The Washington Post recently compared the wearing of a mask to the wearing of a full veil. Researcher Sophie de Peyret calls this rhetoric dangerous. She underscores that it is, in fact, in accordance with the point of view of disciples of cultural jihad for whom the full veil is an article of clothing like any other.
Clearly, the full veil remains a tireless point of misunderstanding between France and the United States, to put it mildly. In a long article published May 10, The Washington Post was ironically moved by the treatment accorded to veiled Muslims on French soil at a time when the mask is imposed upon everyone.
On the one hand, wearing a burqa, or any other article that hides the face, is punishable by law in the French public space. On the other hand, wearing a mask is encouraged, indeed mandatory in some places, such as on public transportation, to fight the spread of COVID-19. The reporter derisively and definitively concludes that it is an inconsistency that is typically French, while the people who were interviewed speak of “uneven interpretation,” “arbitrary,” even “discriminatory” and “schizophrenic.” Enough already!
Be that as it may, this American analysis compares apples to oranges. Certainly, apples and oranges are both fruit, much the same way masks and burqas are pieces of fabric that hide the face. It would be tempting to compare them. However, they are entirely distinguishable not only by the motivation of those who wear them, but by how the issue is approached and the repercussions on society. Comparing them constitutes a misinterpretation coupled with a flaw.
Here, the full veil comes from a conscious decision to interpret, practice and display the wearer’s religion and reduces the individual to their religious affiliation, separating men from women, the Muslim from the non-Muslim (or from the bad Muslim) in a fundamentalist understanding of Islam. There, the mask is mandatory for everyone without distinction for gender or religion and is does not reflect any ideology, apart from protecting oneself from an invisible and global evil.
More broadly, the article makes two additional observations. The first concerns the position advanced by the author and the persons interviewed in the article, for whom the least that can be said is that they are not distinguished by their diversity of viewpoints. This point of view merges dangerously with those of grassroots movements and promoters of a cultural jihad that attempt to impose a Salafist interpretation and to pass the veil off as just another piece of clothing.
By equating a safety mask with a veil of political and religious significance, and pretending not to see the difference, The Washington Post aligns itself – without appearing to – with the views of radical preachers like Hani Ramadan, director of the Islamic Center of Geneva, who, drawing from a hadith, affirmed last March that “one of the causes of disease is the fact that men openly indulge in turpitude such as fornication and adultery.”* It feeds the messages that flourish on certain forums and social networks where it might be read to mean that the pandemic striking the West is only fitting. Those who criminalize the burqa and promote profligate morals are today obliged to cover themselves, keep their wives at home, close their bistros, and prohibit habitual physical contact. Idriss Sihamedi, founder of the Barakacity association, publicly rejoiced that this is “the first time in my life I can say no with joy and happiness to a woman who wants to shake my hand. It is strange to see halal things become normal.”
The second observation leads us toward political philosophy. France gives prominent status to notions of universal rights, the primacy of the public interest or the non-recognition of groups and communities. By contrast, the Anglo-Saxon-inspired country favors a multicultural approach, according to which various culturally heterogeneous minorities are juxtaposed in the same territory without being asked to abandon their distinctive traits. In this system, where cultures, behaviors and identities are of equal value, everyone is justified in claiming rights, and committed to evolving in a parallel and immiscible fashion.
Quite different understandings spring from this essential divergence. In the fall of 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron reminded us that “we are not 66 million distinct individuals, but a nation bound together by a thousand threads.” This collection of separate interests does not constitute the global interest. We must endure occasionally demanding and restrictive measures and agree to give up certain distinctions to adopt a national project larger than ourselves, and integrate ourselves into a whole that surpasses the individual.
So, what The Washington Post reporter calls contradictory and incoherent, reveals itself definitively as very logical. Everything is not equal. Rather than confer an indispensable primacy to individual liberties and special interests, France, in the name of the common good, bans an article of clothing that splits the national community. It is very much in the name of the same best interests that wearing the mask is encouraged.
In his article, the American reporter calls to mind the position of French legislators who, during the preliminary drafting of the 2010 law, deemed that “covering the face in the public space demonstrates the refusal to live together.” In this case, wearing a mask demonstrates, above all, the absolute will to live. Together, when circumstances will allow.
*Editor’s note: Hadith refers to a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammed, which, with accounts of his daily practice, constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Koran.