For or against the veil in French schools

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With the business of wearing the veil (hijab) in school, and all the debates, demonstrations and protests around whether pupils should be able to display visible signs of belonging to a religion, the French bourgeoisie has set in motion a campaign aimed at attacking the consciousness of the working class. From the right to the left and the extreme left, each of them has their own verse for or against, more or less for and more or less against, etc. The media, politicians, associations, organisations of Muslims, Jews or Christians, all participate in what they are calling a "great citizens' debate on secularity". In fact, contrary to the so-called cacophony that reigns in "French society" on this subject, all are going in the same direction: that of creating a maximum of confusion in the heads of the workers, the better to chain them to the bourgeois state and make them accept their lot.

Through this false debate the bourgeoisie aims to divert attention away from the weakness of the capitalist system, the growth of misery, the series of attacks that it is about concoct, and the means to get them through. The bourgeoisie thus exhorts the workers to participate as atomised individuals in the debate. They are invited to reflect as "citizens", in communion with the petty-bourgeoisie, or the bourgeoisie which exploits them. Everyone is equal in the debate! The worker is thus separated from his class and permeable to the whole of the dominant ideology.

But the business of the veil also presents another occasion to develop splits within the population and above all within the proletariat. It is significant that feelings have run high in this debate and this has only exacerbated racism, sexism and community divisions in their most petty aspects. It's a question of getting the workers to compete with one another, not only regarding their nationality, but also their beliefs. It creates a deep feeling of division within the working class through the false opposition between French and immigrant workers, the latter being by definition potentially "Islamist". And within the latter, bourgeois propaganda designates on one side the "bad" immigrants who demonstrate for the unconditional wearing of the veil, and on the other the "good" immigrants who submit to the law of the "secular republic". They transform real workers' solidarity, which goes beyond nationalities and beliefs, into a solidarity of those who "believe" in the bourgeois state as the ultimate judge of peace and social cohesion. Because behind all the debate on the defence of secular society, what's really at stake is whether we should defend the secular bourgeois state. Let's quote the daily Liberation of January 29 2004 that really shows the meaning of the campaign: "In our secular tradition, the state is the protector of free choice for everyone through freedom of conscience, its expression or non-expression. It must intervene when it is threatened." So, in the circumstances, the state is the single, authentic guarantee of individual freedom, it alone opposes the growth of the oppression of individuals that the revival of religion brings with it. This is really one of the objectives of this "debate" - to create a smokescreen about why this revival is taking place and thus prevent the working class from becoming conscious that it is the very decomposition of this capitalist system that is at the root of it (1).

As Marx said 150 years ago: "Religious anguish is, on one hand, the expression of real distress and, on the other, a protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of social conditions from which the spirit is excluded. It is the opium of the people." (2) To the cult of religion, the bourgeoisie would oppose the cult of the secular state, the acme of liberation for those oppressed by religion. But it's certainly not by having confidence in the state and its cops that young girls subjected to the diktats of the Islamists can escape oppression. Besides, in no way is it in the designs of the government to abolish cults but, on the contrary, to strengthen them: it is thus under the aegis of the "secular" republican state that, in the name of "liberty" and "respect", cults, mosques and synagogues flourish. Here is the unequivocal evidence that the ends of the democratic state are not opposed to those of religion but that they are complementary, the one with the other.

Ideological oppression, the crushing of thought and consciousness, are the blessed bread with which they all nourish their flocks. In the 19th century, the bourgeoisie, as much as it was a progressive class, tried hard to maintain the church as a force differentiated from the bourgeois state because it represented a hindrance to the development of the productive forces. This culminated in laws on the separation of the church and state. The bourgeoisie, however, always maintained religion as an ideological force. And at the same time, already in this epoch, revolutionaries attacked the illusion that the anti-clericalism that flourished in the French republican bourgeoisie represented in itself a force for liberation. Rosa Luxemburg considered it as a mystifying element of bourgeois ideology. In an article published in January 1902 she affirmed that: "The socialists are precisely obliged to combat the church, an anti-republican and reactionary power, not to participate in bourgeois anti-clericalism but in order to get rid of it. The incessant guerrilla war conducted against the priesthood for dozens of years is, for the French bourgeois republicans, one of the most efficient means of turning away the attention of the labouring classes from social questions (�)" And she added: "Bourgeois anti-clericalism ends up in consolidating the power of the church, in the same way that bourgeois anti-militarism, as the Dreyfuss affair showed, only attacks phenomena natural to militarism, the corruption of the General Staff, and has only succeeded in refining and strengthening this very institution."(3).

With the decadence of capitalism and the entry of this system into its phase of decomposition, these illusions about anti-clericalism and the defence of the secular state are used above all as an ideological arm of the capitalist state to set workers at each others' throats.

Faced with the decay that infects the planet, it's not a question of embracing the cause of religion or that of the "secular" state. It's necessary to reaffirm that, faced with this false alternative, only the proletarian revolution will be able to finish with all these mystification's, whether "secular" or "religious". All of them are the product of capitalist oppression.

AM, 20/2/04.

Notes

  • See our International Review no. 109 for the text 'The resurgence of Islamism, symptom of the decomposition of capitalist social relations'.
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Critique of Hegel's philosophy of right
  • Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism in France.