Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Burqa: Weekly Worker, Sometimes Right and Sometimes Seriously Wrong.

with 2 comments

Jacobin Statism to Weekly Worker.

The latest Weekly Worker carries an important article by Peter Manson on the issue of the Burqa (Here).

Unlike most of the British liberal left it does not start from the absurd premise that the full-body veil is “empowering”. Religious practice is, for the comrades of the CPGB Provisional Committee, defined in a  secular way. That it, it is not the business of the public authority to define what people should believe, or how they should carry out the obligations of their faith. That is the principle of non-interference  in individuals’ religious activities.

This is a good starting point.

However, its limits are pretty great. Peter Manson then goes seriously wrong on a number of counts.

To begin with Peter Manson claims that “We demand that women have the right to wear the hijab, the burqa or the niqab.” That, “I would not for a moment wish to understate the dehumanising effect of imposing the burqa. It reinforces the notion that women may not assert themselves on an equal basis to men; that they should be regarded as a man’s possession, not even to be looked at by other males. “

This confuses a number of issues. Is there a human right to be ‘dehumanised? There is no such thing as a ‘right’ to be regarded as a man’s possession. One may tolerate (that is negatively) sexism, but one never gives this the status of a  claim that has to be respected.  

In this context the ‘right’ not to wear the ‘voile intègrale’ (the unambiguous French term referring to the ‘total’ extension of veiling) is meaningless.I have just as much a right not to support the BNP and not wear a Swastika T-Shirt. But do I have the right – that is a demand that this clothing be accepted and protected? Who, then has the obligation to make sure this right is a reality? The law? Or what?

The assertion is confused: either it means that there should be a legally protected ability to wear certain types of religious clothing – however ‘dehumanised‘ –  and an instrument to enforce this claim against anyone opposing it, or this is one of those ‘rights’ that exist in very rarified aether.

It is in the same vein that the idea that the “state should not decide what people wear”is advanced. True, in generala good basic principle. But this is another abstract claim which soon runs into obstacles. What, to start with,  if it is the state’s institutions that are involved? Who then decides on what the state does? And what should this be?

Peter Manson accepts that “certain jobs – the teaching of young children or the welcoming of guests at a hotel – cannot in general be carried out satisfactorily by people who completely cover their face.” I would say that any position in why a person has power over others should not be occupied by somebody loudly proclaiming that anyone who does not dress as they do is impure.  In other words, public functions. If  we have state – or wider public – institutions they need rules, and these should not tolerate anti-equality practices – like the burqa and niqab. Democracy rests on egalité.

Next, the French context is that the republic is not just secular in a negative sense, but positively aspires to the values of equality, fraternity and liberty. This implies that activities against this are, in a  deep sense, anti-republican. the burqa, is one such practice. Racism is equally anti-republican. The Islamists combine both a  quasi-religious racism (drawing boundaries between the pure believes and the impure non-believers) in a noxious anti-republican cocktail. It is hardly unlikely that the far more serious problem of marginalisation fo the poor in the banlieues can be fought without equally offering a strategy against their exclusion. This Sarkozy does not do, to say the last.

The French left (from the PCF, LO, PG, to the NPA) therefore tends to concentrate on wider issues of social inequality and oppression (which affects much larger communities than Moslems, as recent rioting by Rom in Saint-Aignan indicates). This is not a result of their Jacobin DNA but a perfectly justified reaction to present-day French conditions. The republican tradition brings people back to equality and not to the brief, anti-clerical, Age of Reason.

Finally, socialists “strive to empower oppressed minorities, and oppressed women in particular. We do this to unite and strengthen the working class, to weaken the power of the state and the system of capital. And part of that fight involves breaking the grip of the mosque and the Muslim establishment over their flock.”

But Peter Manson offers no account of  how exactly how this can be done. Some on the British left, like the ill-fated Respect coalition, have a actively collaborated with the ‘Mosque’ – or rather a far-right and right-wing  fractions of Islamism. They have no authority to talk about Islamophobia – when they, and the SWP, have collaborated with such reactionary forces.

These are quasi-state institutions in their own right – with close links with would-be (Moslem brotherhood, Jamaat-I-Islami) or actual  state-powers (Iran) in other lands. Many ‘moderate’ Moslems receive generous funding from the theocratic dictatorship of  Saudi  Arabia.

Peter Manson does not outline any immediate political conclusions from his analysis. Does he support the campaigns of groups like Amnesty International  to defend the ‘right’ to the burqa?  Or Liberty’s most recent efforts (such as here)? It is noteworthy that neither of these organisations even raises the issue of whether veiling may be oppressive.

There is not the slightest prospect of the veil in any form being banned in the UK. But religious remains a problem – as a state institution, and as a source of oppressive ways of life. Obviously these embrace much wider issues. In Britain religion has a privileged place in public authority. It is likely to grow with the ‘Big Society’. Multiculturalists have sought to extend this to all faiths, including Islam. The political influence of these institutions is growing, filling a vacuum in society left by the absence of mass working class movements and the fracturing of the left. In these conditionswill Peter Mason  back any campaigns for secularism? If so, what?

The defence of the Burqa is part of a general trend to assert special privileged protection for religious claims. It is root-and-branch against any form of equality. The assertion of religious rights, of which the ‘right’ to wear the burqa is just one, should be opposed not embraced. Secularists should engage in activities against this – though one hardly needs reminding that, faced with many other urgent issues,  this is not a top priority.

Despite a justified hostility to settling matters of religious faith by state decree, if we are engaged in politics we cannot  avoid trying to influence what the state does. Fighting against Islamicism, and political expressions of the moral codes that endorse the full-body veil, is only aspect of this combat. But as a hard case it is an important test of secularist principle

More background: The Eyptian feminist Mona Elthaway here. Tendance Coatesy on French left’s own views here.  An argument that any criticism of the veil is reactionary, here.


I mention in passing that the following translation of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste’s (NPA) position, “While completely opposing this freedom-killing law, the NPA reaffirms its solidarity with women who struggle against all forms of oppression, such as the full-body veil. But it is first and foremost through fighting together for control over their own bodies that women will free themselves.” could have been acknowledged to Tendance Coatesy. Which goes, “While completely opposing this anti-freedom law, the NPA reaffirms its solidarity with women who struggle against  all forms of oppression, such as the fully-body veil, but it is above all through fighting together for rights over their own bodies, that women will free themselves.” Um…

Written by Andrew Coates

July 25, 2010 at 12:07 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I add that the decision of Liberty to threaten to take the Tory MP who refuses to meet women wearing the Burqa to court confirms this paradox.

    Is the Weekly Worker in favour then of using the law to enforce not using the law against the full-body veil?

    Andrew Coates

    July 26, 2010 at 11:34 am

  2. Lite background reading on this, the debate seen from an historical perspective and the different tendencies in and amongst the Feminist movements in France- if you write French and have an hour http://sociologies.revues.org/index246.html

    ..and no Andrew I am not going to translate it

    Pete Shield

    July 27, 2010 at 3:03 pm

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