OF all the countries of Europe, France has the best chance of coping successfully with large-scale Muslim immigration. That’s not to say it’s a very big chance, but it has some chance. This is because of France’s strong republican ideology. This enables it to confer benefits as well as responsibilities on citizens regardless of ethnicity. French republicanism demands something of the citizen and asserts certain fundamental values.
This is most evident in the law banning the hijab, or Muslim headdress, from state schools. Last week a French parliamentary committee recommended banning the full Muslim burka in government offices, public transport, hospitals and schools.
The hijab is a bit more than a loose scarf that covers all the hair and generally the shoulders. The niqab reveals only the eyes and the burka covers everything, allowing a woman to see only through some sort of mesh arrangement. However, burka is the term most commonly used in the West to mean full face-covering, body length female Muslim attire.
France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has been the most effective Western statesman on these issues. He gave an eloquent speech last year in which he rejected the burka and said it offends French values. This was not primarily because of the distance and separation the burka enforces between its wearer and the broader society. Rather, it was because of women’s rights.
When, in 2005, the French banned the hijab, I thought they were making a mistake. Broadly speaking, I don’t really care what anybody wears. But I was wrong. Spending time in France last year, I realised the French see this as a great liberal reform in the interests of women’s rights. The French go to great lengths to distinguish secular from religious spaces. They have gone to great lengths to make this law non-discriminatory. At state schools, Christians cannot wear large crosses, Jews cannot wear yarmulkes, Sikhs cannot wear turbans.
The truth is this law was aimed at Muslims. And everyone knows this. One consequence of large-scale Muslim immigration, therefore, is that all of France has to become a little less liberal, in that Christians, Jews and Sikhs must suffer restrictions when there was no problem at all in their religious dress. But the hijab is both a symbol and a tool of the repression of women. The reform has been such a success because for several hours each day, young Muslim women at state schools are French women, with the rights and independence and respect that accrue to French women. They are for that time no longer subject to the rules of their brothers and fathers and the religious extremists in their communities.
Incidentally, the French rules are similar to those that have applied in Turkey for much of its modern history.
But the most important aspect of the French law is that it makes explicit to the Muslim minority the demand that to be a French citizen you must subscribe to, and live up to, certain French civic values, of which equality for women is one. The proposed limited ban on the burka is an extension of this. And here is a perplexing conundrum. If you really believe that women, but not men, should be fully covered, why would you want to live in a society such as France, or indeed Australia, in the first place?
Here we meet a hard truth of Muslim immigration to Europe, and perhaps to Australia. There is a strong body of belief that at least a large number of the African, and especially Maghrebi, Muslims who move to Europe do so not to embrace the European lifestyle, that is to pay the immigrant’s traditional compliment to the new society, but to recreate their Third World lifestyle at a European standard of living.
Diversity is a good thing and there is a vast range of values and traditions that are perfectly acceptable in most Western societies. But women’s inherent inequality is not one of them.
Muslim immigration to Australia and the US has so far been much more successful than Muslim immigration to Europe. This is often seen to be a consequence of our superior settlement policies, in particular that the US not only confers rights on immigrants but imposes civic obligations on them as well. The truth might be that it is just because the relative numbers of Muslims in the US and Australia are so much smaller.
Mass Muslim immigration challenges a liberal Western society in a way that no previous immigration did, in part because most mainstream interpretations of Islam see it as requiring its adherents to establish a political order as well as a religious order. The vast majority of Australian Muslims are perfectly law abiding, happy with the Australian civic order and in every way good citizens. But the experience of Europe strongly suggests this could be quite different if the Muslim minority were much, much larger.
For societies such as Australia and the US, the traditional pro-immigration bias, which I wholly share, may need some calibration in relation to Muslim immigration. Successful immigration involves acceptance and immersion in the core values of the new society. A state that tolerates open and socially destructive defiance of this is very weak.
These are very sensitive issues. But Western civilisation needs to stand for some positive values beyond an anything-goes relativism that will be destroyed by more vigorous belief systems.
The French are moving cautiously, incrementally, and in my view belatedly, but with almost unique courage and intelligence, to try to repair the outcome of the nihilistic trends in Western intellectual life and their interplay with a mass immigration that Europeans did not choose and have never understood. Vive la France!