Muslim candidate Ilham Moussaid unveils Islamophobia in the French Left

Posted March 1, 2010

Hundreds of members of the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) are running as candidates in the upcoming French regional elections where they will speak for the party’s platform of revolutionary anti-capitalism, feminism, and ecology. In the southern city of Avignon, one candidate has become a media sensation for all the wrong reasons. Ilham Moussaid, a activist in a youth association who also works on international solidarity issues, has been branded “the veiled candidate” by French media because, as a practicing Muslim, she covers her hair with a scarf.

Ilham Moussaid

France has a significant Muslim population concentrated in slum-like suburban neighborhoods, banlieues or quartiers populaires, with large communities of immigrants from former French colonies in north and west Africa. The growth of Islam in France is closely linked to an increase in immigration into the imperialist center – and thus to reactionary paranoia about “national identity.” In recent decades, a flash point of this controversy has been the wearing of hijab by Muslim women. Because the left-wing tradition in France (going back to the birth of the Republic in 1789) has always been opposed to the legacy of Catholic clerical authority, criticism of headscarves have drawn in both the xenophobic Right as well as some secular feminists.

Revealing the extent to which these ideas pervade even the Left, the mainstream Socialist Party has declared that they would oppose consideration of such a candidate, based solely on her head-covering!

Responding the the controversy, the NPA leadership issued a statement as part of an ongoing discussion in the Party on this question. As it continues to grow in size and influence the handling of this question is extremely important if the NPA will become a champion of the oppressed in France.

In the important spirit of international dialogue and debate, Solidarity members have discussed the controversy and the NPA response. As a result of strong movements for self-determination by minority populations in the United States as well as the coexistence of religious belief and the radical left, the point of view of Solidarity members as well as the US socialist left and population as a whole differs from their French counterparts. Solidarity members share a recognition that tactical decisions in France are most clear to those on the ground. But socialists around the world can learn from the debate over the headscarf, even if our national cultures every very different.

Read an interview with Ilham Moussaid here and the Statement by the National Executive Committee of the NPA here.

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Ryan: So many questions come to mind upon reading this statement from the NPA Exec. I feel it does not go far enough in defense of Moussaid. How do they expect to appeal to Muslims in France when taking such positions? Some parts of the statement appear to not fully back their own candidate simply because she wears a headscarf and this makes too much of a concession to French Islamophobia’s goal that no practicing Muslim should have a place in civic life. By prioritizing consistent advocacy of secularism (which Moussaid is on the record as supporting) and not consistent advocacy of oppressed groups, this ignores the actual dynamics of oppression against Muslims, immigrants, and non-whites in France.

An Iranian comrade in Atlanta who started a group “Fight Islamophobia in Georgia” in response to racist whites who were opposed to the expansion of a masjid in the suburbs, knows that I follow FI and NPA politics. She sent this article to me with the following quip:

“the more they talk about this the worse it gets. this is written as: hijab IS an instrument of oppression, no doubt about it, but ilham is essentially too dumb or too blind to understand and experience it as such (maybe one day she’ll realize the mistake she’s made and be truly “liberated!”)”

What will it take for the European Left to shake this disgusting and counter-productive perspective?

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Steve: Ryan’s critique is 100 percent on target, IMO. This is an issue that many in the LCR [Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, the group that helped found the NPA] got wrong too, though there was a countercurrent. I have never quite been able to get a clear picture of the strength of the different sentiments among our comrades in France. But the general trend of discussions I did overhear did not make me feel as if the issue was being approached in a genuinely Marxist manner–that is, with respect for self-determination as our guiding principle.

The division between “anti-clerical/feminism” and “the fight against Islamophobia” should not exist. We can and should defend both at the same time. The only requirement to do so in this case is to make a distinction between religious symbols that are imposed–by the state, by custom, by family in the name of religious duty, or whatever–which anti-clerical feminism cannot tolerate under any conditions, and religious symbols (to the extent a headscarf is, indeed, a religious symbol but let’s leave that aside) that are worn as the result of personal choices made by individuals. The anti-clerical feminism/secularism we favor should not be a variety that imposes our choices on individuals either. It should be one that supports the right of individuals to make their own personal choices, even if the choices they make sometimes disagree with the choices our “anti-clerical feminism” considers correct and proper.

Further: “Anti-clerical feminists” in France also need to recognize that there are honest feminist women coming from different cultural backgrounds who do not see symbols like this in the same way that anti-clerical feminists from France see them, understand that their task is to open a dialogue with Ilham to widen their horizons, not to take their distance from her in reaction to mainstream public opinion.

Personally, when I heard about this candidacy I had hoped it was an indication that some of the problems around this issue among our French cothinkers had been positively resolved. The statement Ryan forwards sends the opposite message, however.

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Bill: I’m basically ok with NPA leadership statement. Secularism is a powerful force is French society with origins in the Revolution of 1789. Working class struggles of the 19th and early 20th centuries were always strongly secular and militantly anti-clerical. NPA leadership is attempting to bridge differences within party ranks grounded in the realities of French society, history and politics. We have a different history and framework here. Our criticism should recognize this.

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Paul: So? Anti-clericalism in France is opposition to the authority of the Catholic Church there, the dominant religious institution there.  Islam is a minority religion and its adherents in France constitute an oppressed minority facing persecution, intolerance and bigotry.  Big difference there. 

If we’re talking about a “different history and framework” it may be more useful to compare societies based on different religious traditions, such as France and Iran, rather than two Western nations (France and the U.S.) where variants of Christianity dominate.  In Iran, I would think socialist revolutionaries would prioritize the defense of the right of women NOT to veil themselves as part of an anti-clerical and pro-feminist defense of democratic rights.  In France, socialists should defend the right of self-determination by Muslim women to express their beliefs and as a statement against Islamophobia.

Steve and Ryan made this case very eloquently in their posts.  This question seems really basic to me.

Bill, where would you stand on protests in France against the ban on the veil in the schools?  For, against, or on the sidelines?

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Charlie: Bill is correct– historically the workers’ movement embraced the secularism of the French republican radical tradition. However, over the past twenty odd years, the French Gaullist right and center, and the social liberals in the SP and reformists in the CP have used this tradition of “secular radicalism” to deny the existence of race and racism in France. Not only has the “republican tradition” been used to justify targeting the growing Muslim population in France for discriminatory treatment– the ban on the headscarf in the schools– but to forbid the gathering of information based on race and, as a result, any possibility of affirmative action programs for oppressed racial groups (Afro Caribbeans, North Africans, Muslims from the Middle East) in France. Instead, the “republican tradition” has been the basis of blaming the victims of racism in France for their own poverty– the claims that they have “self-isolated” and “failed to integrate into the French nation.”

Given this contemporary reality, I have to support the current in the NPA (many of whom were leading members of the LCR) who have demanded that the anti-capitalist left take up the struggle against racism– in particular Islamaphobia– in France, which as Steve and others point out is completely compatible with our revolutionary feminism and secularism.

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Catherine: I’d like to echo some sentiments already expressed, and add a couple of thoughts to this discussion.  

The discourse about the veil is first and foremost a colonialist discourse. In 19th century Egypt, colonizers and Egyptian elites argued for the “liberation” of women through modernizing projects that benefited those Egyptians largely oriented towards the West, but excluded most Egyptians, deepening class divisions within Egypt. Colonial reforms in education, work and the family drew on the vast archive of Orientalist texts and images that produced gross misunderstandings of Islam, and removal of the veil became part of the occupiers’ strategy for undermining Egyptian (and subsequently Algerian, Iraqi, Afghan, etc) culture. 

The British colonizers were against any feminist reforms within their own countries, and the Egyptian elites who espoused feminist ideals were mostly elite men who sought to benefit from the colonial economy. So from the beginning, the colonial discourse of the veil is also a deeply patriarchal discourse between colonialist men and Westernized elite Arab/Middle Eastern men. The dominant anti-colonial discourse, then, responded to the focus on the veil by defending it, further reinforcing its new significatory power. It is this moment, this new discourse of the veil, that is responsible for inextricably linking the question of “women’s status” with much broader questions about class, culture, “progress,” control, independence and the future of the Middle East.  

We’ve seen this discourse reproduced over and over again in many parts of the Arab/Muslim world since the 19th century, and recently from the mouths of George Bush, Jack Straw, etc., where a focus on the veil masks the larger projects of occupation, war, and neoliberal material and ideological conquest. As in the 19th century, feminism is harnessed in the service of imperialism. The obsessive focus on the veil among non-Muslims is always a discussion of the veil as signification, and so draws on and reinforces the early colonial discourses. Even though the left is not coming at this from the perspective of the colonizers, we must be astute to what is at work in this obsessive focus on the veil and the ways in which the left participates in that power play. 

This power play is also what drives the construction of religion and secularism as binary opposites. There is nothing inherently oppressive within religion and religiosity, just as there is nothing inherently liberatory within secularism. The worst crimes of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism occurred under secular regimes. The idea that a liberated person is only one who either sheds all religiosity or banishes her religiosity to the space of the private is an idea shaped by power. It is the power of the secular that has relegated religion to the private and defined modernity and what it means to be modern as deeply secular.

When the left wants to further explore religion, what it is really seeking is a discussion of Islam. The idea that Islam is an exceptional religion is a victory of colonialism and the War on Terror that have deeply influenced even the left. The left and other progressives don’t sit around debating the ways that African-American Christianity was central to the Civil Rights movement, or the ways that Catholic liberation theology was central to many Latin American resistance movements. Those traditions, those religions, are not seen as problematic. It is only Islam that is seen as somehow inherently patriarchal, inflexible and totalitarian. Socialists, by the way, should be sensitive to this given how deeply fearful and suspicious of socialism people are based in part on how only certain (totalitarian) experiments of socialism get trotted out as de facto socialism! There are many socialisms, Christianities, secularisms, Islams…  

As many have said, we must resist Islamophobia at every level. I also think we have to move beyond thinking about religion and secularism in such binary terms. Religious precepts have deeply informed movements for and notions about social justice, just as many secular precepts have. There is a growing transnational network of Muslim feminists who are engaging their particular communities around notions of gender justice, and much of their praxis is about drawing on the ethical vision in Islam. Rather than interrogating women’s bodies and religious practices, we should interrogate our own deepest assumptions about the narrow ways we construct liberation and a liberated person.

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John: I always liked Engels’ very simply and incisive line on this question – socialists unconditionally oppose the state sticking it’s nose into anybody’s private business or (religious) practice. Democratic religious freedom means removing the boot of the state from everybody’s neck, and fighting against any proscription/banning of religious practices. I agree with Ryan – secularism in this case is just a cover for Islamophobic oppression. And imposed secularism is always totalitarian. It also always inevitably “backfires” against the wishes of supposed secular liberators (look at how the Communist anti-religious madness in Russia and Poland actually increased religious practice and feeling in those countries.)


4 responses to “Muslim candidate Ilham Moussaid unveils Islamophobia in the French Left”

  1. R Avatar

    From Fred Borras in the NPA newspaper (excerpted here:

    “The social democratic Socialist Party (PS) and French Communist Party (PCF) cannot resist joining in. Aurélie Filippetti of the PS suggests we reread our Marx. She should take her own advice. This would equip her to understand both the causes of capitalism’s crisis and the insipidity of the PS’s response.”

    When the PS is lecturing the NPA to “reread [their] Marx,” that’s one out of many clear signals that this debate is whack! I’d urge people to read the Socialist Review article Isaac linked. Moussaid herself gives a pretty sharp analysis of how Islamophobia is mobilized by the center and right to divide the working class and marginalize the demands of those hardest hit by neoliberalism. In this sense, it seems the left (PS, PCF, etc.) is making itself much more useful to the capitalist class than is Le Pen…and of course that’s nothing new.

  2. Isaac Avatar

    I understood that as a possible translation issue – or another possibility is that there are international solidarity networks that arose in response to those events in the 90s and persist today around other issues. In the USA there are activist networks like the CISPES that originated in response to the contra war in El Salvador and are still active today around things like the coup in Honduras. Or, United Students Against Sweatshops which has a much broader agenda. Not saying this is the case, but possibilities.

    As for my own thoughts on the issue, I first of all stand with Ilham in what is surely a really uncomfortable and hurtful position to be in. I’m around her age and it would really bother me to be made into such a spectacle. This is an important moment for the NPA to distinguish itself and face the 800 pound elephant of Islamophobia in French society.

    The USA or the left in the US is clearly no stellar example of feminism or anti-racism. But, as I alluded to in the introduction, the legacy of the African-American freedom struggle in particular, and other liberation movements inspired by it, have imparted a kind of kneejerk defense of minorities within much of the left. That’s healthy, and something that does not exist in France around this question. The default “secularism” reminds me of the default “colorblindness” of the early days of the (white) socialist movement in the US… easy for the dominant group to say! It surprised me several years ago when I learned that the LCR had been silent during the recent moments of anti-headscarf mania.

    [In fact, I’d attended a picket of the French embassy organized by young Muslim activists I’d become friends with through antiwar and Palestine solidarity activism. Out of 60 or 70 people, there were only a handful of men, including the imam of a large mosque – the leaders were all young women who chose to wear some form of head covering. We considered it very ironic and telling that when the police came to harass us, they walked around until they could find the “male authority figure” who explained he was not in charge!]

    So, I think the NPA statement is not as strong as I would like it to be. If I was writing an abstract statement, it would be different. I would hope that the NPA and independent movements of Muslims and especially Muslim women in France can lead a shift in the whole society. But, I also recognize that this is a statement coming out of a party with internal conflicts on the matter, that reflects that tension.

    In this interview with English-speaking NPA member John Mullen he says that “the NPA leadership have been very defensive on the issue… This is because they know that their own party is deeply divided.” It’s apparently the case that something like half of the NPA still needs to be won over to defending the rights of Muslim women – and in that kind of situation, a one-sided exec statement would be potentially damaging to this longer term struggle. I wish best of luck to Ilham and other NPA members organizing around this question.

    I am interested in the process of fusion between militant immigrants and Muslims in France (with its contradictions) and longer tradition of the secular, national French left (with its contradictions.) Once again looking for an analogy in the USA, I’m reminded of the efforts of the Communist Party USA to recruit southern white workers in the 1930s. Instead, only African-Americans joined… hundreds of them!

    But, what would have happened if – rather than a handful of white CP organizers from the US north coming south – there was a pre-existing left wing organization in Alabama, which had evolved from the Socialist Party of America and retained a weaker position of anti-racism?

  3. Joe Avatar

    From the Socialist Review link: “I was also active in the collective networks … against the genocide in Rwanda and in Kosovo.” Kosovo was in 1999 (and not really a genocide), Rwanda was in 1994, and she’s 21. D’oh!

  4. MN Roy Avatar
    MN Roy

    When was the last time anyone in authority in the PS read Marx, or at least, Karl Marx, that is, let alone took his ideas seriously enough to try to put them into practice.

    After all, isn’t this party the successor organization of the same party (the SFIO) that supported French imperialism in WWI, disarmed (with the help of the CP) the 1936 general strike (paving the way for WWII and Vichy) and which ran the racist colonial wars against the Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions?

    The name may have changed, but as their policies in power under Mitterand and Jospain showed, it’s the same garbage in a different pail.

    As for me, I’ll take a revolutionary in a headscarf any day over a reformist (or worse) in secular garb. If I’m not mistaken, not a few of the latter signed on for the “War on Terror,: amongst other things.