired to explode. In contrast, the law will in fact have the opposite effect of drawing extremists to France and will make the public domain more vulnerable. And when the attacks sound out, the Islamophobic voices will roar out even more viciously, and a downward spiral of social fragmentation will ensue to further depths of depravity in a Eurozone that has seen the right emerge as a substantive voice in recent years. Europe, for all its veneer of civilisation, seems to sway to the right whenever its finances are under threat. It is never far away from the barbarism it once exported all over the world, so maybe it should come as no surprise that yet again it claims to liberate those from other cultures when in fact it enslaves them. The failure of Europe's' 'civilising missions' are still with us today and are plain to see for all those who have suffered under colonial rule, yet the colonisation hasn't stopped - it has moved deeper, to colonise the spaces in our minds and those of our bodies. It is a deep humiliation - added to a litany of recent slights against Islam in Europe - and I fear that it augers no good.


  1. This is a very thoughtful and well written piece. I wonder if I could quote a few paragraphs for a muslim forum in England. Your blog will be recognised as the source.
    Keep up the fantastic writing and refreshing thinking... your mind never ceases to impress.Best wishes AP

  2. Hi, tx for the encouraging comments. If you didn't get my reply, please feel free to use the material - it is mean't to be in the public domain and subject to discussion. camaren