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France, laïcité and why it's hard to understand another country
People often say that it’s hard to understand another country and that, unless you are familiar with the local context, you will misinterpret what is happening over there, but they rarely explain why. The brouhaha over the French government’s recent decision to ban the abaya, a long and loose robe worn by some Muslim women, in public schools is a good illustration of that fact and I will use it to propose a theory of why not knowing the local context makes one prone to misinterpreting what is going on in another country. Ever since 2004, when the French government banned the Islamic veil in public schools, American liberals have tended to depict France as a hotbed of Islamophobia and racism. When I listen to people in the US talk about France, I often feel like, in their mind, it’s a kind of Jim Crow for Muslims. Their view on what it’s like to be a Muslim in France is totally disconnected from reality. To be clear, I’m not saying that racism and Islamophobia don’t exist in France, only that American liberals have a perception of life for Muslims in France that is completely wrong.
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Muslims are not “persecuted” in France. The Islamic veil, and now the abaya, are banned in public schools, but there are plenty of private schools where Muslims who insist on wearing them can go. In general, with a few minor exceptions that for the most part don’t just apply to Muslims and are due to the fact that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are not as well-protected in France than in the US, Muslims in France are basically free to live their faith as they want. I’m not even saying that I agree with the ban of the Islamic veil and the abaya in public schools, to be honest I can’t bring myself to care about this debate (which I regard as a distraction from the real issues), but American liberals need to understand that, even if they think it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean that Muslims are second-class citizens in France. It’s true that many people in France are not particularly fond of islam, but this doesn’t translate into anything remotely similar to the kind of institutional discrimination that characterized the South of the US during Jim Crow.
Moreover, if Muslims in the US were responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of violent crime and committed atrocities (such as decapitating a high school teacher in the street) with the same frequency as in France, I doubt that Americans would react very differently. But as I explained recently, Muslims in the US are very different from Muslims in France, so that is not the case and it makes it possible for Americans to pat themselves on the back about tolerant they are. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily justify the ban on the Islamic veil and the abaya in public schools, but that is not my point. My point is that, when the contexts are so different, this kind of comparison is largely meaningless and usually little more than a pretext for jingoistic and self-congratulatory commentary. It’s just as annoying when Americans do that than when French people talk about how much more racist the US is because a handful of African American artists had a great time in Paris in the 1920s.
One reason why American liberals tend to have such a caricatural view of how Muslims are treated in France is that, on that issue as on many others, the American media are more interested in promoting a simplistic narrative than in reporting the more complicated truth, but that’s not the only or even the main reason. The main reason is that, when they think about what it says about France that a ban on the Islamic veil and the abaya in public schools could even be proposed by the government, Americans think about what kind of people would support this sort of things in the US and draw their conclusions from that. Now, if someone in the US supports that kind of ban, there is a good chance that he is actually very racist and supports all sorts of discriminatory policies that go way beyond that. Thus, when they hear that only did the French government ban the abaya in public schools but that more than 80% of the population approve that decision, they infer that France is rife with Islamophobia and racism.
The problem with that inference is that, because the political, cultural and historical context in France is completely different, this inference is bad. Not only do Muslims cause problems in France that don’t exist in the US, as I already noted above, but for better or worse French people also have completely different conceptions of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. No matter how bad you think what we're doing to the Muslims right now is, it's nothing compared to what we did to the Catholics in the past, but most Americans don’t realize that because they don’t know much about French history. I don’t even blame them for it, French people don’t know much about US history either, but this failure to take into account the local context results in the kind of fallacious inferences I was just describing because some correlations between people’s views that hold in the US don’t hold in France and the same things can have very different meanings in different contexts. Indeed, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising for a French person who supports the ban on the abaya in public schools to also be part of a pro-immigration or anti-racist organization, whereas Americans who call for a similar law are more likely to be part of the Ku Klux Klan.
You can maintain that banning the Islamic veil and the abaya in public schools is morally wrong if you want, again I’m not really interested in refuting that claim, but even if you do so you still have to understand that what you can infer about French society from the existence of such a ban is limited, because it doesn’t have the same implications that it would have in the US. If such a ban were to be enacted in the US in the present circumstances, when the US has only a very small Muslim population that is highly educated and well-integrated, it would be a very different country than it actually is and in particular one where liberal values don’t hold the same sway they currently do. The same thing is not true in France, where despite the existence of that kind of laws, liberal values are still dominant. This kind of misconception is why many American liberals see Europe as a hotbed of racism and prejudice, whereas in fact racism is just as radioactive in Europe as in the US, but the prevalent anti-racism just takes somewhat different forms because the context is different. In general, while there are differences between Americans and Europeans, they’re much more alike than they think. They just overstate the differences because on both sides of the Atlantic people tend to have a cartoonish picture of the other side.
I think what I have just explained about how American liberals get France wrong because of the ban on the Islamic veil and the abaya generalizes and constitutes a pretty good theory of why it’s hard to understand another country. It’s natural to make inferences based on correlations that hold in the society where you grew up, but this will often mislead you when you’re thinking about another country, because in a different context those correlations may not hold. This doesn’t mean that you have to have lived in that country or even speak the language to avoid this pitfall. Of course, this typically helps, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. People can spend years in a country without ever truly understanding it for various reasons. Conversely, even if you have never set foot in a country and don’t even speak the language, I think it’s possible if you are genuinely curious and read enough to understand that kind of things. There is a tendency for people to hide behind the esoteric and supposedly incommunicable knowledge that being from a particular country or place allegedly gives you to peddle nonsense without having to rationally defend it. I find that really annoying, and that’s not what I’m advocating here, but there is still a good case for a weaker claim about the importance of understanding the local context to make inferences about a place.
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