Belated posting from last week of my weekly column in The National.
France’s far right leader Marine Le Pen is offering Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren an impossible choice: eat pork or starve. Her extremist party, the Front National, has just won local elections in 11 towns around France. Schools that fall within these districts are proposing not to offer alternatives as they currently do when pork meals are served.
“We will accept no religious requirements in the school lunch menus,” said Ms Le Pen. “There is no reason for religion to enter into the public sphere.” Obviously this will affect both Muslim and Jewish children, as well as any children of Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists and vegetarians. But it’s the Muslim angle that gives Ms Le Pen the notoriety and headlines she craves.
Her hate-filled world is simplistic: pork versus halal, secularism versus food choices, France versus Muslim. All of them are false dichotomies to tap into the electorate’s growing wave of anger at mainstream political parties that don’t appear to be listening, and a distressing rise of extremism aimed at immigrants. The Front National, like other European extremist parties, is trying to hide its racism by pretending it is religion they are targeting. But the veneer is thin.
Europe is veering alarmingly towards the extreme right. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party came to prominence in 2011 in the wake of austerity measures. In 2012 its spokesperson, MP Ilias Kassidiaris claimed the Holocaust did not happen. It is easy to dismiss such parties as fringe lunatics, but their proximity to power is cause for anxiety.
In France, the Front National is the third party. In Greece, a video last week showed the Prime Minister’s chief of staff leaking classified information to the Golden Dawn spokesperson.
Ms Le Pen’s school meals remarks are a modern echo of Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat pork!”
There is another, more disturbing, European historical echo: the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted Muslims and Jews who either fled Spain or were forced to convert to Christianity. To verify whether these “conversos” really had changed, Inquisitors would roam around their homes while meals were being cooked to ensure pork was used. Aromas were vetted and even rubbish was inspected to police pork consumption. The Inquisition was one of the most shameful episodes in Europe’s history, and yet, here we are again, with the same rhetoric of forcing pork down people’s gullets.
Ms Le Pen says her move is about “saving secularism”, a thinly veiled and despicable attempt to hide her hatred. Will forcing vegetarian children to eat pork save the secular state? And who knew that the French constitution enshrined food choices for its citizens? (Although if any country was to do this, it probably would be France.)
Like many who hide their hatred of Muslims under the guise of opposing halal, kosher food – which is prepared the same way – is not in their cross hairs.
France has no problem making money for itself from halal. According to the USDA, about 10 per cent of France’s annual meat and poultry exports are halal.
Ms Le Pen’s directives about what schoolchildren eat should stick in everyone’s throats. Her words have nothing to do with the relationship between the state and the citizen and everything to do with igniting hatred. We’ve been here before during the Inquisition, as during the Nazi era. Let’s learn lessons from history and avoid a hate-filled repeat episode.
This article was published yesterday in The National as my weekly newspaper column.
More than 12 years on from the events of 9/11, and the subsequent failed global “war on terror”, the false dichotomy of being “with us” or “with the terrorists” is still proclaimed without embarrassment.
This week, it was the turn of Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Hirsi Ali was scheduled to deliver a speech on the anniversary of the attacks at the Boston Marathon while receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University, which is located just outside Boston.
There she became actively involved in politics and was elected as a representative on the back of a far right rise in popularity against Muslims but she left the Netherlands for the US after it became clear that she had lied on her asylum application.
Over 80 members of Brandeis university faculty sent a letter to the school’s president demanding the withdrawal of Ms Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree invitation “owing to her virulently anti-Muslim public statements”.
In response, Ms Hirsi Ali published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Reflecting on the anniversary of the Boston Marathan bombing she managed to tie together the Boston Marathon, jihadists in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, a driving ban in Saudi Arabia and sexual assault in Egypt.
There was no mention at all of Chechnya, from where the bombers hailed, and the political problems there. There was no analysis of how the violence in Syria and the global political vested interests that spur on the killing is different to the social and political pressures on women in the Kingdom.
For Ms Hirsi Ali, Muslims are all the same. And for her, Muslims are the problem.
Of course, there was no mention of a global epidemic of violence against women, gun crime in the US, annexation in the Crimea or Buddhist extremism in Myanmar. If she had mentioned them, we could be talking about working across borders and boundaries to tackle global scourges. But no, in Ms Hirsi Ali’s world, all violence is due to Muslims and all Muslims are violent.
Ms Hirsi Ali’s analysis is both simplistic and dangerous, painting Muslims as all the same. She sees no variation. When she said Islam “must be defeated” she was asked if she meant “radical Islam” and her simplistic approach is clear: “No. Islam period.”
This makes her popular for those who cannot fathom the possibility of nuance among Muslims, 1.8 billion people who take Islam as their compass.
She legitimises hatred through a back story of “escape” from Muslims and “liberation” by the west. Yet the contradictions are already there in her own life story. Her own father was opposed to FGM. It was she herself who dropped out of further education despite her father’s insistence she continue. When she wanted a divorce, she got one without issue.
I’m loathe to give Ms Hirsi Ali publicity, but this idea that “all Muslims are the same” is dangerous and must be tackled head-on. Homogenising and dehumanising people is the foundation for hatred. Among 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, variation and differences of opinion exist. How ludicrous to paint them all the same.