Paul Berman, eager supporter of the Iraq War, has a lot to answer for. But in this essay in The Tablet, on how Americans see the French veil/burkini debate, he makes up for some of his past grievous idiocies:
The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.
And yet, the American interpretation acknowledges a complicating point, which is this: The French, who are hopelessly racist, do not appear to believe they are hopelessly racist. On the contrary, they have talked themselves into the belief that, in setting out to regulate Islamic attire, they are acting in exceptionally high-minded ways—indeed, are acting in accordance with a principle so grand and lofty that French people alone are capable of understanding it.
This principle is a French absurdity that, in its loftiness, cannot even be stated in down-to-earth English, but can only be expressed with an incomprehensible, untranslatable and unpronounceable French locution, which is laïcité. Over the years, the word laïcité has figured repeatedly in the American commentaries. The French, we are told, invoke this word to defend their unjustifiable and racist persecutions. And yet, like all words that are untranslatable and incomprehensible, laïcité turns out merely to be a cover. It is a ten-dollar word employed to justify France’s fear of the “Other”; France’s zeal for maintaining the racial superiority of the non-Muslim French; France’s enduring imperialist and colonialist hatred for native peoples; France’s obsession with telling women what to do; and generally France’s urge to be parochial, petty, ultraconservative, and intolerant....
The French controversy over the veil—which, in the French debate, has meant the Islamic headscarf or hijab, too—got underway not with the arrival of the Muslim immigrants, but with the arrival of the Islamists. This was in 1989. Schoolgirls in the town of Creil, outside Paris, began to insist on their right to wear the Islamic veil in school. This was unprecedented, and the school authorities forbade it. The schoolgirls insisted, even so. And the question of how to interpret this dispute became, very quickly, a national debate in France, with plausible arguments on both sides.
To wit, pro-veil: Shouldn’t a woman and even a schoolgirl have the right to dress in accordance with her own religious conscience? Isn’t religious attire a matter of individual right and religious freedom? More: If Muslim schoolgirls are displaying fidelity to their own religion and its traditions, shouldn’t this be deemed an enrichment of the broader French culture? Shouldn’t the French welcome the arrival of a new kind of piety? And if, instead, the French refuse to welcome, shouldn’t their refusal be seen as the actual problem—not the pious immigrant schoolgirls, but the anti-immigrant bigots?
To which the anti-veil argument replied: No, the veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.
The French have engaged in a very vigorous and nuanced public debate over these matters. And yet, for some reason, in the reporting by American journalists and commentators, the nuances tend to disappear, and the dispute is almost always presented in its pro-veil version, as if it were an argument between individual religious freedom and anti-immigrant bigots, and not anything else. To report both sides of the dispute ought not to be so hard, however. The French government held formal hearings on these questions, with both sides represented. It was just that, once the hearings were over, the anti-veil side was deemed to have been more persuasive. Crucially influential were Muslim schoolgirls who, given the chance to speak, testified that, in the schools, Islamist proselytizers had become a menace to girls like themselves. And the National Assembly passed a law banning the Islamic veil, along with all “ostentatious” religious symbols, from the schools. The purpose of this law was not to suppress Islam. Students could continue to wear discreet symbols in school, according to the new law, and anything they wanted, outside of school. But ostentatious symbols were banned from the schools, in the hope of putting a damper on the Islamist proselytizing....
What about laïcité, then—this French concept that gets invoked in the debate, yet cannot even be expressed in English? In reality,laïcité is entirely translatable. It means secularism. There is no reason for English speakers to use the French word. And the concept is perfectly comprehensible. It is the Jeffersonian principle of a wall between church and state, in its French version. The Jeffersonian principle in America means that, regardless of what the churches may do or say, the American state will remain strictly nonreligious. The French version is the same. The public schools, for instance, must not become creatures of the churches—which, in our present situation, means the Islamist imams.
It is true that, in France, people take their secularism a little further than Americans tend to do, and this is partly on historical grounds. In America, we worry about freedom of religion, but in France, where everyone remembers the Catholic past and the religious wars, people worry about freedom from religion. They do not want to be tyrannized by theological fanatics. The Islamist movement is, from this point of view, all too familiar to the French—one more clericalist current that wishes to imposes its theological doctrines on everyone else. And, in the face of the Islamist fanaticism, the French are grateful for their secularist traditions and laws.
Then again, the French take their secularism a little further than we Americans do also because they are willing to grant government a larger administrative role than Americans tend to do. Americans are allergic to government regulation, or pretend to be, but the French do not even pretend to be. I realize that a great many Americans believe that, as a result of the French willingness to accept government regulation, France has become an impoverished Communist despotism. But have you been to France? Perhaps it is true that labor regulations have lately become an obstacle to high employment. Even so, France is, in many respects, a better-run country than the United States. And the French naturally look to the government to apply secularist principles even in areas of life that Americans might regard as outside the zone of government, local or national. The permissibility of religious attire, for instance. And the French see something attractive in their government regulations.