I meet Faudel once in a while when I visit Paris. I knew him several years ago when his mother, an Algerian lady separated from her husband, worked for one my aunts. By dint of hard work, that almost illiterate woman supported her son through his studies until he got a mechanical engineering degree.
However Faudel, like millions of French people, is unemployed since almost four years. He takes up odd jobs to supplement social security benefits and, as he tells me, he has lots of time to think.
Faudel’s mother is devout and she brought him up in the religion of his ancestors. He does not practise regularly and is philosophically minded. He has read some ancient and modern philosophers, including Montaigne, Camus, Fanon and Foucault, yet I see that Faudel, perhaps in reaction to widespread misgivings about his community is becoming increasingly conservative and attached to his faith.
Inevitably the issue of dress codes, burqas and burkinis comes up in our conversation. Faudel does not support the burqa but does not see why a state which claims to guarantee freedom for all arrogates itself the right to decide how much one should wear but not how little is too little.
Faudel manifests the trend among Muslims but also among others in Europe and elsewhere within their respective cultures. The fuzzy moral liberalism and relativism that are fashionable and even mandatory among the elites of the western world are increasingly being rejected by less privileged classes. The permissive extremism of the West pokes the embers of Muslim conservatism. Economic decline and socio-political pessimism in the face of failing governmental systems are partly to account for this, yet there is also a semi-subconscious but widespread awareness of losing one’s soul. The scientistic radicalism (not necessarily scientific since it is ideological) of modern societies is breeding a return to traditions and triggering ethnically-rooted reactions.
Faudel tells me that he lost respect for French society and the West since they drifted apart from their moorings. The country he knew in his childhood has changed a lot, he explains. Instead of the national heroes children were still taught to look up to in his school days, the objects of veneration are now sports and entertainment celebrities and counter-cultural media-manufactured idols such as rockers and rappers, preferably those who outrage conventional morality. I wonder why this son of Algerian Arabs should hark back to French patriotic icons, but he explains that it is more comfortable for people like him to feel part of a nation whose ideals are larger than life. “Muslims, barring fanatical Salafists, accept believers of other creeds better than cynics trained mainly to consume and agitate for their personal welfare,” he points out in a sly reference to the French passion for food, vacations and strikes. Indeed moderate conservatism builds bridges between cultures far better than licentious agnosticism. Is this why on the whole Muslims coexist better with other communities in religion-driven India than they have of late in sceptical Europe?
Instead of the national heroes children were still taught to look up to in his school days, the objects of veneration are now celebrities and counter-cultural media-manufactured idols, preferably those who outrage conventional morality.Instead of the national heroes children were still taught to look up to in his school days, the objects of veneration are now celebrities and counter-cultural media-manufactured idols, preferably those who outrage conventional morality.
Inevitably the issue of dress codes, burqas and burkinis comes up in our conversation. Faudel does not support the burqa, but does not see why a state which claims to guarantee freedom for all arrogates itself the right to decide how much one should wear, but not how little is too little. Does that reflect the French society’s fondness for uniforms since Napoleon? “If a woman is free to undress to a considerable extent in public, why should she not be free to cover up?” he asks provocatively, recalling the French Prime Minister’s recent musing about bare breasted women being truer to the spirit of the Republic than burkini-clad female bathers.
I respond that this controversy has arisen because of terrorism and of the resentment it generates but he argues that the contemporary notion of individual freedom is directed against the family and promotes rebellion against all rules. “Perhaps but only if the rebellion does not challenge the fundamental economic system,” I point out. He nods in agreement. Yet, age-old conventions, social, sexual and moral, are under attack in the name of that old commandment from the 1960s: “forbidding is forbidden”, which its promoters, however, find all too easy to breach when it suits them. The French Revolution enforced the maxim “no freedom for its enemies”, thereby justifying a new tyranny. Human nature has not changed and no abstract rules will permanently alter it. I vent my suspicion that the powers-that-be obsessively promote breaking of taboos for catering to basic instincts, while gradually tightening their grip on society and turning it into a police state. Faudel notices mischievously that while women are prevented from covering their faces, masked policemen-in-black are increasingly visible on our streets. Anonymity is now the monopoly of the enforcers in a world under continuous surveillance. Common people are under the scanner at every moment and privacy is no longer a right, whereas the watchers are shrinking in the shadows of invisibility. I tell Faudel about 18th century Venice when the elites went out with their faces hidden beneath silken “loups” and their bodies cloaked in black dominoes and I recall that in “Belle Epoque” France, fashionable women covered their faces with dark gauze veils and large hats. Of course most decadent societies, in all times and places, believe that they are scaling the pinnacle of progress until they crumble, gasping in disbelief at their own frailty.
It comes to my mind that, while social uplift has been mainly guided by the desire of human beings to distinguish themselves from animals, the zeitgeist is now to mimic our beastly relatives. It is no surprise that materialistic societies see their members as mere bodies. Real or manufactured minorities are constantly promoted and portrayed in the mass media, all the more if they can attract prurient curiosity.
“This is what set many Muslims against you,” Faudel tells me (he means my country). “Why this permanent focus on public nudity, homosexual practices, ‘gay pride’ and transgender cases especially among the very young? This is not about letting people lead their private lives as they wish but rather about shocking traditional mindsets, forcing compliance with the ‘new normal’ and dividing society into rival clans designated by initials as if they were exotic diseases. Muslims are accused of being sectarian, but what about homosexual ghettos and aggressive ‘gay’ lobbies?” I counter that acts of violence and atrocities committed by some Muslims in their own lands and in the West have aroused hostility, but he argues that those tragic upheavals are largely an effect of western assaults. “For me,” he adds, “the breaking point came when, after the first Iraq war in 1990, the NATO powers condemned the country to an inhumane series of sanctions. That is why most of us (he means his community) did not feel sorry for Americans on 9/11…And since we’ve had Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.”
I remind him that France and indeed the modern West built their concept of the nation state on the Westphalian notion of “to each kingdom its religion”. It is hence not surprising that today people are often unwilling to accept exogenous groups which by their very size change and gradually erase distinctive national identities. The “liberal” pied pipers who preach unlimited tolerance (but only for what suits them) and blind acceptance of globalisation are seen as mercenary maestros, paid to take their people down the garden path towards less prosperous, less secure and more dangerous tomorrows.
The dim views that Faudel and many of his fellow Muslim Europeans share of globalised modernity reflect in reverse the mood spreading among the native populations in the West. They do not support terrorism and are not about to join ISIS, but are doubtful about the “French Republican Islam” that the government fitfully pledges to design; as if a secular state could act as the architect of a religious faith. Various recent books warn of an imminent civil war in France and in other similarly evolving nations. The clash of civilisations began when the United States lit the fuse of that time bomb. The genie is now out of the bottle.