An unwanted French revolution
The burqa is the most visible representation of the worst elements of sexism, subjugation and intolerance within Islam. To live life cloaked entirely in black from the hairs on your head to soles of your feet, and to see the majesty of the world only through a tiny slit in a hood, is to live no life at all. European society should indeed wish to see the practice of veiling within Islamic culture slowly wither away.
But in the banning the burqa, as the French have now formally begun to do, the Élysée has managed to turn it into a symbol of liberation and individual expression. Since no state holds the right to dictate what its citizens can or cannot wear, covering the face with a cut-price polyester sheet has somehow become a noble act of defiance against a government’s nastiest oppressive excesses.
In the French instance, this ban on the burqa (or the niqab, in reality) is the destructive consequence of what happens when the fault lines of muscular, exclusive Gallic secularism and continental Maghrebi-centric xenophobia collide. On the one hand, it is an extension of the colonial mission civilisatrice, a desire to bring colonials into the life and culture of the métropole by commanding them to adopt a superior language, values and faith.
At the same time, this edict is driven by the desperation of a weakened President who feels the need to appeal to and manipulate the pervasive undercurrent of bigotry which encompasses a significant bloc of French society that has made immigrants from former outposts in North and West Africa into hermits. In this case, those who come from the Maghreb in particular are being actively encouraged, if not forced, to adopt French customs or face exclusion from mainstream society.
All of this flies in the face of the most admirable tenets of French revolutionary thought; that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and “liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” It is also symbolic of France’s decay into a dualistic society: of the empowered, those who are culturally French in the nationalistic sense of the term; and the oppressed, those who are not. Visit any city on the mainland and observe the ghettoisation of Arabs and West Africans in les banlieues, Bantustans on the peripheries, whilst the masters inhabit the expensive and affluent centres.
If French and indeed European society wishes to achieve the emancipation of Muslim women from the practice of veiling, it will not be accomplished through this kind of negative decree. A ban on the burqa is as repressive and as hysterical as the fatawa issued by the ulama of Saudi Arabia or Iran, making the French government in effect indistinguishable from the worst elements of religious autocracy. If anything, the ban will only embolden the miniscule minority of Islamic French women who practice this kind of facial drapery.
Rather, it is the American model of openness and religious tolerance, where the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which demonstrates the liberating power of an inclusionary set of values working in tandem with education and economic empowerment. Waves of immigrants, from Catholic Irish and Italians, through Protestant Germans and indeed Muslims, have integrated themselves successfully into a society that places great values on contribution to the economic success of the nation, in addition to diversity and multiculturalism in the truest sense of the term.
The American constitutional, liberal model should be considered an exemplar to Western nations now and Middle Eastern states in the future. Benazir Bhutto – whose tragic, premature death struck a blow for the advance of moderate Islamic argument – put forth in her final tome Reconciliation that only democracy, education and the construction of an economic middle class could defeat the forces of militancy and extremism.
Education in particular, and individualism too, is even more vital in societies were men are the guardians of religious text and law. The cycle of oppression can only be broken, and the veil lifted from the face, by ijtihad: the independent interpretation of the holy sources, the Qur’an and the hadith. Literacy amongst women will shatter the control of access to information and enlightenment men presently have, and ought to enable women to discover for themselves that the burqa is by no means mandatory to religious observance.
The ban on the burqa, then, is no kind of victory at all, for those who wish to see Muslim women delivered from the medieval practice of covering one’s charms. Nor is it a triumph for sorority or equality, as Christopher Hitchens would have us believe. This is in fact a most unwanted and unnecessary French revolution, that will only serve to criminalise the practice of dressing now an individual sees fit, drive subjugated women underground into the clutches of oppressive masculine figures, and further entrench the partition of French society between those who are permitted to have and those for whom having is forbidden.
The international community is bickering over Libya like a dysfunctional family. Charles Krauthammer summarised the situation neatly in his column on Friday: “Britain wants the operation to be led by NATO. France adamantly disagrees. Germany wants no part of anything. Italy hints it might deny the allies the use of its air bases. Norway had planes in Crete ready to go but refused to let them fly until it had some idea who the hell is running the operation.”
And then there’s Turkey! Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is behaving like Charlie Sheen coming off a crack high after banging 7-gram rocks. His policy on Libya is reactionary and bipolar. One moment the government is condemning outright the use of force and French airstrikes on Gaddafi’s ground troops. The next, Erdoğan’s calling for NATO to lead the mission.
Then again, Erdoğan is a thug and a low-life, who’s flirted shamelessly with al-Assad and Ahmadinejad and, four months ago, even accepted the Al-Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights (akin to accepting a Medal of Liberty from Josef Stalin). Previous recipients include such luminaries as the anti-Semite and religious bigot Louis Farrakhan, and dictators Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
Germany too has thoroughly disgraced itself throughout the negotiations over a resolution and during subsequent talks with regard to NATO involvement. Merkel persistently blocked EU action in Libya, and aligned herself with Russia and China to abstain on the Security Council over the use of force. Now, Germany has pulled four of her ships out of the NATO command structure in the Mediterranean. Such decisions should, as Daniel Brossler has asserted, eliminate Germany as a serious candidate for permanent Security Council membership.
The chaos inside the coalition is only made worse by the mixed messages that are coming out not only of the United States government, but also the media talking shop too. Conservative politicians and commentators are chauvinistically declaring that America is (to quote Sean Hannity) the “greatest best country God has ever given man in the face of this Earth,” and that intervention in Libya is correct. But at the same time the fact it’s happening under Obama makes everything ipso facto a disaster.
Take the brazen volte-face Newt Gingrich has undertaken. Speaking on March 7, he declared: “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening. This is a moment to get rid of [Gaddafi]. Do it.” Fast forward to March 23, after the United Nations approved a resolution and the bombing had begun: “I would not have intervened,” Gingrich said, adding the next day that, “We are not in a position to go around the world every time there’s a local problem and intervene.” Suddenly what was all right for Iraq is all wrong for Libya.
President Obama, to counter this conservative bluster, should own this humanitarian intervention and help organise the family of nations into a cooperative, nuclear unit. Frustratingly however, he is trying to back away from the mission. On Monday, Obama announced that “there is going to be a transition taking place in which we have a range of coalition partners – the Europeans, members of the Arab league – who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone there.” In other words, the United States is looking to cut and run.
The operation should indeed by executed by a coalition, but events of the past week within the EU and NATO have exposed the leadership vacuum that exists once the United States stops taking command. “At a time when the world is hungry for America to lead,” Krauthammer states, “America is led by a man determined that it should not.” President Obama needs to recognise that, at a time when European states are slashing their defence budgets, in military terms America is still first among many. The United States has the world’s first and second largest air forces: he should start behaving like it.
Bombs for Peace
When Richard Holbrooke first visited Bosnia as a private citizen in 1992, he witnessed scenes that he would later describe as “genuine crime[s] against humanity.” But the countries of Europe were doing nothing to stop this ethnic cleansing, and “the Americans were doing less.” Holbrooke thought that only the use of force on the part of Western allies would stop the bloodshed. “The [Bosnian] Serbs would have melted away because they were thugs and bullies,” he said.
His strategy for a resolution to the conflict was called ‘bombs for peace’: the sustained use of hard power in order to cajole the parties of aggression in Yugoslavia to the negotiating table. Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2008, Holbrooke said the following: “I don’t like to advocate the use of force, [because] I know people will get killed. But there are times when you have to use force in order to stop people from being killed in larger numbers, and it seemed to me this was a clear-cut example.”
So we come to Libya. The United States is due to hold a vote this evening on a resolution which would support “all necessary measures short of an occupation force” in order to shore up the rebel opposition and protect civilians in the midst of this brutal, vicious civil war. The United States – having been static for some days – has come behind the resolution, and now in fact supports aerial bombardment as a means to ending the conflict.
It took eight weeks of bombing on the part of NATO to bring a three-and-a-half year conflict to an end to Bosnia. In Libya, fighting has dragged on for three-and-a-half weeks. It has been long enough. The planes are ready; the pilots prepared. The United Nations must pass this resolution, as to cut short not only the weeks of Western wavering, but the needless slaughter of Libyans who fight only for their incontrovertible right to live as free men.
In Support of the Arab League
Having been resigned to the idea that the military option was off the table, it was satisfying to read a report from Haaretz which outlined plans currently under consideration in the Arab League to impose a no-fly zone on Libya, in coordination with the African Union. “The Arab League will not stand with its hands tied while the blood of the brotherly Libyan people is spilled,” Secretary-General Amr Moussa stated.
It is evident that, given the amount of wealth Arab strongmen have spent on armaments in recent times, that technologically the League would be capable of taking out key installations by air in order to enforce the zone. Moreover, if such an action was arranged by Arab states, not only would it bestow a tremendous sense of legitimacy upon the whole process, but it would save the United States and the United Kingdom the trouble of becoming embroiled in a third protracted military affair.
That the Obama administration has poured cold water on the Arab League proposals is disheartening. “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down,” Sec. Gates told a congressional hearing. Hopefully, the President will ‘grapple’ with this conundrum in a swifter manner than his current evolutionary process with regard the correct stance on gay marriage.
The United Kingdom, then, potentially freed from the obligation of unilateral action, has taken bold steps to help alleviate the refugee crisis on Tunisia’s overwhelmed border. With the help her ally France, and Tunisia too, a mass airlift of Egyptian refugees from the border to Cairo has begun to aid some of the 85,000 victims of war stranded on Libya’s westerly flank.
This Anglo-French effort is a most promising development, as international aid organisations in cooperation with the world’s more powerful nations start to face up to the darker side of a revolution which has been left out to sour like so much tepid milk. Hopefully, the sheer scale of humanity attempting to flee Libya in the face of increased hostility from Gaffadi in this civil war will alert the United States to the necessity of an Arab League-led enforcement of a no-fly zone. The war must end, and it must end now.