Vacuous identities

If the centuries since the Enlightenment show anything it is that people are as committed to their right to espouse ignorance, narrow- mindedness and crass stupidity as to their right to reason, knowledge and emancipation — personal and social. The French government’s "secularist" drive against "conspicuous religious symbols" in public schools and the civil service is foolish and smacks more of racism than of reason. Let us not fool ourselves. This is not about big crosses and small kippahs. France’s, and for that matter, Europe’s real problem is with the burgeoning Muslim minority in their midst — six-million strong in France alone. The real issue at the heart of the racket is the hijab.

It would be facile, however, to fall back on the now entrenched Arab/Muslim response to denounce Islamophobia. Given that the right to stupidity and ignorance extends as much to Muslims as to any other group, religious or otherwise, I might as well point out that there is something wholly absurd about shrill Arab and Muslim cries in defence of basic civil and personal rights: the inherent illogicality is comparable to American pronouncements that the US is safeguarding democracy and freedom throughout the world. Both sets of claims are identical in their arbitrariness.

You can argue power, or you can argue moral and legal precepts, but to argue both, from both sides of your mouth, and at the same time, is to become ridiculous. Arabs and Muslims vehemently claim in Europe the very civil and democratic rights they firmly believe should be trampled at home. In Europe Muslims have a fundamental right to proselytise everywhere and anywhere they please — boasting all the while of being the fastest growing religion in the world — but let any other religious group try to do the same in any of the many "houses" of Islam and all hell would break loose. Amid screams of conspiracy, foreign penetration and endless red lines being crossed, coming from the mouths of the very publicists who are now so valiantly and heatedly defending civil and personal rights in France, the culprits will be subjected to the barbaric forms of punishment that are supposed to be inherent to our cultural and religious identity.

But this is to speak only of the most glaring contradictions. It ignores the fact that the valiant defenders of civil rights in France have also been drawing red lines beyond which Muslims are not permitted to discuss Islam itself. For are they not the very same people who hounded Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, one of the most brilliant Islamic scholars of his generation, into exile in Holland? Are they not same people who went into paroxysms of furzy when a French tutor at the American University in Cairo placed (French scholar) Maxime Rodinson’s book Mohammad on his students’ recommended — not required — reading list? And are these same zealous defenders of civil and personal rights not the very same people who demanded Professor Saadeddin Ibrahim be hanged in a public square for having dared to open the subject of anti-Coptic discrimination in Egypt?

The glorious armies of Islam may well once have approached the gates of Paris. Lately, they sort of vanished at the gates of Baghdad. And this is what is most absurd about our hypocritical civil rights discourse. Bush and his gang can afford to trample on civil and human rights while crying democracy — they have the armies and the corporations and the corporate media to back it up. What do you have?

The only coherent opinion made in the midst of all the hubbub has been that of the much maligned Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi. A realist par excellence, he at least presented us with a consistently authoritarian argument. In effect the sheikh’s argument was that since we can — and, indeed, should — trample civil and personal rights in Muslim countries (the hijab, he insisted, was obligatory under Islam) Christians, secularists or whoever should be able to do the same in their own countries, at least until we conquer them, God willing.

There is a much more significant aspect to the debate, however. Adonis, among the most celebrated of Arab poets alive today, wrote recently asking: "… why do fundamentalist Muslims who have emigrated to the West see in the openness of their new home nothing more than an opportunity to proclaim their narrow-mindedness and isolation? Why do they choose to ’emigrate’ once more from their point of their arrival?"

Pertinent questions. The answers, however, lie neither in the realm of culture or religion, but in politics. Identity politics is testimony to the impoverishment and degradation of politics in the age of globalised capital. It is the great con of a post- modern world.

Yet the fact remains that while narrow-mindedness, ignorance and stupidity can be critiqued, they cannot be banned.