The Problem with France’s Burkini Ban UPDATED!

August 25, 2016 § 8 Comments



So 16 towns and cities in France, all on the Mediterranean Coast, have banned the so-called burkini, a body-covering garment that allows devout Muslim women to enjoy the beach and summer weather.  France, of course, has been positively rocked by Islamist violence in the past 18 months or so.  So you had to expect a backlash.  But this is just downright stupid.

There is a historical context here (read this whole post before lambasting me, please).  French society believes in laïcité, a result of the French Revolution of 1789 and the declericisation of French society and culture in the aftermath.  To this end, French culture and the French state are both secularised. Religious symbols are not welcome in public, nor are the French all that comfortable with religious practice in public.  Now, this makes perfect sense to me, coming as I do from Quebec, which in the 1960s, during our Revolution tranquille, also underwent a process of declericisation.  Quebec adopted the French model of a secular state.

But, in Quebec as in France, not all secularism is equal.  Catholic symbols still exist all over France as a product of French history, to say nothing of the grand cathedrals and more humble churches that dot the landscape. But other religious symbols, they’re not quite as welcome, meric.

Nonetheless, it is in the context of this laïcité that the burkini ban arises.

But in practice, it is something else entirely.  This is racism.  This is ethnocentrism.  And this is stupid.  Just plain stupid. French Prime Minister Manuel Valis claims that the burkini is a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women.’ The mayor of Cannes claims that the burkini is the uniform of Muslim extremism.  It is neither.  And the burkini bans are not about ‘liberating’ Muslim women in France.  They are not about a lay, secular society.  They are designed to target and marginalize Muslim women for their basic existence in France.

In the New York Times this week, Asma T. Uddin notes the problem with these bans when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights and symbols of Islam.  Back in 2001, the Court found that a Swiss school teacher wearing a head scarf in the classroom was ‘coercive’ in that it would work to proselytize young Swiss children.  I kid you not.  And, as Uddin reports, since that 2001 decision, the Court has continually upheld European nations’ attempts to limit the rights of Muslims, especially Muslim women, when it comes to dress.

Then there was the shameful display of the police in Nice this week, which saw four armed policemen harass a middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach.  She was wearing a long-sleeved tunic and bathing in the sun.  The police, however, issued her a ticket for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’  Again, I kid you not.

Laïcité is supposed to be not just the separation of church and state, but also the equality of all French citizens.  Remember the national motto of the French republic: ‘liberté, éqalité, et fraternité.’  These are lofty goals.  But the attempts to ban the burkini and attack Muslim women for their attire is not the way one goes about attaining liberté, nor égalité nor fraternité.  Rather, it creates tiered culture, it creates one group of French who are apart from the rest.  It is discriminatory and childish. And let’s not get on the subject of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to run again, and promises to ensure that Muslim and Jewish students in the lycées eat pork.

I understand France’s concerns and fears. But attacking Islam is not the way to defeat terrorists who claim to be Muslim.  It only encourages them.  It is time for France to live up to its own mottos and goals.  And Western feminists (and pro-feminist men) need to speak up on this topic.


News comes this evening that the Deputy Mayor of Nice, and President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has threatened to sue people who share images of the police attempting to enforce the burkini ban on social media. I kid you not.  Christian Estrosi states that the images cause harm to the police (if that is true, that is not right, of course).

It is worth pointing out that it would be very difficult for Estrosi to find legal standing to launch a lawsuit, as French law allows citizens and media outlets to publish images and videos of the police and that, without a judicial order, French police cannot seize a photographer’s camera or phone.


Whither the Poor? Or, Why You Need to Vote!

August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments

I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income.  That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086.  Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.

On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society.  The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US.  But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party.  But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances.  But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted.  The people here are the forgotten people of the country.

Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history.  And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England.  Americans like to think they live in a classless society.  They don’t.  At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests.  For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless.  And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.

By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance.  This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity.  In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.”  And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this).  In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.

Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live.  There are people in this county who are well-off.  There is even a very tiny middle class.  But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor.  Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair.  The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.

But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all.  This is a politically mobilized group in my county.  During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent.  Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting.  Angrily, but they’re voting.  They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.

A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.

But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.

Remembering the Victims in Charleston

June 23, 2015 § 7 Comments

Sometime last week, someone in my Facebook world posted a Morrissey video.  I haven’t thought about Morrissey in a long time, other than when he says something profoundly stupid and embarrassing in public.  And then I think, “Oh yeah, there was a time when Mozzer was my favourite pop star.”  And then I feel slightly embarrassed.  But.  This video was “The Last of the International Playboys,” from Mozza’s 1990 classic, Bona Drag. 

The lyrics:

In our lifetime,
Those who kill,
The newsworld hands them stardom

have really caught my attention in the past few days.

Last week, something horrible and heinous happened in Charleston, South Carolina.  If you live under a rock and don’t know what happened, follow this link.  This act of domestic terrorism appalled, sickened, and depressed me.  This was just one more example of why #blacklivesmatter.  I felt hopeless, powerless, and lost. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or not (I’m not, I just live here).  And the tut-tutting from Canadians, Brits, and others about American violence is equally pointless.  On the other hand, President Obama is right: this doesn’t happen in other advanced nations.

And now, I am completely inundated with images of the racist jackass who committed this terrorist act in Charleston. I can’t escape it. I can’t escape him (I will not name him, I refuse. Why? Read this about the Montréal Massacre of 1989).  My Facebook feed, Twitter, the basic internet: All I see is this terrorist’s stupid, smirking face. I don’t want to.  I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to hear from him, I don’t care.  Others can care, they can worry why he committed an act of terror in African Methodist Episcopal Church (a Church! A place of sanctuary!) in Charleston.

This terrorist is being given a form of stardom for his heinous acts.  What should matter is the victims.  They are:

  • Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54. She was a manager of the Charleston County Public Library system; her brother is Malcolm Graham, a member of the South Carolina Senate.
  • Susie Jackson, 87. A member of the church choir and a veteran of the civil rights movement.
  • Ethel Lee Lance, 70.  She was the church sexton.
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 59. A school administrator and admissions co-ordinate at Southern Wesleyan University.
  • Clementa Pinckney, 41.  She was the church pastor and a South Carolina State Senator.
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26.  He was Susie Jackson’s nephew.
  • Daniel Simmons, 74.  He was a pastor at the Greater Zion African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Awendaw, South Carolina.
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45. Also a pastor, she was a speech therapist and track and field coach at Goose Creek High School.
  • Myra Thompston, 59.  She was a Bible studies teacher.

That’s nine people.  Think of the constellations of their relationships, partners, aunts, uncles, parents, kids, nieces, nephews, co-workers, students, friends, etc.  Think of all the people who are grieving.  That is more important than the terrorist who killed them.

Why Tom Cotton is Wrong about LGBT Rights

April 6, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) had a very clear message to LGBT folk in the United States: “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay.” This comes as Cotton’s defence of the now amended Defence of Religious Freedom Act passed by the Indiana legislature the week before.

So this is what is has come to.  A senator of this country is telling a group of its citizens that they’re lucky they don’t live in Iran.  In other words, shut up.  For Senator Cotton the United States should not strive to be leader of human rights in this world.  In his mind, the country should just forget the statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.”  Nope.  We should just forget what the State Department says on its webpage:

The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure the peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.

None of this matters to Senator Cotton.  And this is very sad.  Politics in this country is a blood sport, at least symbolically.  Whenever people throw up their arms and express frustration at the current impasse between Democrats and Republicans, I like to gently remind them it’s never really been any different here, dating back to the first fights in Congress between the Federalists and the Republicans (not, of course, the same party as that today, which dates from the 1850s).  On the one side, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in a strong federal government; the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred a smaller national government and favoured personal liberty, free from government interference.

Nonetheless, there was a general belief in the right of Americans to dignity and a protection of their human rights (unless, of course, one was African American).  But we’ve already fought this fight.  In the 1960s, Americans sought a “Great Society,” one which provided care for its dispossessed and one that sought to protect its vulnerable citizens.  Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) perhaps summed up how human rights work, including in this country:

Human rights are not a privilege granted by the few, they are a liberty entitled to all, and human rights, by definition, include the rights of all humans, those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, or the shadows of life.

Cotton clearly has this equation backwards, he seeks to refuse basic rights to LGBT people in this country.  It is not just that Cotton’s greatest ambition in terms of equality is to ensure American LGBT people are treated at least as well as the 75th ranked country on the 2013 Human Rights Index (the US, for reference, is ranked 5th).  That is not good enough and violates everything that this country is supposed to stand for.  And it does not represent the country that the vast majority of Americans hope for.

Tom Cotton should be deeply ashamed of himself.

Atheism as Dogmatism

March 9, 2014 § 7 Comments

Frankly, I don’t care about people’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.  We should be free to choose to believe or not believe, and we should be free to practice our beliefs however see fit, so long as we do not cause harm to others.  I have never been particularly religious, when I was younger, I flirted with Catholicism (the religion I was born into) and various brands of Protestantism, been attracted to Sufi Islam, and explored Buddhism.  Then I realised Buddhism isn’t really a religion so much as a guide to what the Buddha calls the good life.  I have also tried out atheism, deism, and everything in between.  I seem to have settled into some nether world where I’m irreligious, in the sense that I’m indifferent.

But. I also teach history, and I’ve taught far more sections of Western and World History in my career than I care to count.  And, as I go over the various calamities that have befallen humans over the past 3,000-4,000 years in various corners of the world, I have come to realise the initial point of religion.  It is to help people make sense of the Terror of History.  Bad things happen all the time, and, as the Buddha noted, all existence is suffering.  Every religion and systems of belief I have come across from the Babylonians to China, Japan, Africa, Europe, and the Americas has attempted to offer comfort against this suffering and terror.

At the core, I think all religions are beautiful in their attempts to make sense of the chaos, to give people hope.  And, of course, I recognise that every religion has also been perverted to bring pain and suffering and misery to others.

But that’s to be expected.  I read once that the difference between liberals and conservatives (in today’s usage of those two terms) is a basic belief in human nature.  Conservatives generally believe in the good of humanity, liberals are not so optimistic.  Hence, conservatives tend to believe in less regulation and restrictions on individual liberty, under the assumption that we’ll sort it out.  Liberals, on the other hand, believe we need regulations to ensure basic decency, otherwise we’ll destroy ourselves.  In this sense, it turns out I am a liberal.  I believe human beings are capable of beauty, but also of atrocity.  It’s hard to conclude otherwise as a historian, I’m afraid.

A few years back, I was subbing for a colleague who was teaching a course on the History of Science & Technology.  The students were clearly divided.  On the left of the room were the atheists, on the right were the religious.  I kid you not, they were split down the middle like this, like we were standing in the National Assembly in Paris in 1791.  Their arguments were exactly what you’d expect from young minds finding their way: aggressive, scoffing, and yet, careful not to go too far in arguing with their friends to the point of insulting them.  I posited to the atheists that they were just as dogmatic as their religious classmates, that atheism, in that sense, was no different than religion.  The religious students got this argument right away, whereas the atheists were offended and argued that there is no dogma to atheism, therefore it cannot be religion. End of discussion. I tried again, the right side of the room argued the point with the left side of the room. But the atheists would not see it.  The fact that they were dogmatic in their disbelief in God was lost on them.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I somehow got into a discussion about religion, atheism, and all the fun stuff that goes along with that.  Twitter, of course, is not really the ideal forum for complex ideas, nonetheless, I and my two interlocutors were managing to be intelligent, rational adults, exchanging our views.  But then another person who I suppose follows one of the people I was conversing with joined in.  The joys of Twitter, in all their worst ways. Her basic line of argument is that all religion is evil and causes bad things to happen.  Full stop.  Then she started insulting.

I find this approach just as boring as those who wish to evangelicise their religious beliefs.  And I see this belief as just as dogmatic, and even fundamentalist, as any religious evangelical.  This woman stated point blank that religious people are wrong and that she is right.  Clearly, in her view, anyone who disagreed with her is a fool.  I find it ironic that some atheists have become as ossified in their beliefs as those they attack for “silly superstitions” (to quote from a tweet I saw last week on the issue).  And as much as some religious folk are contemptuous of those who don’t believe, this brand of atheism is as contemptuous as those who do believe, or those who express some interest in avoiding categorical statements about religion.  And I can’t help but feel that’s rather depressing.

The Haunting of Patrick Okello

January 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, there was a fantastic article in The Guardian about Uganda and the long-term fall out of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army amongst the Acholi.  The Acholi live in northern Uganda, not far from South Sudan.  Joseph Kony comes from the Acholi.  One of the many things that struck me about the article is the story of Patrick Okello.  Okello is a haunted man.

In 1996, five years after a horrible massacre at Amoko on 6 December 1991, Patrick Okello and his brother came across the dismembered remains of his father about 8 miles away from home.  Another victim of the LRA:

My brother and I found his body cut up into small pieces.  There was a lot of blood. We buried him quickly in a shallow grave with sand near our home. Then we ran away in case the LRA were still in the area. I think my father is still vengeful about the fact that his last funeral rite has not been carried out. He always tells me he needs a proper burial. He is angry.

Journalist Will Storr posits that Okello suffers from PTSD.  But Okello, as Storrs notes, lives in a small village, far removed from the world of medical intervention.  Instead, Okello is haunted.  Storrs writes,

Demons have been visiting him in the night; he wakes to see a strange glow in his hut as they surround him, whispering Okello, Okello, Okello. Flies, rats and bats crawl over him. The other day, he stripped off all his clothes and ran up the hill. “That’s what makes him run,” says elder Martin Olanya. “Because they’re calling his name.” The villagers have a theory as to what’s behind the haunting of Patrick Okello. “Ever since the burials took place,” says Martin, “the people in this community have not been settled. We assume it’s the work of vengeful spirits.”

The Acholi believe in this spiritual world.  Like all cultures, they believe in elaborate burial rituals that allow the spirit of the deceased to journey onwards.  If those rituals are not observed, the spirit cannot escape and they remain to haunt those left behind.  And during the terror caused by Kony and the LRA, which visited the most destruction, death and mayhem on the Acholi because they wouldn’t, for the most part, support Kony, it was near impossible to observe these rituals.  Storrs tells of other survivors of the 1991 massacre who buried their dead in shallow graves, quickly, to avoid running into the LRA again lest they be killed as well.

I resent the tone taken by Westerners in describing these belief systems (though Storrs actually does a wonderful job in NOT taking the usual tone), which reflects this sense of Western superiority, that somehow we are rational (yes, I know, this is the entire mindset that justified imperialism in the first place).  As if we in the (post)modern world do not have such beliefs, we are entirely rational and modernised.

When I teach World History, I spend a lot of time dealing with religion for the simple fact that religion is, amongst other things, supposed to offer a means of explaining the chaos and disorder of the world, a means of understanding why bad things happen.  In other words, religious beliefs have long since ordered and organised cultures, including our own allegedly post-religious society.  And belief systems like that of the Acholi do exactly that, it explains why the world works the way it does.  And we all need belief systems that help us to understand the world, which is why this theme I’ve been exploring when I teach World History, the Terror of History, is so appealing to me.  Religion is one of the main means by which human beings have sought to escape the Terror of History, as religion allows us to rationalise it, to give us meaning for why bad things happen and why we are all going to die.

And so this is what the beliefs of the Acholi do: explain the world to them, and to help them understand why Kony happened in the first place.  Indeed, Dorina Adjero, one of Okello’s neighbours, says that Kony is possessed by demons, “That’s why he does all the killings and all these weird things.  A normal person who is acting in normal conscience wouldn’t kill people in this way.”  As for Okello, his demons appear to have been quieted by an exorcism of sorts performed by pastors from the local evangelical Christian church.

The Redemptorists

January 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

I went to mass on Christmas Day, I’m not Catholic, but I kind of like the tradition. This year we were in Keene, NH, where my sister-in-law lives. The priest had as the theme of his Christmas morning sermon “redemption,” noting that that was the true meaning of the season. I like to think that is one of the good points of Catholicism, that redemption is granted through the fallibility of humanity, God’s forgiveness for our sins, in part through the sacrifice of Jesus, in part through confession.  I presume that this is where the Redemptorist Brothers got their name, their job being to redeem the souls of both their parishioners, as well as their converts (they are a missionary brotherhood).

Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction of my destination tomorrow in Toronto: the archives of the Redemptorists. The Redemptorists were the parish priests in Griffintown from 1885 until the destruction of St. Ann’s Church in 1970, and the ultimate closing of the parish a dozen or so years later. So far as I know, no one has actually gone in and looked at the brothers’ records from Griffintown. I was told about them years ago by Rosalyn Trigger, who was at the time doing her PhD at McGill, but I never found the time to get to Toronto to look at them when I was researching my PhD. Funny: last time I saw my supervisor, Ron Rudin, a few months ago, I was telling him about my plans to go take a look as I finished off the research for the book. He wondered if he could take back my PhD for keeping knowledge of this archive from him. ‘Fraid not, Ron.

Anyway, I’m rather excited to be heading to the archive tomorrow morning to see what I can find, to deepen our general knowledge of Irish-Catholic Griffintown, it will also add something to my book that is not in other histories of the neighbourhood, including my own dissertation.

That the Redemptorist priests were popular in their parish of St. Ann’s is not in doubt. In 1885, when the Sulpicians were stripped of their parish of St. Ann’s, the Irish-Catholics of Griffintown were furious, to the point where they remonstrated with the Bishop of Montréal. However, the Redemptorists, upon their arrival, were able to almost instantly win the hearts and minds of their parishioners, by investing money in the church and parish. By the time that Father Strubbe, the “Belgian Irishman,” was recalled to Belgium, the Irish-Catholics were loudly remonstrating with the powers-that-be over this decision. All the former Griffintowners that I have done oral histories with fondly recall the priests of St. Ann’s, in particular Fr. Kearney.

So I’m hoping here to find out how the priests saw their impoverished parishioners, what they felt they could do for them, whether they enjoyed being in Griffintown, their impressions of the neighbourhood. I’m also interested in the question of faith. All of the former Griffintowners I’ve talked to, as well as all other evidence I’ve seen, shows a very Catholic community, one where people took the ceremonies and rituals of their faith. But what has always interested me is whether this was just that: familiar ritual. One thing the Church is very good at is giving its faithful ritual and ceremony that are both familiar and reassuring. But I’ve always wondered how deep the idea of faith goes, not just with respect to Griffintown, but the Catholic Church in general.

Then there’s the question of Irishness. One of the reasons the Griffintowners protested the removal of the Sulpicians in 1885 was because the Sulpicians were very good about ensuring the parish priests at St. Ann’s were Irish. The Redemptorists who arrived in Griffintown that year were all Belgian. Of course, Fr. Strubbe was able to win over his parishioners and even gain status as an Irishman by the time of his recall.  And by the mid-20th century, the priests, like Fr. Kearney, were Irish once more. Was this a conscious decision by the Redemptorists and the Bishop to represent the faithful? What did the priests make of the Irishness of their parishioners?

So here’s hoping I can begin to find some answers to these questions in the archive.

Mr. Islamophobe

March 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m on this listserv, I’ve been on it for over a decade, and I’m really just too lazy to unsubscribe.  Occasionally, my laziness is rewarded with insightful commentary on Canada and the world.  More often than not, I’m exposed to anti-Semitism from one member and anti-Islamic propaganda from another.  Most recently, Mr. Islamaphobe (who is also of the opinion that feminism has destroyed our culture, and if it wasn’t feminism or Islam, it was the left, and if not them, then it was the environmentalists) has declared that Islam is a religion bent on world domination, supporting Geert Weders’ idea that, although there are moderate Muslims, there is no moderate Islam.  I find this kind of commentary not just offensive, but stupid.

Both Christianity and Judaism are evangelical religions, they both seek new adherents wherever they are taken.  If Islam is, as Mr. Islamophobe argues, hell bent on world domination, Christianity is even more so.  The various Christian churches have spent much of the past two millenia seeking new converts, first as it expanded out of the Holy Lands into the European portion of the Roman Empire, then throughout Europe and North Africa, into Asia, across the Atlantic to the Americas, into sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania.  Islam has also similarly expanded out of the Holy Lands to become a global force.

Of course, the difference for Mr. Islamophobe is that Christianity is his culture/religion.  Thus, for him, Christianity and the culture it has created stand for all that is good and great and beautiful in the world, whereas Islam stands for all that is evil and rotten in the world.


March 24, 2009 § 2 Comments

After what has seemed like an eternity, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, entitled, “‘The House of the Irish’: Irishness, History, and Memory in Griffintown, Montréal, 1868-2009,” on Friday, 13 March.  So now I am Dr. John Matthew Barlow.

This also explains my absence from this blog for the past month, as I prepared for and recovered from said defence.  I will be active again in the coming days.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Religion category at Matthew Barlow.