By Ahmed E. Souaiaia *
When school started in France this fall, Muslim children who wished to wear an abaya (for girls) or a qamis (for boys) had to choose between the dress and education. They were compelled to make the difficult choice because the French government banned Islamic attire that offends secularism. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, defended the ban, stressing that it aims to defend secularism and the principles of the republic, but also went further to connect Islamic dress to terrorism:
“We also live in our society with a minority, with people who change the direction of a religion and come to challenge the Republic and secularism… Sometimes the worst happened. We cannot act as if there had been no terrorist attack and there was no Samuel Paty.”
This statement is an explicit confirmation that the ban is not an instrument that applies to all to preserve the “neutral space” that secularism allegedly creates. It is a ban that targets a specific social group, Muslims. Moreover, the ban is targeting Muslims, according to Macron, because Islamic practices, including wearing a traditional dress, produces terrorism. These are the values, the reasoning, and the principles of the “enlightened world” that must be universalized, again, as per Macron’s recent instructions to his diplomatic core.
The right to education that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was produced by the Western world at the conclusion of the European wars, and that was used thereafter as a political instrument to deprive formerly colonized countries of their sovereignty, this universal right to education, is abrogated because secularism, which is not enshrined in any of the articles of the said declaration, is allegedly under threat.
If more context is needed to see the supremacist undercurrent in this ban, consider the reaction of Western countries to the head dress protest that took place in Iran just about a year ago: Western governments condemned Iran and some Western governments imposed harsh sanctions on Iran because these Western governments, including France’s, claimed that Iran was violating woman rights—women’s right to wear whatever they wish to wear—a right France is denying to Muslim women who chose to wear abaya and head dress by compelling them to choose between Islamic attire and education.
The French republic has principles and these principles, in the eyes of the ruling Western elite, are universal. The principles of the republic, including its commitment to secularism, override all other principles, including children’s right to education.
It follows that, the Islamic republic of Iran, according to Western leaders, cannot have any principles, values, or cultural norms that must be respected. In the eyes of French leaders, Iranian women are absolutely entitled to embrace Western values and Western attire. But Muslim-French women have no right to wear what they wish to wear in France. The principles of the French republic protects the rights of women who wish to adopt French norms inside and outside France. But a Muslim country, like Iran, has no right to require a dress code in public spaces.
From the point of view of human rights law, as defined and applied by many institutions including the ICC, the action of the Iranian government should not be compared to that of the French government because the Iranian dress code, applies to all women regardless of religion, ethnicity, residency status, or any other factor: if you are to be present in public places, even if you are just visiting, the Iranian government mandates that a specific attire is worn.
The French ban, on the other hand, as Macron’s statement makes explicit, targets specific social group: French citizens or residents who are Muslim. The ban is coercive assimilation intended to erase Islamic culture or force French Muslims to embrace an “Enlightened Islam”, as defined by Macron as well. That is textbook example of cultural genocide.
France’s contempt to Islamic culture, Islamic values, and Islamic institutions is clear. It has been shielded by a veneer of nice-sounding slogans and deliberately coded language.
However, over the last decade and half, after their illegal invasion of Iraq, their supply of weapons and support to armed groups in Syria and Libya, their discriminatory handling of the global pandemic, and their reaction to war in Ukraine… that veneer was shattered, revealing cruel supremacism that privileges Europe as the “garden of prosperity” and the rest of the world as a “jungle”.
Unlike their collective, coordinated reaction to Iran’s protest over the headscarf issue, Western governments did not react at all to France’s Muslim ban. Their silence is curious because, from an international humanitarian law perspective, the very law they often use to justify their invasions of sovereign nation-states, the ban is a human rights violation because it deprives young Muslim men and women from the right to education. The basic standard for determining eligibility for asylum is whether a person has reasonable fear of denial of basic rights. In this case, young Muslims are not merely fearful that their right to education is denied, the ban takes away their right to education unless they give up their right to their religious beliefs and cultural practices—as a matter of law.
Macron’s absurd connection of Islamic cultural attire to acts of terrorism is dangerously counterproductive because his support to the ban gives credence to the argument often presented by violent extremists that France is anti-Islam and at war with Muslims. Macron just made the argument for them and banned Muslim children from public schools, forcing them to attend private school that could be run by such extremists!
While it is unfortunate that Muslims in Europe must endure the brunt of systemic exclusion and forced assimilation, these aggressive governmental actions on behalf of the so-called “decent societies” expose Western government’s instrumentalization of human rights for geopolitical and economic purposes, which have harmed genuine human rights concerns.
As has been the case with all human civilizations that are now extinct, when hubris and supremacism widen the gap between the ideals and the practices of the leading societies of a civilization, the civilization collapses. Such a civilization collapses even when there is no true alternative to fill the void previously occupied by the dominant society that drives such a civilization. This is true because ideals and values are so powerful that when they are betrayed by exploitative, selfish practices, they are capable of collapsing dynasties no matter how strong—materially and militarily—such dynasties might be.
Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.