This is an extract from Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley’s new book, The Crises of Multiculturalism in Europe: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, published in July 2011 by Zed Books. The extract is taken from chapter 3, ‘Free like me: the polyphony of liberal post-racialism.’
In the mirror, through the looking glass
In Veil: Mirror of Identity (2009), Christian Joppke examines controversies concerning the Muslim headscarf in three different countries, and posits it as a mirror of identity ‘…which forces the French, the British and the Germans to see who they are and to rethink the kinds of societies and public institutions they want to have’ (2009: x). Mirrors are not innocent metaphors, as both Lacan and Snow White would advise. We gaze into mirrors and choose to focus on a particular object. We accept the arbitrary relations of what is within and without the frame. Gazing in this mirror involves a deliberate decision to look for insight in this place, from this object, and through a structured relation that cannot but yield polarised and polarising likenesses. Across Europe, the veil, broadly understood, has become the focus of an objectifying gaze, not only as a piece of cloth but as a body of women, signifying cultural, religious and ethnic differences cultivated by the failures of multiculturalism (Rosenberger and Sauer 2006). While the metaphor of the mirror plays out in different ways in Joppke’s analysis, it is important to unsettle it as a naturalized metaphor of reflection, and instead to draw attention to the idea of the veil as a floating signifier, sought out for interpretation, and problematized, mediated, and made stand for a range of problems.
While our focus here is on Joppke’s defence of the prohibitive approach of the French Republic, his study is comparative, and involves a detailed discussion of sub-Federal Länder laws in Germany concerning dress for public school teachers in 2004 and 2005 and the question of school participation and the jilbab and niqab in the UK. In essentially awarding Germany a third place finish, as a consequence of its explicitly ‘Christian-occidental’ institutional exclusion of Islam (2009: 125-126), Joppke situates the debate on veils squarely in terms of contrasting liberal approaches, with liberalism ‘…constitutive of all the attempts at national self-definition that have been made in Europe’s great debate surrounding Muslim integration’ (2009: 25). This framing extends beyond his triptych of illustrations. Across western Europe, the veil is implicated in a meta-discourse of nationalised liberalism versus Muslim illiberalism. [….]
This brief review of a complex European terrain is necessary if only to insist on the ways in which the veil has been incorporated into political constellations and vested with dis-orientalist accents, processes of racialization that are not only entirely absent, but actively discounted in Christian Joppke’s account of the ‘Islamic headscarf’ as the principal ‘affront to liberal self-definition’ in Europe (2009: 2). The construction of the headscarf as politically problematic in these terms is principally associated with France. The French debate of 2003-4 must be related to its antecedents in 1989 and 1994, yet without seeing this as a cumulative confrontation with an increasing or homogenous ‘challenge’ (Scott 2007: 21). In France, the veil, as a mediating symbol, has come to stand not only for incommensurable infra-national loyalties unfolded across lines of gender and culture, but also for a politics of immigration centred on the problem of second-generation ‘immigrant youth’ in the symbolically freighted banlieues (Khiari 2006). Scott (2007) identifies the timing and gradual harshening of approaches to the headscarf with the desire of the political mainstream, particularly the RPR/UMP, to both contain and translate the racist platforms of Le Pen’s Front national:
In 1989 the expulsions at Creil followed Le Pen’s strong showing in the presidential election the year before; Bayrou’s ministerial circular and the sixty-nine expulsions in 1994 followed the National Front’s winning seats in the European parliament; and Chirac’s law came shortly after he defeated Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election of 2002. In each case, the fear of Le Pen’s party pushed more moderate parties farther to the right (2007: 38)
The force of Scott’s point is this: the debates surrounding the eventual implementation of a law banning ‘ostentatious’ signs of religious affiliation took place in the aftermath of an election where 16.86% of the electorate had voted for a fascist party. In contrast, a consideration of this well-known backdrop to racial conflict in France is absent from Joppke’s discussion. This is because, for Joppke, the Muslim headscarf is not so much a question for the sociological analysis of political struggle as an instrumental illustration of the classical liberal problem: ‘the toleration of the intolerant’ (2009: 117). Joppke’s threshold of tolerance is a fundament, as it situates Islam as ultimately incompatible with liberal democracy. In endorsing this clash, in these terms, Joppke’s analysis exemplifies three important dimensions of postracial analysis. Firstly, in attenuating the manifold lines of contestation seared in liberalism’s shiny surfaces, this analysis has no interest in the ways in which race attenuates liberalism, closing off the promise of the ‘individual’ to the racialized. Secondly, the contextual histories from which these critical race interrogations have derived are also absent, as histories of colonialism, postcoloniality and racism are explicitly dismissed in the debates surrounding Muslims in Europe. Thirdly, and as a consequence of this historical closure, a dense sociological literature on the ‘veil’, that pays attention to the lived experiences and social conditions in France of those who wear it, is deemed irrelevant (cf. Chouder et al 2008).
Veil revisits the drama of French debates to reconsider theoretical debates about liberal ideas of the good life. More specifically, the book aims to reconcile headscarf bans ‘