Unveiling French Universalism

by Reda Benkirane

Al Ahram Weekly 

Al Ahram Weekly, 4 – 10 March 2004, issue No. 680

The debate about the veil in France highlights a question at the core of humanity's metaphysical and political existence: the perplexities and confrontations of universalist ideals and realities and rights of difference, writes Reda Benkirane.

The heated debate that the headscarf issue is provoking in the country of Voltaire reveals a crisis of anthropological magnitude in the French secularist model. The law that was recently adopted by the French parliament to ban "signs and clothing which visibly display a religious affiliation" in public schools, has been in fact designed to react against the port of the Islamic veil by a few hundred of female students. It will probably not resolve the problem that France has with its second religion; however, an anthropological analysis may reveal, in fact, what is in question.


The French demographer Emmanuel Todd has showed in many of his books that social phenomena and major ideological systems (Catholicism, Islam, reform, etc) are intellectual edifications and transpositions of fundamental values that the main familial structures of humanity reproduce. This "families game" — which can be delineated in many alternatives and combinations (egalitarian, authoritative, nuclear, communitarian, endogamic and exogamic) — puts in scene the different metaphysics of humanity that can be ranked mainly in differentialist and universalist approaches.Unlike the Anglo-Saxon differentialism deduced from a strong individualistic and unequal family structure (in the heritage rules, for example) and that implies "rights to difference" but in fact it also materialises the "difference of rights", the French and Arab-Muslim models are fundamentally egalitarian. French and Islamic universalisms are compatible in many ways, when for example both affirm that "all men are brothers, free and equal" — meanwhile the Anglo-Saxon model would state that "all men are brothers, free and different" (and here difference might also mean an inequality of status).

French and Islamic universalisms, however, diverge on two points: the expression of cultural difference and the legal status of women. The French model assimilates beyond skin colour, physical appearances and ethnic origins, but it can be intolerant to the cultural expression of diversity whereas the Islamic model has shown during the past 14 centuries that it was more inclined to religious, ethnic and linguistic pluralism. "All men and women are brothers and sisters, free and equal", the French model insists rightly when Islamic universalism would rather place the woman in a situation of minority (inequality in heritage, divorce, for example) — this situation is becoming more and more unsustainable; which is why it is evolving positively in many Islamic countries such as Turkey, Morocco and Malaysia, to name a few.

These powerful anthropological forces that express the interplay of differentialism and universalism are deterministic but are nevertheless subject to evolution and contingency. The current resurgence of political Islam, or Islamism, paradoxically may mean the secularisation of contemporary urban societies — but not necessarily on the same tracks that the West followed. The port of the veil, which the average Frenchman sees as a sign of inferiorisation of women, often appears to be also, according to many sociological studies, an individual choice, a "marker" emancipator for teenagers and young women who, veiled, can thus have access to public transport and space, to schools, universities and employment and, somehow, escape family control and pressure. "With the veil, the contemporary Muslim young woman appears, without it, she simply disappears", the Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni of Cairo's CEDEJ observes, after having worked several years on the multiple sociological facets of the veil in Europe and the Middle East. French Muslim women are never more visible than when they wear the veil: French intellectuals and politicians are focusing on this veil, but it is in reality the visibility of these women that disturbs them profoundly. Finally, whether it is the port of the veil or the beard, the "halal" stores or the mosques, in the last resort, it is the expression of Islam itself that is problematic to the French of old. France certainly does not admit racism and even less segregation based on the colour of the skin, but the cultural difference irritates it so much that it essentialises its opposition to it, even if, confronted with the neoliberalism supported by the powerful Anglo-Saxon differentialism, France in the name of Europe claims the "right for cultural exception". Clearly, the debate on the veil unveils both the contradictions and limitations of French universalism just like the debate on the status of women reveals those of Islamic universalism. The two models are tied to their respective traditions while transnational horizons widen their sphere of influence well beyond the anthropological zones that once saw their emergence.

Political polarities and rivalries within international relations can also be interpreted through the "anthropological grid" that unveils the hidden patterns that are behind the visions of the world emanating from differentialist and universalist mentalities. The confrontation between universalism and differentialism can also contribute towards explicating persistent French opposition to quasi-instinctive American unilateralism. The war in Iraq has indeed been the occasion to see at a global level the divergence of views between Anglo-Saxon differentialism and French universalism vis-à-vis another universalism, the Arab-Muslim model. What is very interesting to observe is that the three models are in a sort of rivalry when at the same time they are all challenged by the exponential pace of change that affects contemporary societies and their cultural traditions.Confronted with Anglo-Saxon differentialism and its dominant situation within the concert of nations, France's voice tried to express and export its universalism, based on the equation "fraternity, liberty and equality". But if French universalism gained attention and a certain esteem from global public opinion that demonstrated openly in 2003 in the streets of New York, London, Rome, Berlin and many other capitals — and also from a majority of Arab-Muslim masses — it is now sending another signal, rather conservative and reactionary, on the place of its own soil it can accord to the third monotheism, Islam.

Finally, the French internal debate on the headscarf tells more about the archaism of the French secular tradition than of the Islamic religion transplanted in the West. The embarrassing fact is that French universalism is pleading for an evolution of the Anglo-Saxon differentialism regarding certain issues of global concern such as international trade rules, justice legislation, and policies suitable for the international community, but remains at the same time unable to evolve regarding its full acceptance of the visibility of the Islamic confession counting several millions of French citizens. French universalism clearly will be affected by this question of the veil that is undermining its reputation and perception worldwide. And it becomes more than legitimate for the Anglo-Saxon differentialism to challenge the French model on how to accept Otherness, in the sense that in a globalised world "it is the difference that makes the difference".

Confronted with fundamentalisms, the French republic had to remain vigilant and intransigent. It is precisely for that reason that it is a mistake to believe — in the religious sense of the term — that it can fight against a (Muslim) fundamentalism by adopting another (secularist) fundamentalism. Both fundamentalisms are in the final analysis chained up to their traditions, and are unable to apprehend the complexity of contemporary religious facts; both secular and religious fundamentalisms focus on appearance, on external religious signs. The French secular fundamentalists would be satisfied with prohibition, or non-visibility, of the religious sign in public space when the real challenge is that secular culture nurtures religious content. Rather than prohibiting and excluding the religious sign in the name of secular tradition, the French republican school could teach religious fact in all its plurality; it is probably the only way to instruct young people, for example, on the religious aspects of Middle-East conflicts which are being exported and amplified via the mass media and nourish antagonism between Jewish and Muslim French citizens. Teaching religious studies in public schools would be a pedagogic way to heal the wounds, for the moment superficial, of Islamo- Judeophobia.

What secular "traditionalists" would like for French Islam is that it remains invisible and inaudible. During several decades, in order to not offend the French of old and their tradition, the establishment of Muslim places of worship was tolerated only in the urban periphery and in basements of all kinds (cellars, garages). Consequently, the obscurantism quickly propagated on the bed of ignorance and poverty, under the action of preachers of very low calibre exported by Bedouin states, scorned but courted by the republic and its present and past governments.

The French secular model, one way or another, will have to evolve vis-à-vis the expression of the cultural diversity that it defends in the international arena when its own cultural heritage is in danger. It will also have to accept the visibility of Islam and its universality (one fifth of the world's population) when it is proposed to interact directly with its interiority and consequently to promote the equality man-woman which is nowadays an essential indicator of human development.

The day when in France, Islam — as civilisation, cultures, spirituality — will be taught in a non-artisan way within the framework of university studies and diplomas delivered by the state, in theological faculties directed by professors trained in traditional religious sciences and scientific techniques of research, when Arabic will be taught in a decent way in the secondary cycle, France will have inseminated a critical knowledge, crossing between the Enlightenment and the Judeo-Arabic ideals of Andalusia's Golden Age.

Then would emerge what the late French historian Jacques Berque called a "gallican Islam" born from the unpredictable encounter with French universalism. This Islam — deeply rooted and creative by the quality of its ideas — would immunise against any form of extremism and would radiate within the Mediterranean basin, this old attractor of cultures and civilisations.

* The writer is a consultant for the United Nations and the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland.

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Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 679 (Issue No. 4 – 10 March 2004)
Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/680/op172.htm

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