Raphaël Liogier is the director of the Observatoire du religieux (www.world-religion-watch.org) and a University Professor in Sociology and Theory of Knowledge at the Institute for Political Studies of Aix-en-Provence in France (Science Po Aix). His last book, Souci de Soi, Conscience du Monde : Self Care, World Awareness, deals with the different aspects of the current individualization and globalization of beliefs.
The Niqab in the Occident: A Hyper-modern Spiritualist Trend.
Since the early 2000s, young women wearing the full veil have been becoming increasingly visible in Europe. One might easily take the resurgence of the veil, which covers the entire face except for the eyes in the tradition of Persian Gulf countries, to be the result of male imposition and the sudden salience of Islamic radicalism. However, neither is the case. This veil is not only by and large voluntary, but hyper-voluntary— it conveys a desire for asceticism, total existential makeover, and radical conversion by encapsulating one’s will and making it visible. That such a garment is difficult, if not painful, to wear is yet another reason for its desirability. It expresses no mere subservience to a social order or to an archaic culture, but a profound personal decision which is both binding and conspicuous. It is a veil of distinction, a means of distinguishing oneself in the eyes of God and others, not a tool of conversion. Were everyone to wear it, it would become less desirable. The issue is not one of knowing whether this is “true” Muslim attire. The Gospels do not advocate one style of dress over another, yet this has never prevented millions of Christians from proudly displaying crosses on their chests. What matters is the motivation of the faithful, which bestows meaning on their desire.
The investigation conducted by the Observatoire du Religieux (World Religion Watch) at Sciences Po Aix (Institute of Political Studies, Aix-en-Provence, France), concerning the niqab, sometimes inappropriately called the burqa, in Europe, has identified three categories of women in regards to their views on the veil. The first such category consists of young women between the ages of 17 and 30 from non-practicing families of Muslim origin, typified in the case of Khadîdja, a person of North African descent whose parents work in architecture and medicine and who she describes as not understanding her position. Khadîdja rejects anyone’s rights, especially her parents’, to be judgmental about her “choice.” She maintains that she wants to choose her own life and that no one has the right to impose guidelines on her chosen lifestyle. These young women generally do not adhere to any particular organization but harbor the intent to be “total” Muslims. Some neighborhoods, such as rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, a street in Paris where boutiques for Muslim accessories and “fundamentalist” bookshops are legion, are places where it is fashionable to show off one’s style.In other words, such a self-experimental proliferation of fashions and extreme, deliberately visible expressions, is precisely what defines hypermodernity.
The second category is made up of converts who have also set off on a quest for their “true” self. Between the ages of 30 and 50, such women are attempting to make amends for a regrettable past that is redolent of delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and drug use. For them, the niqab is redemption, a way of completely changing their ways. They may either be single, sometimes divorced or married. In the latter case, they impose their own spiritual disciplines and lifestyle principles on their husbands. The niqab also presents a way of proving commitment and devotion to their spouse and demanding in return a punctilious fidelity. Thus, the veil is an instrument of female empowerment within the couple.
The third and last category, significantly less prevalent in Europe and primarily found in predominantly Muslim countries like Indonesia, is the category which I refer to as post-menopausal. In fact, after menopause, the same traditional requirement of modesty expected during youth and maturity of Muslim women no longer holds and it is exactly at this point that certain women choose to begin wearing the niqab. This conversion, often sudden and described by those concerned as a demand of their rediscovered faith— a revival of sorts in addition to being a spiritual commitment falls into patterns of behavior ranging from coquetry to endeavoring to shroud one’s true age with mystery, thus maintaining an element of erotic magnetism. Such women are generally very evasive concerning their true age. The first two categories are not devoid of this erotic dimension either: maintaining the mystique of an elusive, self-effacing beauty, one which is veiled and hence to be deserved and won as extraordinary.
Most European women who have decided to don the niqab do not enounce such amenities as going to the cinema or dining out in a restaurant. They tend to wish to be seen as believers who are both modern and ascetic – trendy followers of a strict, demanding path. If they had not been of Pakistani, North African or sub-Saharan origin, they might have chosen to turn Gothic, neo-Buddhist, neo-Hindu, vegan, join a New Age group, dye their hair bright yellow or meditate ten hours a day and recite mantras. For these women, the status of Islam was initially both something very close because of nostalgia for cultural roots, yet inaccessible because of lost cultural roots. Hence it is desirable and mysterious, while at the same time remaining, of course, off limits and provocative.
We are, undeniably, in the presence of a form of fundamentalism: the desire to revert to fundamentals. However this new type of Muslim fundamentalism is very much akin to the attitude of a fraction of contemporary Western neo-Buddhists. They are not content, like the majority of their fellow devotees, with catching up on a few of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on CD-ROM and gracing meditation seminars from time to time, but are radical enough to participate in spiritual role-playing to shave their heads and don an eye-catching saffron robe, with the intent of sauntering barefoot across Paris’s Pont Neuf or braving London’s Hyde Park in broad daylight before vaguely curious and amused onlookers.
Only when it comes to the niqab, the vaguely curious are no longer amused, but rather petrified by fear, because they relay an image of Islamism, made hair-raising by the confinement of women behind this “terrible prison of cloth” and Machiavellian conspiracy against “our” sacred values. A common point amongst these women is, however, that the majority are notaffiliated with any specific Islamic organization, and self-confessedly responsive only to spiritualist views. So, the upshot is neither Islam nor communalism, but just plain spiritual individualism. Moreover, if indeed there has been violence for women around this issue in certain cases, banning the veil on city streets will by no means prevent men from imposing it in the home, while constraining those women who freely wish to wear it outside to forego their freedom. Though there may have been numberless women who have been physically abused with leather belts, no one has seriously floated the notion that belts should be publicly banned – punishment instead justly falls on the hand which strikes. Here lies the real, ugly question behind this somewhat overheated debate: how is this back-draught of irrational panic and phobic rejection haunting European societies today to be explained?
At the Nexus Between Domestic Socio-economic Causes and a Rapidly Evolving International Context: “Soft” European Islamophobia in the 1980s
We now revert to the 1980s, for it was then that the issue of Neighborhood Islamization first came to the fore in France. 1989 was to be a yardstick year, as it marks the first “affaire du foulard”, or the “Headscarf Debate”, a case involving three young Muslim girls who had been expelled from their Parisian school for wearing Muslim headscarves. The ensuing debate gripped the entire country, often turning sour. Following the oil crises of the mid 1970s, Western Europe had been hit below the belt by successive tidal waves of unemployment which, unlike past crises, affected both the middle and the working classes. Then camethe early 1980s when the children of post-World War II immigrant workers reached adulthood. These young Europeans from immigrant backgrounds reacted strongly to the exclusion that their parents had endured, voicing a growing feeling of never-ending frustration at being stranded peripherally in isolated low-standard housing blocks originally destined to the proletariat. At the same time, much of the rest of the population, which until then had considered “the Arabs” to be little more than post-colonial transit labor, woke up to the fact that this second generation was here to stay; it no longer being feasible to simply send them “back home.” From then on, the ethnic Arab population was in the firing line for stealing local jobs and “usurping” the very notion of French citizenship, illegitimately taking the place of “real Europeans.” Closely interlocking with this growing trend among the public at large were new developments in the arena of international conflict, namely the first wave of what is now called Islamic terrorism.
Islam, as an ideology, was to provide the materials for this second generation to construct (or reconstruct) their identity, as well as to be a vector for political commitment. Religion, along with the slang dialect of “verlan”, which is a kind of inverted, rhyming street-talk, and new trends in urban dress, became integral parts of this “banlieue”, or ghetto, culture in the same period. Islam, besides being a religion, henceforth acted as a sort of anti-racist and anti-colonial banner. This new generation, no longer a passive minority, aspired openly to display its difference. Logically, it was also during this period that the veil started to be worn by young girls as the marker of a sort of spiritual revival, a stylistic trait underpinned by a fundamentalist political dimension. Allied to this is the trend among growing numbers of youngsters from racial minorities who, though not originating from Muslim backgrounds per se, claim Islamic identity. One prominent example is rapper Abd el Malik who, originally hailing from a Catholic family from the Congo, has seen his image come to revolve around three key issues: social rebellion, Islam, and rap. This Islam, re-mastered by the younger generations as an anti-Western and anti-capitalist ideology of protest, culminating in the 9/11 attacks, was to be seen as a stumbling block by “native” Europeans, though not yet in more virulent terms than in the United States.
From Social and Economic Crisis to Civilizational Sea-change
From 2000 onward, the situation began to evolve. Up until 2008 at least, in Europe the economic crisis was no longer the main issue, surreptitiously replaced on the agenda by a slow-motion slide towards deeper civilizational, and in fact, symbolic, crisis, differing from that of America where concerns remained primarily focused on economic, social, and moral issues. On the international front, Europeans had at last taken on board that they were no longer America’s most valued partner. Indeed their influence and moral authority have been steadily waning while those of China and India have been steadily growing. Internally, the European Union has also been hit by the failure of the inter-regional Euro Mediterranean Barcelona process, followed by the fiasco of the so-called “Mediterranean Union.”
Accompanying these developments has been the failure of tentative moves toward European federalization, expressed in the complete incapacity of member states to come to an agreement on a common European Union constitution. The various nations of the European Union are entering into a period of mutual friction and frustration, struggling to define their identity, and refusing to cede their sovereignty to that of a centralized Europe, while at the same time attempting to come to terms with their relative insignificance as respective states in a globalized world. France, in particular, once a world intellectual powerhouse, is bearing the full brunt of becoming a peripheral player at the fringes of the Anglosphere, and soon of Asia too. Europeans increasingly harbor the feeling of being encircled, no longer counting on the world stage. Indeed, European nations are now quite unable to showcase their erstwhile supremacy.
Instead, these same nations are seeking out the roots of their identities, be they Catholic, Protestant, or “Rationalist”, and finding out in the process that they can’t even reach consensus on these. We have recently been gratified with a series of Europe-wide debates, often orchestrated by governments, on the idea of “national identity,” of which one of the most recent in France culminated in a bout of ill-concealed Islamophobia. Europeans no longer know what it is to be “French,” “British,” “Dutch,” “German” etc., and end up defining, by way of compensation, what they are not, and that is Muslim. Islam has become almost the only Europe-wide negative element which European identities can define themselves against. Islamization has become the final touchstone of evil in the effort to mobilize Europeans, to bestow meaning on the idea of Europe-wide identity. Halal products, the niqab, visually threatening minarets in the pastoral Swiss landscape, such are the encroaching signs of “ostensible Islamization”, enabling certain opinion-makers to single out the visible enemies of European civilization, enemies which all must rally to combat, together.
“Hard Islamophobia”: A Tool of Governance and Normalization From 2000
Islamophobic discourses, in such a climate, are no longer only tolerated, but actually encouraged, which was never the case during the 1980s. Headscarves were legally banned in state-run schools in France as from 2004. This is not only a crisis which affects the centralized French model of secularism, but rather a deeper symbolic shock-wave, affecting all of Europe, including the notably pluralist British, Dutch and Germans. Anti-Muslim leagues have shot up in popularity: the “English Defence League,” mainly created by former and current soccer hooligans, followed by the Dutch Defense League, and the French “Bloc Identitaire” and “Résistance Républicaine”, which typical French chauvinistic outfits. A whole host of such groupings are committed to fighting the apparent Islamization of Europe. An anti-jihad conference took place in Zurich in 2010 under the auspices of the International Civil Liberties Alliance which, belying its proclaimed credentials, and focused infinitely less on civil liberties than on the question of “de-Islamization.” Another international forum revolving around the “Islamization of our nations,” rallying all the aforementioned groupings, took place in December 2010 in Paris. Such groupings are no longer considered mere crackpot emanations of the extreme right, but henceforth deemed acceptable for airtime by normal media outlets, accompanied by certain politicians who, though democrats in theory, lend credence to their positions. “Riposte Laïque,” for example, a grouping which openly declares Islam to be a harmful religion by nature, was granted quite a serious hearing by the French parliamentary commission on the wearing of the niqab in 2009.
In the midst of this deleterious atmosphere, France recently proceeded to hold a national debate, relayed throughout Europe, on the issue of the niqab. Throughout this discussion period, five principal arguments were advanced in favor of banning the veil: the “feminist argument,” despite the fact that, in the European case, the wearing of the niqab is voluntary and has nothing in common with the same in the Afghan, Saudi or any other such context; the “humanist argument”, maintaining that one becomes unworthy of citizenship by the mere fact of hiding one’s eyes; the “security argument”, founded on the strange idea that by concealing one’s eyes behind a veil, one can more easily commit a terrorist attack or armed robbery, ignoring that one can just as easily do the same from behind a motorcycle helmet, or bandaged on leaving a hospital; the “theological argument,” somewhat ironical in an ostensibly secular state, which involves state representatives handing down interpretations of particular passages from the Qur’an; and finally the “epidemic argument,” the argument predicated on the need to eliminate “Islamic gangrene”, which is somehow infiltrating and disfiguring our beautiful pristine country. This final argument is usually the most enduring, even if the least rational, founded massively on a compulsive rejection of the “other,” in this case, in Muslim form.
Today’s New Global Islam, Far From Being a Threat to Western Societies, Is Actually Undermining the Influence of Islamism
Napoleon’s arrival in Cairo in 1799 marked the first great humiliation of the Arab-Muslim world by a major European power, a trend which was to culminate in a series of demeaning colonization schemes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The entire Muslim world was to find itself utterly dominated, firstly by military means, then by broader economic and technological factors. This period was also to see the beginning of a deeper symbolic crisis in Muslim societies, societies confronted with an advanced and modernized Europe. This crisis gave rise to a reaction: Islamic fundamentalism—an ostensible utopia of world political transformation culminating in the establishment of a truly Islamic society, a utopia reactive to the image of an “evil West,” a West which must be fought at any price. Islamism, the politicized version of fundamentalism, would lead to a desperate commitment to terrorism.
However, since the middle of the first decade of this century, Islam itself has undergone a radical transformation, starting with the development of a globalized halal food culture, closely mirroring that of bio-food chains. Halal restaurants, new trends of Islamic fashion, training in “Muslim personal development,” and eco-Islam are on the rise. Fundamentalism itself is steadily growing less and less “Islamist,” in other words it is becoming depoliticized, taking more of a spiritualist bent, almost New Age in tone in certain cases. It is now an individualist trend.
In advanced industrial societies, the unexpected wish of certain women to wear the niqab is one major illustration of this individualist transformation within Islam. Paradoxically, this new type of radicalism, imbued with eccentricity, has not resulted in a resurgence of Islamism itself, but rather entailed its loss of influence, in favor of a sort of depoliticized spiritualization, something which simply did not exist on any significant scale in the 1980s.
This is not, then, a case of Islam infiltrating modernity but, notwithstanding appearances, rather an ultramodern infiltration of Islam. The niqab is now a feature of the department of “globalized religious items,” to be found not only in Europe, but also in Australia, America and elsewhere, worn by the same kind of highly committed individual everywhere. This trend is as surprising for non-Muslims as it is for traditional Muslims themselves.
Indeed, this kind of transformation is not confined to Islam, but is currently affecting all religions. Religious traditions tend to be divided into three main areas: spiritualism, charismatism, and fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Islam, under Western influence, is merging with personal development style spiritualism, which is a manifestation of the ultramodern focus on the self, and thus steadily becoming depoliticized. The Muslim identity complex which entailed the rise of Islamism is diminishing in newer generations, particularly in the case of Euro-Muslims. The same holds, though more at a slower pace, in the Arab world. All this is strongly contributing to fatally undermine the relevance of Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations.”
One of the Most Dangerous “Turns” in Global History
In what is almost a complete reversal of historical fortunes, it is now the turn of the formerly dominant European nations to have to undergo their deepest symbolic self-searching in the last 300 years, and by way of reaction, to witness themselves morphing into fundamentalists. To the same extent that the West was described as the enemy of Islam, Islam is now becoming Europe’s number one public enemy. The “Muslim” has been granted enemy status, leading to the European illusion that by so doing they are somehow fighting the collapse of their own national identities. As stated above, through this targeting of Muslims, European identities can thus be defined by what they are not, giving the impression that globalization is being successfully resisted. European Muslims have fallen hostage to this trend which can be best described as a sort of rite of exorcism.
This situation is, of course, fraught with the worst dangers. It can be compared to the Dreyfus affair in France during the 1890s, or even worse, to Germany in the 1930s, where the image of the treacherous Jew arbitrarily became the collective scapegoat for a major crisis. This crisis, like today’s, was not only economic but also symbolic. Such scapegoating gives rise to all manner of infringement of commonly held public freedoms, up to the point where even openly discriminatory laws can easily be passed with no qualms of conscience. The French government is not even sincerely targeting the imposed wearing of the veil, for the latter already existed among recently arrived 1970s immigrants, without anyone getting the least upset. When all is said and done, the true target is the new, voluntarily worn veil of the 2000s, because it is taken to be a symbolic provocation.
Wherein lies a gross misreading which could turn out to be historically cataclysmic. Conversely to the 1980s, when the simple hijab, basic headscarf, may well also have figured as a form of political provocation or sign of revolt, the full veil of the 2000s is no signifier of Islamization but, on the contrary, one of Islamism’s decline before the inexorable rise of hypermodern religious individualism. The act of targeting this spiritualistic Islam by objectively discriminatory laws, such as the fall 2010 French Act of Parliament banning the niqab in public spaces, incidentally violates the elementary principles of European constitutions, and refurbishes credit to Islamism and its leaders. This again fuels the very frustration that is the source of anti-western reaction. The irony of it all is that those who think that they are fighting against Islamization of Europe today are, in their racist blindness, actually contributing to keep Islamism artificially alive.