Another Installment

I suppose you’re thinking I’ve fallen silent. That, exhausted by all the to-and-fro, the heat and light, the blood sweat and tears of late, I’ve shrugged and yawned and decided to take up ping pong in a serious way.

No I don’t, not really, I don’t suppose you’re thinking about it one way or another, on account of how you have better things to think about. I just like to say things like that. I only do it to annoy, because I know it teases. At any rate, no, I haven’t fallen silent. On the contrary, I had a whole stack of things to talk about on Thursday, along with the ones I didn’t get to last week – and then something intervened. My colleague and I had a sudden unexpected and very large assignment, so we had to drop everything else and work on that. So now my heap of back N&Cs is longer than ever. I’ll never catch up. The rest of my life, I’ll have this nagging gnat-like little thing somewhere in my mind, buzzing away in a tiny voice about those old Comments I never commented. No I won’t. I just like to say things like that.

Anyway the heat and light was all very useful really, whatever you may think. I got a lot of new material for the Rhetoric Guide, which I haven’t updated in – I don’t even know how long. At least a year probably. All very ‘if you’ve got a lemon make lemonade,’ isn’t it. But true all the same.

And so back to the discussion. There is a pretty good article at the LRB on the hijab issue. One bit of it gave me a terrible turn for reasons somewhat separate from the hijab issue:

Another factor is surely how difficult it’s got, since 11 September, to tell a man of God from a politician. ‘God bless you’ and ‘Allahu akbar’ are not part of political discourse in France as they are in the United States and the dar el-Islam. France can feel squeezed between the two (and niggled in a third way, so to speak, by the cross-Channel wash of Blair’s piety). People feel that their cherished secular state is now something of a redoubt, and are losing their taste for an open-ended attitude to the veil.

Oh, damn. Tell me about it. I don’t watch or listen to things like campaign speeches precisely for this kind of reason (among others, all to do with general pointlessness), but I heard the end of a Kerry speech on the news and sure enough – ‘…blah blah blah and God bless you.’ I jumped as if I’d been cattle-prodded. ‘Will you stop that!’ I felt like snarling. There was a time when presidential candidates did not say that. It’s within living memory, even. I think it was Reagan who started it – I think born-again Carter didn’t do that. Was polite enough to keep it to himself. But everybody since, boy – god-blessing all over the place. Well, so – there we are, paired with the dar el-Islam. Oh good. That’s just exactly what I want the country I live in to be like. Not pesky old secular France but the god-ridden dar el-Islam. Who can blame France for feeling squeezed? (Well that’s a silly question, a lot of people can. But I don’t, anyway.) But back to the main point:

Teachers tell worrying stories which depict the veil as the beginning of selective opposition to the curriculum. This might, for example, include a Muslim student’s refusal to do gym or discuss certain areas of natural science, or to countenance teaching on the Holocaust, and then shade off into abuse or physical violence after a classroom session on the Middle East. Teachers are also clear that the wearing of religious symbols tends to exacerbate the divisions over heated issues such as Palestine. This is a management issue then, as much as a matter of principle, and a very urgent one, because of the frightening rise of anti-semitic harassment in French schools.

The management issue is surely one aspect. It’s not as if school dress-codes are unheard of. If a religion required students to attend school naked from the waist down, would teachers cheerfully acquiesce? Add that onto the coercion of women aspect, and at the very least it seems reasonable to say that one ought to be able to see some merit in the ban without being accused of thought-crime.

The old law of 1905 separating church and state has been much discussed in the course of the veil controversy, particularly by women who support the new one, and it is to women – of Muslim and non-Muslim origin – that the most eloquent defence of the ban so often falls. Painless birth was ferociously condemned by Pius XII in the 1950s, the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter reminded a television audience in January, to illustrate her point that every attempt by women to ‘take charge of their bodies’ has been made in the face of religious opinion, and that the issue of the veil is no different.

I didn’t know that about painless childbirth and Pius 12. That’s fascinating. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, eh? That’s another thing I like to say, and by no means only to annoy.

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