Say it isn’t so! The European Commission is promoting a practice of the Islamic religion? From what does Jean Quatremer draw this shocking revelation? European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva is on visit in Pakistan to see the damage of the flooding that has displaced or injured some 20 million people while covering a fifth of the country in water. Quatremer notes that there is “Rien de passionant (nothing to write home about)” about the trip, “except on one point: the commissioner is wearing a veil.” He then presents what he calls “the proof in images,” with a video showing just that.
Kristina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, while visiting rural Pakistan, is seen partially covering her hair with a thin piece of white cloth. Shock, horror, terror. Now, while no one in the European general public knows who Georgieva is – or nearly any other EU commissioner for that matter – Quatremer assures as the little Pakistani girls do know who she is. And indeed, these girls see images of Georgieva and find their hopes of not wearing a headscarf dashed against the rocks.
[W]hat message are we sending to all the young women from these countries where the veiled is being imposed gradually either by extremist militants, or by governments lacking legitimacy? In short: dear little Muslim girls, give up because even female “Western leaders,” Christian and modern, accept it, even as they have the full option and power to say no to this degradation to the female image.
Mind you, this is not Quatremer’s point of view but a friend he has who defines himself as “culturally muslim”. Now don’t worry, before you call social services, Quatremer assures us his “Muslim friend” is “laïque“. Thank God for that!
Now, as we all know, the image of women is never similarly “degraded” in the West. In addition, it’s not like we have customs in the West whereby women are made to dress a certain way for men or expected to dress more uncomfortably than men. In fact, Quatremer rightly asks himself: “Do we ask women from these countries to remove their veil (or any other religious sign) when they come to our country? Obviously not.” He could have asked: are there any laws in Europe, especially recently and especially in France, that have ever done anything like ban headscarves, facial covering or minarets?
Quatremer’s mind-numbing inanity and doublethink wouldn’t be so troubling if it were not representative of a significant current of thought in France. I will make a few points:
1) There is no reason to single out Georgieva. It is very common for female Western politicians (including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice or Queen Elizabeth) to wear discrete veils when in very conservative Muslim countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (see here with a more thoughtful critique of the practice).
2) I don’t advocate wearing headscarves but the fact is that it is not the same thing as a burqa or niqab and is actually a good deal less distinctive than a Sikh turban or orthodox Jewish attire (for men). The headscarf has not prevented South and Southeast Asian Muslim women from becoming heads of government in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and indeed Pakistan. In Pakistan, this Prime Minister was Benazir Bhutto who did not find wearing a thin white cloth and being a hard-ass politician to be incompatible.
3) The Muslim headscarf is much older than modern Islamist radicalism. Yet, as above, there is a concerted effort by many in France to equate headscarves with political Islam in its extremist and terrorist forms. See for example the petition by Riposte laïque, signed by a number of prominent French politicians and intellectuals, which called the headscarf a sign of an “Islamist offensive” in France.
4) A Frenchman, and a particular Frenchman distinguished by extreme parochialism, is not exactly the best-placed person to comment on other people’s customs of clothing and religion. France has been at the forefront of curtailing Muslims from practicing their religion in public. See these thoughtful posts at the New Statesman and Le monde diplomatique on the politicians who use anti-Muslim race-baiting to distract the public from genuine economic and social problems.
All this is very depressing but symptomatic of the broader shift to the far-right in European politics. We are finding a European public that is increasingly intolerant of the presence of Muslims in Europe and especially of any manifestation of the existence of the Muslim religion in public. It all recalls very unhappy memories, among others, of the forcible removal of the veil by the French in the Algerian War as part of the effort to keep that country a part of France. We’re obviously nowhere near such a catastrophic situation today but Europeans should be more careful. Sarajevo and Srbrenica were not two decades ago.