Thursday, February 4, 2010

Weekly Forbes column: Secularity lessons to France from a Muslim country

Below is the unedited version of my column for this week. You can read the final version at the Forbes website. As I mentioned last week, you'll see that the unedited and final versions are a lot different- the editors do a very tedious job over there, for which I am grateful to them. Also, staring next week, my columns will appear on Mondays; given my other work in consulting, teaching, writing for the Daily News and being a Besiktas fan, this was the best day for me.

As for the column, I am aware that I am a bit outside my basura (her horoz kendi coplugunde oter), writing about politics. But the proposal came from my London editor, who thought that given my background living in secular Turkey, I would be a good candidate to write a good column on the issue, and being the adventurous type, I agreed:)...

I am aware that my views are quite controversial, but living through these issues in Turkey has thought me that while many people have legit worries about radical Islam, banning the turban or the burqa, especially on gray constitutional grounds, is not the solution.

A Turkish friend of mine who has written about these issues once said: "Just because I am paranoid doesn't mean that Islam is after my Secular Republic". OK, maybe Turks have a point worrying, but do the French? Especially since we are talking about 1,900 people. Or is this just another European case of intolerance and xenophobia?

Let me know what you think. And feel free to grill me. I am already getting grilled at the Forbes web site, so if I will get grilled, it'd better be someone I know:)....

France’s “burqa wars” reached a crucial stage last week, when Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked the Council of State to help with the drafting of a law banning the Islamic veil, or burqa.

The PM’s appeal to the administrative court of last resort, which also provides the government with legal advice, follows Wednesday’s parliamentary commission report recommending a burqa ban in all public service facilities such as buses, hospitals and welfare offices.

Last week’s events are the culmination of the state’s two decades of efforts to bar religion from public life. All “prominent” religious signs, including the burqa, were banned from state schools and other public buildings in 2004. A complete ban has been ruled out for now on grounds that it would be unconstitutional.

Leaving aside human rights concerns and moral grounds of the law in addition to its constitutional validity, a more practical question to ask is whether the ban is likely to achieve its goal. The problem is that there are no clearly-defined goals.

The draft law submitted by the ruling UMP party mid-January suggested a security concern: Any outfit hiding the face, including my W mask, would be banned. But from what the politicians have been saying, the real goals are to prevent radical Islam and uphold the values of the Republic.

And judging by the statements of President Nicholas Sarkozy, who labeled the burqa as a sign of subservience and debasement, and Muslim Minister Fadela Amara, who called it a prison, the legislation is also burdened with the very noble goal of the emancipation of Muslim women.

It would definitely help if we knew a bit about those would-be-emancipated women: According to Interior Ministry figures and expert testimonies to the parliamentary commission, 1900, or less than one in a thousand, Muslim women wear a burqa. Of these, almost all are young, one-third second or third-generation French nationals and a quarter converts.

Then, it would be safe to assume that at least some of the 1900 don the burqa because of their genuine religious beliefs and do not want to be emancipated. Others probably do so because, in the male chauvinistic society that relegates women to the confines of their home, wearing the burqa is the only way to go out. Therefore, despite Amara’s claims that the 2004 law had helped Muslim women to face up to male chauvinism, it could as well have imprisoned them to their homes.

What about those who use the burqa as a political symbol of radical Islam? Would the ban prevent further proselytizing? Not likely, at least judging from the experience of predominantly Muslim Turkey, which shares an equally fierce secular tradition with France.

The turban, a special type of headscarf used as a symbol of political Islam in Turkey, has been banned from public buildings as well as schools and universities since the early 80s. While many Turks support the school and public building bans, the 90s saw rising criticism against the university ban. The coming to power of AKP, with roots in political Islam, at the end of 2002 marked a turning point for the turban’s prospects.

A survey conducted by the opinion polling firm Konda in 2007 found the number of turban-donners had quadrupled from 500,000 to 2 million during AKP’s first four years of office. Obviously, we have the familiar chicken-or-egg problem here; with a party in favor of ending the turban ban in power, causality is hard to establish.

But the sheer size of the jump hints that the zeal of the secular establishment, in particular the judiciary and the Army, in upholding the ban and its frequent clashes with the AKP, might have played a role as well. Another interesting result from the same survey is that while wearing of other types of religious clothing such as the traditional headscarf and the burqa decrease with education and income, no such effect is present with the turban, hinting at the presence of a political symbol effect.

There are obviously huge differences between France and Turkey. But the Turkish case can nevertheless illustrate that the burqa debate is not as simple as the French officials see it, or at least want it to be perceived as. In particular, the demographics of the burqa-wearers hint that the law is not targeted well.

As for curbing radical Islam, there is the risk that the law will lead to more proselytizing, not less, by stigmatizing Muslims. France would be much better off to address the roots of the problem, inequality and alienation from the mainstream society, rather than resort to such knockoff measures that will not achieve much more than appeasing the conservative public before the regional elections in March.

Or if all they want is a homogeneous society, they should say so openly.


Spine said...

A V for Vendetta mask?

In the context that's slightly subversive. After all, as V says,

"Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof."

It also makes me wonder if you are an anonymous anti-Scientology campaigner in your spare time.

Emre Deliveli said...

Well Spine, it was originally a "Guy Fawkes" mask, but then I thought that many Americans would not know who Guy Fawkes was. So I changed it to a "W" mask. But then the editor wanted to change it back to my original idea and she opted for "V for Vendetta" rather than Guy Fawkes.

To be honest, I don't have much sympathy for Scientology, but luckily they are not very popular in Turkey anyway:)

But I would be their biggest enemy if they did another movie like Battlefield Earth:)...