The Assault on Illhem

by Tariq Ali

Forgive an outsider and staunch atheist like myself who, on reading the recent French press comments relating to Ilhem Moussaid the hijab-wearing NPA candidate in Avignon, gets the impression that something is rotten in  French political culture. Let’s take the debate at face-value. A young  Muslim woman joins the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party]. She obviously agrees with its program that defends abortion, contraception, etc, i.e. a woman’s right to choose. She is then told that despite this she does not have the right to choose what she wears on her head. It’s astonishing. There is no Koranic injunction involved.  The book says: “Draw their (women’s) veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty”, which can be interpreted in several ways but is disregarded most blatantly by hijab-wearing Egyptian women I see in Cairo and Karachi wearing tight jeans and T-shirts that contradicted the spirit of the Koranic message.

Patriarchal traditions, cultural habits and identity are what is at stake here and they vary from generation to generation. Pushing people back into a ghetto never helps.

I grew up in a Communist family in Lahore. My mother never wore a veil. She set up a feminist group in the Fifties that worked with working class women in the poorest quarter of the city. Half of them covered their heads in public. It did not affect their activism in the slightest. Similar stories can be told of women in different parts of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. The Algerian women who fought in the resistance against French republican colonialism did so as anti-imperialists. Some were partially veiled, others not. It did not affect the way they fought or the methods used by the French to torture them. Perhaps the torturers should have been more brutal to the hijabed freedom-fighters to help integrate their progeny better in the  Republican tradition.

In 1968-9, the Pakistani students, workers, clerks and women (including prostitutes) fought for three months against a military dictatorship and won: the only victory of those years.  The religious groups backed the military. They were isolated and defeated, but many of the women students who fought with us wore the hijab and chanted militant slogans against the Jamaat-i-Islami.  Should we have told them they couldn’t participate unless they took off their head-cover? Personally, I would have preferred that for purely aesthetic reasons, but it made nil difference to our struggle.

The anger against Ilhem and the NPA is completely misplaced. The real state of the world leaves the defenders of the Republic completely unaffected: the million dead of Iraq, the continuing siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, the killing of innocents in Afghanistan,  the US drone attacks in Pakistan, the brutal exploitation of Haiti, etc. Why is this the case?

Several years ago I noticed that French protests against the Iraq war were muted compared to the rest of  Western Europe. I don’t accept that this was due to Chirac’s opposition to the war [after all de Gaulle had opposed the Vietnam war even more strongly], but to Islamophobia: an increasing intolerance of the Other in French society, reminiscent of the attitude towards Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The conformism of that period explains the popularity of Vichy during the early years of the war.

Islamophobes and anti-Semites share a great deal in common. Cultural or ‘civilizational’ differences are highlighted to sanction immigrant communities in Europe. The narratives are multiple.  No universalist response is possible.  Immigrants and the countries to which they migrate are  different to each other.  Take the United States for a start.  This is a territory peopled by migrants, many of whom were Protestant fundamentalists,  from the seventeenth century onwards and which has depended on migrations ever since. 

In most of Western Europe the first large wave of migrants were from the former colonies of the European powers. In Britain, the migrants were from the Caribbean Islands and South Asia, in France from the Maghreb.  Without abandoning their identities, they integrated in different ways and on different levels.  The South Asians, principally peasants and a sprinkling of workers, were not treated well by the trades-unions.  Despite this, South Asian migrant workers led some of the most memorable struggles for unionization.

The Indians in particular came from a highly politicized culture where Communism was strong and they brought this experience with them to Britain (like the New York taxi drivers today).  The Pakistanis were less political and tended towards networking groups reflecting clan loyalties in their villages or cities of origin.  The British governments encouraged religion by pleading for mullahs to arrive so that the migrants could be kept away from the racial currents in the working class during the 1960s and 1970s.

In France, there was forced integration.  Each citizen was taught that s/he had the same rights, something that was patently not the case. It is material needs and a desire to live better that fuel the rage, not spiritual beliefs. During the eruption of the banlieus in 2005,  Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, like the ultras in Stendhal’s novels, talked of ‘savages.’  I have often pointed out to the discomfiture of even some leftists that the kids who rioted had integrated well by internalizing the best French traditions: 1789, 1793,1848, 1871, 1968.  When oppression became unbearable the young built barricades and attacked property. Deprivation, not disbelief, was the root of their anger.

How many Western citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers undoubtedly took  humanity forward by recognizing no external authority of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: “Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes.” Hume: “The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words.” There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the Islamophobic ravings in sections of the global media.

Marx famously wrote of religion as the ‘opium of the people’, but the sentence that followed is forgotten. Religion was also ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’ and this partially explains the rise of religiosity in every community since the collapse of Communism. Compare the young Normaliens trooping in to say Mass today to the horror of their parents. My women friends in the Muslim world complain bitterly when their daughters wear the hijab as a protest against familial norms. It was always thus.

Published in Le Monde on February 20, 2010.

Tariq Ali’s latest book, The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom and other Essays,  has just been published by Verso.

26 thoughts on “The Assault on Illhem”

  1. Tariq Ramadan puts it succinctly. “Compelling a woman to wear a headscarf is against Islam, and compelling her to remove it is against human rights.”

    Ramadan, Tariq, “What I believe” OUP 2010, p98

  2. Tariq Ali wrote:

    The British governments encouraged religion by pleading for mullahs to arrive so that the migrants could be kept away from the racial currents in the working class during the 1960s and 1970s.

    Very interesting insight, indeed. Some body should make a study on this issue.

    I respect Mr. Ali, but I do also know, he has own agenda.

  3. Hello

    A couple of issues that are not treated in the article, but which are really important to the overall debate.

    1. The French are debating a law banning the burqa on the grounds that nobody should have their face covered to such an extent as to be unidentifiable in a public place. However they always talk about “the burqa” and not just “headcovering” in general. Bearing in mind the real security threat nearly always comes from young males, probably not in the slightest religiously observant, with hoods & baseball caps. Never mind also that the overwhelming attitude seems to be that women are forced to wear the burqa, when in fact they probably get less hassle in the street than if they go out uncovered, so choose (for the wrong reasons) to wear it. Not sure how much religious observence, in the strictest sense, has to do with it, but the French hide behind the “lay state” and no ostentatious religious identifiers to be worn. Maybe they should ban ecclesiastical dress, visible crucifixes, the kippa and the turban too.

    2. The “anti capitalist” party, headed by Olivier Besancenot, the far left (previously the communist revolutionary league) of French politics, seems an unlikely choice as a forerunner of the debate on wearing a headscarf. The principle criticism most have of him is that he chose this candidate to get exposure, because of the burqa debate already running in the press and in parliament.


  4. “One corpse in a **veston** (suit jacket) is worth twenty in a uniform,” was the guiding principle of Ramdane Abane, master “military strategist” (terrorist) of the Algerian FLN. To this terror **a outrance** the French in their long struggle to hold on to Algeria replied with unrestricted torture. It was and is a dark stain on the honor of the French army but these methods were never, I say never, applied to women.
    Unfortunately, the FLN were not so scrupulous. Reports of what was done to French civilians of **both** sexes at Philippeville in 1955 aren’t good reading on a full stomach. That the successors to the FLN are themselves being terrorised right now by persons even more fanatical than they makes me believe there may be some justice in this world.

    Immigration is a transaction–a transaction between the receiving country and the immigrant with benefits and obligations on both sides. In our time, immigrants to Europe from the third world are keen to take the benefits but rather slow to accept that there are any obligations at all. [In France, not the richest country in the world, the immigration benefits have been astonishingly generous, at least by the state.]

    Though it is seldom stated in so many words, as part of the deal the immigrant will to some degree have to change who she or he is. Without this, the immigrant is no immigrant but a colonist no different from the French **colons** in Algeria.

    France by tradition believes in secularism in public life and the holding of political office is as public as things get. The **hijab** is an article peculiar to Muslim women, therefore a religious symbol–a small point but of immense symbolic importance to the French.

  5. I live near a Sik temple. I often see men walking to the temple and admire their great beards and colourful turbans. A couple of days ago it dawned on me: how much do I see of these men’s faces? Are their features not almost completely hidden? And then asked myself: would any government ever dream to force these men to shave their beards and take off their head-gear? I believe that if the veil were worn by men there would be no question of forbidding it or forcing its wearers to take it off. It is a feature of patriarchal society to want to regulate women’s bodies. I am standing by any woman who chooses to wear a veil and I will fight with any woman who chooses not to.

  6. Caleb you said that immigrants should change themselves according to their new country. I wish you had given this piece of advice to the British who colonized Indian Subcontinent for over a hundred years and never bothered to wear saris or turbans. They always kept away from Indian cultures and traditions and looked down opon them. Speaking of immigrants getting benefits, I know numerous Muslim immigrants who are PhDs, MDs and Engineers who are pumping gas or working as cab drivers becasue they are discriminated in the hiring due to their background. Muslims would never immigrate to the West if your countries leave their countries alone. The main cause of immigration is war and political unstability which is always created in one way or the other by your West.

    1. Were the British in India “immigrants”, BT? I had hoped my post made the distinction between immigrants and colonists clear enough.
      Sorry to hear about immigrants with advanced degrees working menial jobs, but it’s an old story. Another way to look at it is that in Third World countries, bright people often study subjects like engineering or medicine which would be of little use to their own societies. The only logical explanation is that they plan to emigrate.

      1. Haha. “in Third World countries, bright people often study subjects like engineering or medicine which would be of little use to their own societies.”

        Because societal need for advanced technical training is inversely related to melanin count?

        This may be the stupidest comment I’ve seen yet posted here.

        1. What’s stupid about facing facts, Max?
          Underdeveloped societies need a lot of people who can give basic medical care. A young fellow in, say, Algeria or Pakistan who goes on to specialize in electrocardiology clearly is not planning to stay there.

          1. Caleb–
            No one reading this exchange is possibly stupid enough to think that when you wrote, “in Third World countries, bright people often study subjects like engineering or medicine which would be of little use to their own societies,” you didn’t in fact write that.

            Now, if you happen to think poor people in underdeveloped countries don’t need both primary care and specialist care, or that it’s not feasible to implement such programs, here are my thoughts. On (1) you’re a well-spoken bigot. But that’s been established and I don’t know why we’re still indulging you. Some odd leftist libertarian streak. Don’t push it.

            On (2) face some “facts” and you’ll know that programs placing doctors [not EMTs or shamans whatever you’re bizarrely suggesting.] in underdeveloped regions/countries have worked fine.

            1. Max, perhaps I initially should have said “medical specialties” or the like.

              The USA is so overrun with immigrant doctors that a special category had to be created for them: “F.M.G.’s”, standing for Foreign Medical Graduates. The major sending countries are India, Egypt and the states of the West Indies. Many are well prepared but as their qualifications can’t be certified they must pass special examinations to be allowed to practice in the USA. Until they are qualified they work as lab techs or, yes pumping gas or driving a cab.

              Not emt’s but family practitioners, public health doctors to combat infectious diseases or nurse-practitioners are what is “needed” in the Third World.

              1. Caleb – you clearly have a picture in your head of the ‘third world’ which doesn’t go beyond big bellied children over-run by flies. It seems you think that ‘undeveloped’ people have simpler bodies. They may suffer dysentry, but mysteriously don’t suffer rare cancers or neurological conditions. Only complicated higher forms in the West (or the Western colony in Palestine) suffer these diseases.

                1. Politically correct medicine, Robin?
                  In sober fact, heart disease due to high cholesterol and an inactive life style is a problem in (some) advanced societies as is diabetes and gout. On the other hand, few French children have contracted bilharzia, gone blind due to trachoma or died of cholera because they could not find safe drinking water.

                  If this sounds like a moral condemnation of the third world, it isn’t. The original topic was the complaint by Mad Max that immigrants were working below their educational level–due entirely to prejudice, of course. I suggested there is another way to see this situation. Those chaps aren’t entitled to complain because they had the choice and chose to qualify themselves in fields they know don’t really exist in their own countries whether it’s repairing photocopy machines or neuropharmacology.

              2. Caleb,
                Why don’t you find a more honest, dignified retreat than “perhaps I initially should have said ‘medical specialties’ or the like.” Specialties include orthopedics, gynecology, etc. Black and brown people need that stuff too I think, their bones/reproductive are made of similar stuff as Western Europeans.

                As for the rest of your non-sense, for one thing, thousands of the FMGs come to the US to do their residencies after their home countries have paid for their expensive medical school training. In other cases Westerners go to foreign medical schools and come back for their residencies and internships. The third-world country maintains educational infrastructure for medical school. 1st world country gets doctors. Reality, as usual, looks a little different than your fantasies of it.

                As for the statement that their “qualifications can’t be certified,” blah blah, you speak as though this is a natural law and not an institutional fact, set up to protect certain upper-middle class skilled professions. Those tests are made practically impossible so as to maintain a lower supply and thus higher compensation for doctors here.

                As for the rest, 3rd world societies need specialties. The issue is setting up institutional and economic infrastructures for them.

                1. my cousin, as it happens, is a very busy neurosurgeon in syria. but your idiocies really aren’t worth answering, Caleb.

  7. The point about colons, whether French ones in Algeria or European-Jewish ones in Palestine, is that they come into a country with armed force and then arrange things so that they become the master class. Neither of these apply to Muslims in Europe, who are amongst the weakest groups in society. This is obvious to anybody who isn’t spouting Zionist and Islamophobic hasbara.

    1. That, Robin, is a rather communist view of history and not in accord with the facts. Though both would resort to it later when the reception went from friendly to murderous, neither the Zionists nor the British arrived with armed force in the beginning. It was business for the British East India Company. For the Zionists it was redemption through labor for a persecuted people.

      1. Depends on the Zionists. There were ‘cultural Zionists’ of the Ahad Ha-Aam variety, but what turned the reception to ‘murderous’ was the realisation by the Palestinians that the next wave of arrivals had a plan to establish a state which would exclude the Palestinians and even push them off their land. These arrivals did come against the will of the natives under the shadow of the British gun. Before the Brits backed off from maximal Zionist objectives in 39 they helped the Zionists set up armed groups. Zionist settlements were plotted on the map strategically, for military reasons. Then in 47 and 48 the expulsion of over 80% of the Palestinians from 78% of Palestine was perpetrated. There is no similarity between this situation and north African immigration to France whatsoever. The Palestinian problem was not that the Jews wore different kinds of hats. It was that Zionism aimed to ethnically cleanse them from their land, and did.

        Yes, at first British control of India was done through trade (although the east india company did have armed forces). It was similar in some ways to American imperial control of certain markets today.

        1. There’s a big difference all right, the difference between coming to a mature, sovereign country with expansive social benefits, and coming to a neglected province of a misgoverned empire that offered nothing but hard toil, hot sun and malaria.

          Let me suggest another parallel: a small group of English-speaking settlers invited in to endure savage tribes and drought and turn a treeless wilderness into a productive land of farms and ranches called Texas. They didn’t want to fight, either–most of them–but they had to when a dictator came to power and wanted to take all they had worked so hard to build.

          1. so now you are angry with palestine because it was undeveloped before you ‘turned the desert green’. Except Palestine never was a desert. True, in the declining years of the Ottoman empire the levant was terribly undeveloped. Zionists wouldn’t have been able to get a foothold if the area had been strong. In previous years palestine had been greener. But when Zionists arrived, the land was nevertheless being farmed (not that it would have justified your colonial settler project if there hadn’t been farms).

            In Syria the fertile Ghab valey was a malarial swamp in the last years of the Ottoman empire and during the French occupation. After independence the government drained the swamp and turned the Ghab into a rich, fertile zone. They didn’t need an incoming force to destroy their villages and drive the people out in order to achieve this.

            Your talk about ‘savage tribes’ may or may not go down well with the inhabitants of Texas, but the readership here is a different matter.

            And who, exactly, ‘invited you in’ to Palestine? Balfour?

    1. Ah, Robin, one reads these angry stories and presto! It’s the USA in the mid 1960’s. Truly, societies don’t learn from other societies. The French tried the same liberal social policies as America, with the same disastrous results. [Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty, and Poverty won.]
      Among the many bitter lessons the French of all backgrounds have recently absorbed:

      The more unearned benefits you shower on people, the angrier they grow.
      A few nights of violence in the streets will be answered at the polls for years to come.
      When incidents occur between the police and minority youth, as they often do, the police must fight the temptation to withdraw and just wait for tempers in the community to cool down. On the contrary, the forces of order must make the strongest presence on the streets at the earliest stage, **before** the **casseurs** arrive and the first shop is looted, the first petrol bomb thrown.

      True, the police develop a prejudice against the poorest people in the community because they’re the ones who give them the most trouble. It’s regrettable but it’s that way in cities all round the world.

  8. the same liberal social policies as america. what?

    unearned benefits? north african labourers in france often lived in barracks and worked ridiculous hours in dangerous conditions for almost no money. their children live in decaying tower blocks alongside poor ethnic French and north african Jews. All three groups were involved in the riots in the banlieu, so your focus on ‘minority youth’ is too general.

    The French police have a problem with racism, which I’ve seen at first hjand even outside the banlieu and in situations where nobody is giving them trouble. French racism goes back at least as far as the French occupation of Algeria. Certainly the Algerians gave the French trouble. Perhaps you think that too is because they were being showered with unearned benefits during the 130 years of brutal occupation.

    1. Robin, I rest my case. You’ve just proven it!
      The apartments in these “tower blocks” were up to date, spacious with all modern sanitation and conveniences, at least at the start. Compared to what the North African immigrants left behind, they were positively luxurious.
      But it’s a worldwide phenomenon that when one just gives someone a place to live it doesn’t take very long before they trash it. People have to be invested.
      You are right about these massive, high-rise **cites** being a bad way to house families. The Americans stopped building them twenty-five years ago. A number have been demolished. [The French should have learned from the experience in the USA, but…]

      OK, the French were bad masters and they paid the price, in Indochina and Algeria. Drawing up ancestral balance sheets is a thankless task.
      Actually the French are much less racist than the British. The French treat anyone as an equal who fully embraces their language, culture and religion.

  9. OK, we understand. north africans should have been grateful. they came from barbarism to civilisation. the civilised white people unwisely treated the immigrants with perfect respect, and gave them riches they did not deserve. They gave them palatial residences that these scum then destroyed. If only the scum had changed their names to Jean-Jacques, converted to Catholicism, and eaten a lot of pork, they would have been fine. But unfortunately, their bodies were too simple for that. Even the educated ones, who go to nice places like america, which has always been inhabited by white people who never overran anyone, and then overrun it.

    1. Robin, just for you, the USA will give the country back to the Indians. Or perhaps lose it to them shooting craps in one of the hundred plus Indian casinos now operating in the USA.

      The Arab armies “overrran” the Berbers of North Africa in the eighth century. In the 19th century the French returned the favor, putting the slavers and protection racketeers (the notorious “Barbary Pirates”) out of business. The Arab and Berber population had been small and static with deaths keeping pace with births. Under the French, that population grew quickly.
      Within a century It no longer was possible to sustain **Algerie francaise**. Nor was there any economic rationale once most Europeans there held low paid city jobs which Arabs could do more cheaply.

      You keep bolstering my argument with these expressions of resentment. Immigration and the welfare state are a poor mix.

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