Recently, 12 activists in the French New Anti-Capitalist Party, including Ilham Moussaid - whose candidacy for the regional elections caused controversy both within and without the party on the basis that she wears a hijab – resigned from the NPA. John Mullen, a member of the NPA in the Paris region, spoke to the Australian left organisation Socialist Alternative about the issue of Islamophobia in France, and the debates within the NPA that led to these resignations. He's kindly allowed me to repost the discussion here.
First of all, John, could you elaborate on what caused these members to resign and the contours of the debates within the NPA about the rights of its Muslim membership?Ilham was chosen as one of a list of candidates in the regional elections last year. This decision was made in the region - the NPA is very much a federal organization. The NPA was attacked from all sides for giving in to Islamicists, fundamentalists and for abandoning secularism. The national spokesperson Olivier Besancenot defended Ilham’s right to be a candidate, but a vocal minority inside the NPA is hostile to having members with a hijab.
For the upcoming conference, this minority has put forward a motion that hijab wearers can’t be candidates for the party. A counter-motion defends equal rights for all members to apply to be a candidate, and a third motion suggests a dreadful compromise (that hijab wearers can be candidates if approved by special commissions).
The group of comrades of which Ilham is part, near Avignon, have been running dynamic local campaigns on different issues, including the question of Islamophobia. A campaign against them inside the party has worn them out and rather than fight at the conference, they have chosen to continue their activism outside the party - it’s very sad. The very real, and slowly growing support they have had from a minority of comrades around the country has not been enough to keep them in our party.
One of the things Moussaid stated on her resignation was, "We need to concentrate on what unites us, on the fight for equality between men and women, and not to say we should all dress the same way, that you can't wear a headscarf because otherwise you're not a feminist.” What do you say to the argument so often employed in these debates, that wearing the hijab is, ‘an assault on feminism’?The majority of the Left in France believe that the hijab is an assault on women’s rights, and this position quickly moves into the prejudice that Muslim women in France are more oppressed than non-Muslim women, that the experience of women in –say- Saudi Arabia is merely an extreme case of an oppression which is inherent in Islam, and other such ideas. Muslim and Arab men are then presented as the major source of women’s oppression and contrasted with the progressive white values of Republican France. So opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism – and often does.
In fact, if Muslim women in France suffer oppression, get mostly low-paid jobs and bad housing, this is not usually because of their husbands and big brothers, but because capitalism wants cheap labour, and treating ethnic minorities badly is good for profits.
Pieces of clothing have symbolic meanings in all cultures. In many cultures, women must cover their breasts, men must not wear dresses. In Sikh culture men must not cut their hair. And in many Muslim cultures women must cover their hair. When French Muslim women cover their hair to please their God, they are not saying “treat me as an inferior”.
There is another point : in France, where anti-Arab and anti-muslim racism is at a high level (which has a lot to fo with France’s imperial past and neo-colonial present), wearing the hijab is about showing you are proud to be a Muslim, (and often proud to be an Arab) in a fairly hostile situation. Tragically the opinion of the women who wear the hijab, or the niqab, is practically never asked. “Enlightened” left antisexists speak for them and tell them how they should dress. It’s an old colonial tradition, telling oppressed groups what is good for them.
The right-wing Sarkozy Government, with the support of the Socialist Party, recently banned the wearing of the hijab in state schools and the public service, and the full veil is now illegal in the streets. How is this issue exploited by France’s politicians and how prevalent is racist abuse of Muslims in France today?A few months ago, researchers sent out to French companies applications for jobs accompanied by CVs. They wanted to compare how a young black Catholic woman fared in comparison with a young black Muslim woman. The CVs were identical except for first names and a mention of their religion (one said she was active with a Catholic organization, the other with a Muslim one).
The “Catholic” black woman got asked to an interview 21% of the time. The “Muslim” Black woman got asked to an interview 8% of the time. That’s how bad it is. The mainstream press covered this story, the Left press almost totally ignored it. That’s how bad it is.
Meanwhile racist grafitti on mosques, and desecration of Muslim graves are becoming more common – there have been at least twenty cases of vandalizing Muslim graves this year. A mosque and a halal butchers were shot at earlier this year – 32 bullet holes were left in the mosque walls. And a number of veiled women have been attacked in the streets.
The recent law to ban women who wear the “full veil” from leaving their homes was initially a proposal of a Communist MP! And the law in 2004, banning high school students from wearing a hijab was initiated by a campaign against two young Muslim women in which Trotskyist teachers were very active! Two months ago, when the Senate was debating the law against the “full veil”, a group of Muslims and left wing supporters organized a rally outside.
We got sixty activists there : not many, but in the French context quite an achievement. Almost all of the left organizations ignored it. The NPA leadership decided to “support” the rally … seven hours before it was due to start, although it had been planned for weeks. Internal division paralyzes the NPA and many other organizations on anything to do with Islamophobia.
We understand the issue of the hijab will be debated at the NPA’s upcoming conference. How do you think socialists should respond to Islamophobia in society?The radical Left should launch an active and dynamic campaign against Islamophobia, and not just “debate “ the issue. This means allying itself with Muslim organizations. This is a very obvious point, but highly controversial on the French Left. In Britain, the biggest Trade Union confederation, the TUC, has run a joint campaign against Islamophobia along with Muslim organizations. Islamophobia is tremendously useful to Sarkozy to divide us, to point the finger at the Muslims as a threat to “our culture” in order to divert our attention from the real enemy.
Islamophobia is a gigantic blind spot of the French Left. The NPA is better than the other organizations of the radical Left, (which is not hard). The upcoming “Conference against the Islamic domination” in December, run by groups which came from the Left but have ended up on the far right, will see sections of the NPA mobilizing against it. And at the party conference we have a good chance of winning the demand for equal rights for Muslim party members.
But tragically, the conference will debate almost exclusively about the rights of Muslim members of the NPA. Only a few isolated voices are calling for an active NPA campaign against Islamophobia. This is a tragedy. In the mass strike campaign to defend pensions, these last few months in France, NPA activists everywhere played an excellent role, in the forefront of building the strikes and building unity between different sections of the working class and different generations.
It is a party with tremendous positive potential. But old French traditions of left wingers mocking or hating those who believe in God, and more recent trends towards demonizing Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be blinding comrades and they are falling for old divide and rule tactics. Progress is slow, but this question will have to be faced. We have to actively fight Islamophobia both because of how hard it makes life for many of our Muslim sisters and brother, but also because working class rebellion is made harder every time workers believe that “Muslim threats to our culture” are what we need to be fighting, not the capitalists.