French President Nicolas Sarkozy has inserted himself, and the French state, into the great matter of Islamic emancipation. At home, he has embarked upon banning the Niqab, the full-face veil, in public life. There is no relativism here, the secular norms of France would be upheld, and the Muslims would be asked to honor French laws and sensibilities. Abroad, there was Sarkozy’s brave leap into the Libyan turmoil. Gone was the age-old cynicism of French diplomacy, its willingness to live with African and Arab despots, its indifference to what dictators do within their domains. In Libya, Sarkozy would not wait on Barack Obama, he would fully embrace the cause of Libya’s freedom from its terrible tyrant. Where American diplomacy has hitherto stayed aloof from the Libyan rebels in Benghazi – always insisting that we didn’t really “know” them, that we can’t trust them with American weapons and training, that there are “flickers” of Al Qaeda among them – France was quick to recognize them as the legitimate Libyan government. That old self-image of France as a revolutionary power has been re-kindled.
In truth, in both the principled stand against the Niqab and in the support given the Libyan opposition, Sarkozy has struck a blow for Muslim modernity. There is no place for the Niqab in modern life, and Muslim modernists have been relentless in their own ideological struggle against the veiling, and the seclusion, of women. In Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran, among Muslim lands, that struggle is over a century old. Opponents of the Niqab paid dearly for their quest for freedom. That freedom was secured when modernism was unapologetic, and the gains of women, in the more advanced Muslim societies, were considerable. The early and middle years of the 20th century saw tremendous gains for women’s rights all the way from Turkey and Iran to Egypt and Tunisia. Muslim modernists did not inhabit a cocoon of their own. Their faith in modernity drew sustenance from the faith of the West in its own traditions. The “demonstration effect” is not to be slighted here, the Western gatekeepers of modernity demanded adherence to universal norms, and they had to be accommodated.
Then post-modernism blew in, into the Western world first, and would make its way to Afro-Asia. Doubts about modernity hit Western intellectual circles. “Your narrative is as good as mine,” the new sensibility decreed. Western guilt altered the moral – and strategic – landscape. Once the West had lost faith in its own creed, it gave up its right to judge those non-Western societies mired in backwardness and superstition and mayhem. And even when the ground burned in Islamic lands, and multitudes were fleeing the fire to the safe and ordered lands of the West, it was deemed the proper thing to tolerate the cultural ways of the newcomers. It is with this abdication that the French state now breaks with its ban on the Niqab. Grant Sarkozy his due, he is an assimilationist, France is open, but there are practices essential to French-ness.
The Sarkozy decision to bet on Libyan freedom is a variation on this theme. Tyranny is not in the Arab DNA; the Libyans can build a world beyond the prison walls of Qaddafi’s tyranny. When people rebel, the decency of their rebellion makes the case for helping them. When lawyers and physicians and young boys risk it all in pursuit of freedom, liberty will have found a new theatre. Contrast the enthusiasm Sarkozy showed for this Libyan rebellion with the tepid support given it by President Obama, and an odd conclusion is inescapable: We have traded roles with the French. They are keen to support liberty in different places, while we stand there unsure of freedom’s call upon us.
(photo credit: Rana Ossama)