BY Stuart Jeffries
Nicolas Sarkozy’s outburst on burqas calls up visions of the Terror. He really should read Hegel.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s problem is that he hasn’t read enough Hegel. Let me rephrase that: one of his problems is that he hasn’t read enough Hegel. When the French President told a special session of parliament earlier this week, “we cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” he would have done better instead to reflect on that passage in the Philosophy of Right in which Hegel distinguishes between abstract and concrete freedom.
The former means the freedom to do whatever you want, which is why you can choose between 32 different kinds of four-inch wedges the glossies tell you look sexy but in none of which you can walk. Such is the freedom of late capitalism, which seems to systematically strive to deprive us of an identity that we might construct ourselves.
For Hegel this isn’t real freedom, because our wants and desires are determined by society. By those lights, a western fashion victim is as much a sartorial prisoner as a woman in a burqa. By real freedom, Hegel meant not doing whatever one wants but having the freedom from societal conditioning by using reason. If you come across someone who manages to be really free in this sense then send me their names so we can celebrate their escape.
None of us is really free in that sense. I used to think otherwise. I once wrote an article under the headline “If only we were more like the French: Call me a chippy atheist, but I’d rather see a headscarf ban than Muslim ghettoes.” I thought forcibly liberating people from their mental and sartorial shackles would make us free. Now I believe the creation of ghettoes is made more likely by displays of intolerance towards what some Muslim women wear, that the social integration France seeks through its policy of laicite, or secularism, is less likely. One of the reasons for this shift is because of thinking about what Hegel means about freedom in society.
Yes, but, you might want to say, surely women who wear burqas are more oppressed than those who treat the sartorial laws of celebrity magazines as though they were the words of God? I’m still depressed when I see a woman in a burka, but that’s my problem. What’s striking in Mr. Sarkozy’s speech is that it is again a man who denounces women and presumes they are cut off from all society.
Mr. Sarkozy’s remarks are consistent with the tradition of laicite that led, in 2004, to the banning of headscarves in French schools. Doesn’t he realise then that his speech exemplifies an abstract freedom of expression which, in Hegelian terms, proceeds from social conditioning, not reason? It seems unlikely. For French political culture, religion is tolerable only if it keeps itself to itself.
Mr. Sarkozy now goes further, pursuing those who dress in a way that is a rejection of western values even into their private worlds. He said: “The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.” Even religious justification is bad enough, run the suppressed premises of this argument, but the absence of such despicable justifications is worse.
The woman in a burqa must be made free to choose to be more western, then. Mr. Sarkozy proposes, in a parliamentary commission to look at whether to ban the wearing of burqas in public, that such freedom would improve her lot.
French venerate such abstract freedoms. They were, for Hegel, the basis of the revolution’s collapse into the Terror in which individuals were sacrificed to the ill-conceived pursuit of abstract freedoms. Mr. Sarkozy is thus a modern-day Robespierre, proposing some women be terrorised in the name of the kind abstract freedoms France has venerated for 210 years. Let’s see if he succeeds.
— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009