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‘They say all Muslims are terrorists’

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
FRANCE'S TORY government recently passed a new law banning school students from wearing the hijab-the headscarf worn by some Muslim women. Salma Yaqoob is standing for the European Parliament as a Respect candidate in the West Midlands. She recently s
Issue 1895

Christine Delphy

‘THIS IS not the first time the hijab has become an issue in France. It happened in 1989 and in 1994, but this is the most dramatic attack. The higher courts in France upheld people’s right to wear what they wanted, as long as they did not try to spread their beliefs. So now the government has changed the law.

The new law bans religious symbols in schools, but everyone knows it is aimed at the hijab. It is aimed at the people who are descendants of north African immigrants. North Africa was colonised by France. The north African immigrants and their children face a continuation of the racism that began with colonisation and has never stopped.

It is racism towards these people and their descendants that lies behind the ban on the hijab. They are called ‘second or third generation immigrants’. That phrase shows how they are excluded and seen as outside the national community. The Islam of the young people in France today is very different from the Islam of their parents. They turn to Islam because they want to turn something that was a stigma into something positive. They are always being called ‘different’, so they turn this around by embracing that difference. The most visible sign of this is the hijab.

It is a reaction to the racism they experience. The people who try to justify the ban use grand words-‘the Republic’, ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ and ‘gender equality’.

We never heard anything about gender equality before. Now these old men are banging on about how the hijab breaches equality legislation when they don’t know what that legislation is and certainly don’t care about enforcing it.

They say that Muslims are testing the limits of the Republic-that it will be the hijab today and Sharia law tomorrow. It’s ridiculous to think that a minority could impose their views on a Western country.

But deep down people are convinced that Islam is the enemy of the West. It is George Bush’s agenda but it’s worse because France has a large Arab population so they are seen as the enemy within, the fifth column. The media push this view that any Arab is potentially a Muslim, and any Muslim is potentially a terrorist ready to strike any time, any place. Of course, the word potentially gets missed out.

People think there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim, so every Muslim is a walking time bomb. Some 80 percent of French teachers support the hijab ban. They gave important evidence to the parliamentary committee that investigated whether to ban the hijab.

But only 15 percent of the teachers had actually ever come into contact with anyone wearing a hijab. The ban on the hijab will do nothing for women’s rights. It is an excuse for the government to do nothing about women’s rights or about racism. They are criminalising people who are the victims of racism. You can’t identify a whole community as a terrorist threat and then say now we are going to introduce positive discrimination for that community.

And to women the government will say you have your ban on the hijab-that’s it. The feminist movement walked into the trap. Some feminists have endorsed the ban very strongly. At some meetings women I have worked with for 30 years called me a traitor and refused to speak to me.

The feminist movement in France has split, but most backed the ban. We have organised a collective called Schools for Everybody, to campaign against pupils being expelled from school for wearing the hijab. Within that we have a group called Feminists for Equality. It involves women wearing the hijab and women who don’t.

We didn’t have a very big movement against the Afghan war in France. The protests over Iraq were bigger, but there was no idea of forging an alliance with Muslim organisations or groups representing north Africans. The children of the north African immigrants have become a visible minority. Now the French government is telling them to become invisible again.

But I don’t think it will work. These people are French citizens with rights and they won’t give them up easily.’

Salma Yaqoob

‘IT IS important that we keep our eye on the real enemy. Together with the hype around terror alerts, the issues of Muslim integration and the headscarf are acting as weapons of mass distraction. The demonisation of Muslims and the Islamophobia we are witnessing is not accidental. It provides the important distraction for the powerful elite-those people who profit when there is a war and when public services are sold. A scared population asks less demanding questions of its leaders.

Such demonisation is not a new phenomenon. We have seen the hatred of Communists and Russia through the Cold War period-Reagan referred to Russia as the ‘evil empire’ and now we have a new ‘axis of evil’. And of course there was the demonisation of Jews by Hitler in the run-up to the Second World War.

What is worrying is that in some key countries such as here in France, the left, who are the natural defenders of minorities and the oppressed, have also been seduced by the distraction strategy. Muslims in France have the unenviable position of being vilified by both the right and left elements.

I believe that just as it is wrong to enforce the wearing of veils in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, similarly it is wrong to enforce removal of the veil in France.

It only serves to foster divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims. It adds fuel to the fires of Islamophobia. For Muslims it encourages a retreat from engagement with non-Muslims.

When we are divided, it is the far right who gain. Our ability to challenge racism and defend our quality of life is undermined. We often hear about the problems of people in developing countries, but there are some very real problems being encountered by ordinary people in Western countries that also need to be urgently addressed.

We are facing an assault on working people by neo-liberals who are attacking our basic rights in every area of life, from birth to death. What they call ‘modernisation’ is in fact the rolling back of rights that have been won through hard struggle by working people throughout the last century.

From privatisation of public services to the shrinking of pension rights, European governments have time and time again shown that they are keener to meet the needs of multinational corporations, the IMF and banks. Our solidarity is our main weapon in fighting back.

Instead of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Arab, Muslim world and the West, the international anti-war movement has enacted a ‘civilisation of solidarity’ between East and West.

And it is in that unity and solidarity that we, the ordinary people of the world, have the potential to become the world’s other superpower. At the heart of the British Stop the War Coalition was a crucial alliance between socialists and Muslims which acted as a catalyst for a broad and inclusive movement. An alliance which put forward a very simple message: that the dividing line between people is not East and West, or Muslims against non-Muslims, but between oppressor and oppressed.

We must stand with those who are oppressed-whoever they are-whether they are from within our communities or outside of them. And we must stand against oppressors-whoever they are-whether they are from within our communities or outside of them. This has been a point of principle for radicals through the ages.

I am thankful for the solidarity of the left and Muslims in Britain. However, our unity was not automatic. We had to fight for it. Because we are potentially so powerful our enemies always try to divide us. I found that as I engaged in the wider movement I had to challenge many preconceptions and stereotypes that non-Muslims had of the Muslim community.

It is funny, but some socialists feared that their secularity might become diluted by working with Muslims, and some Muslims were suspicious of working closely with the socialists, fearing their spirituality might become diluted! By working together, however, we were able to build a strong and vibrant anti-war movement, exceeding in numbers and diversity any previous mobilisations.’

  • Christine Delphy and Salma Yaqoob will be speaking at the Globalise Resistance conference, ‘War, poverty and resistance’, on Saturday 24 April. They will join Walden Bello, David Shayler, Mark Curtis and others. For more information go to or phone 020 7053 2071.
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