Imagine a woman on a beach on a hot day, perhaps your mother, sister, girlfriend or wife. She doesn’t take the sun well so she doesn’t wear a bathing suit and covers her head with a cloth and her shoulders with a shawl while she sleeps. Imagine four police officers approach her, waken her up, demand she uncover her head and shoulders, then fine her for not exposing enough flesh. That’s close to what happened on a French beach yesterday.
I love France. I go there two or three times a year, have French friends and am proud to call it my second home. Like most people, I was horrified at the sheer savagery of the Paris and Nice attacks, to name but a few of the atrocities that are becoming too frequent to remember. France is a dear friend going through hell and I feel for her, deeply, but today, France is in the news again, mercifully not for another massacre, but for its reaction to it.
Those of us in Northern Ireland of a certain age can remember the anger caused by atrocities. If I lived in Nice I would probably have been incandescent with rage after July 14th when over eighty people were mown down by a maniac in a lorry, for reasons no sane person can understand. But the point is, I don’t live in Nice, I have the luxury of distance and the hindsight of our own experience of political violence to see what happened in Nice yesterday was not only wrong but stupid. That concept is itself, very French. Fouché, Napoleon’s chief of police is reported to have said of his boss’ assassination of the Duc d’Enghien, ‘C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute.’ (It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder). For if France truly wants to consign Islamic-inspired terrorism to the dustbin of history it needs to have its Muslim citizens on its side and that will not happen by publically humiliating Muslim women.
Let me be clear. I believe religion does more harm than good and the repression of women in certain Islamic countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia, which treats women like chattel, is slavery in all but name and the great unspoken crime of our age. No one should be coerced by the state, family or societal pressure to cover themselves head to toe or wear a particular costume, but by the same token, if someone chooses to cover their head and body or wear a particular costume they should have the freedom to do so.
Terrorism thrives on reaction. After an outrage the public demands that something must be done and the government, with an eye on the opinion polls, duly obliges, but what is done in haste and anger is rarely wise. Repressive legislation and heavy-handed responses, might make people feel better but they ultimately feed the dragon they are intended to slay. Imagine again, this time not a woman on a beach but an angry young man in one of the high-rise Arab ghettos on the fringes of Paris, where disaffection, crime and unemployment are the order of the day. The young man feels like an Arab in France and a Frenchman in Algeria and that the dice are loaded against him. Belonging nowhere, he feels drawn to the world of radical Islam and Jihad. What impact is a Muslim women being forced to take off clothing by police likely to have on him? Silly local laws do not justify murder but they feed the murderous thoughts of those seeking justification to do it.
To put things in perspective, the police in Nice were enforcing local ordinances, not the laws of the French state, but these local laws will soon come under the scrutiny of higher courts in the near future and the world will be watching. France, you are angry, you are hurt, you are living in fear, mais ce qui se passait à Nice hier était ni la liberté , la fraternité , ni l’égalité .