December 1st, 2009


Ban the minaret!

Ban this, ban that! No, we don't mean business! We the Swiss would never ban that! No, ban the poor, ban the different! Ban and stigmatize the things the poor and the different do, the shapes they wear and build! Don't ban the rich! Court the rich! Attract them by enabling capital, incentivising business, indemnifying the banks, making their risk public and their profit private! But minarets, veils, burkas -- ban, ban, ban! Ban in the name of freedom! Ban in the name of feminism! Ban in the name of national identity! Ban in the name of fear!

On Sunday, the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the construction of new minarets. Existing minarets can stay, but new ones cannot be built. The measure will now pass into Swiss law. A particular building shape is now forbidden. A 4% minority of the Swiss population -- also, and not coincidentally, its poorest 4% -- has been told that its buildings "endanger Swiss security". Banners held up banners in front of models of minarets that declared: "That is not my Switzerland".

In late 2004, France banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools. Alain Badiou wrote at the time: "France has astonished the world. After the tragedies, the farce."

"France has finally found a problem worthy of itself: the scarf draping the heads of a few girls. Decadence can be said to have been stopped in this country. The Muslim invasion, long diagnosed by Le Pen and confirmed nowadays by a slew of indubitable intellectuals, has found its interlocutor. The battle of Poitiers was kid's stuff, Charles Martel, only a hired gun. But Chirac, the Socialists, feminists and Enlightenment intellectuals suffering from Islamophobia will win the battle of the headscarf."

Badiou demolishes, in this splendidly angry, numbered text, the arguments that banning the headscarf is either a feminist or enlightenment gesture: "Either it's the father and eldest brother, and "feministly" the hijab must be torn off, or it's the girl herself standing by her belief, and "laically" it must be torn off. There is no good headscarf. Bareheaded! Everywhere! ...Everyone must go out bareheaded.

"One will never go into raptures enough over feminism's singular progression. Starting off with women's liberation, nowadays feminism avers that the "freedom" acquired is so obligatory that it requires girls (and not a single boy!) to be excluded owing to the sole fact of their dressing accoutrements."

Badiou is quite clear about what really underlies the ban.

"In truth of fact, the Scarfed Law expresses one thing and one thing alone: fear. Westerners in general, the French in particular, are but a shivering, fearful lot. What are they afraid of? Barbarians, as usual. Those from within, i.e. the "young suburbanites"; those from without, i.e. "Islamist terrorists." Why are they frightened? Because they are guilty, but claim to be innocent. They are guilty of having renounced and attempted to annihilate -- ever since the 1980s -- every kind of emancipatory politics, every revolutionary form of Reason, and every true assertion of something else. Guilty of clutching at their lousy privileges. Guilty of being but old children playing with their manifold purchases. Yes, indeed, "in a long childhood, they have been made to age." They are thus afraid of everything a little less aged. A stubborn young lady, for instance."

This is confirmed in European coverage of the Swiss minaret ban: "The Belgian newspaper Le Soir noted that some people found minarets "scary," and added, "There is a strong chance that if there was a vote in Belgium, a majority of citizens would be against it too."

The only thing that would prevent the Germans enacting similar bans would be the all-too-resonant similarity to the persecution of a religion in their 20th century history. And the EU's human rights stance. Here's the EU's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, righteously hammering Sarkozy as well as the Swiss (Sarkozy is currently leading a debate on whether the burka should be banned in France; his own stated position is that the burka "is not welcome"):

"In a statement on the Swiss vote, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, warned against narrowly defining national identity and pinpointed France's debate as a potential "trap of promoting one single identity, which defines who is included and, by extension, who is excluded."

Badiou points out that Islam is, in France, the religion of the poor. This is its real crime; to be associated with the economic underclass. Meanwhile, symbols of France's real mass religion -- business -- go unchecked in French schools:

"Isn't business the real mass religion? Compared to which Muslims look like an ascetic minority? Isn't the conspicuous symbol of this degrading religion what we can read on pants, sneakers and t-shirts: Nike, Chevignon, Lacoste... Isn't it cheaper yet to be a fashion victim at school than God's faithful servant? If I were to aim at hitting a bull's eye here -- aiming big -- I'd say everyone knows what's needed: a law against brand names. Get to work, Chirac. Let's ban the conspicuous symbols of Capital, with no compromises."

In a great lecture reprinted in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt asks What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy? "We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it," Judt says. "Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?"

The short answer: we are afraid of difference, and reluctant even to try to imagine it. As Badiou puts it in his Hard Talk interview: "We have no great and clear idea of another world."