French Christians Protest Provocative Play about Jesus, Religion, and Consumer Culture
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A woman holds a banner reading “Touche pas à Dieu!” (“Don’t touch God!”) during a demonstration in Paris, France this past Sunday. The Institut Civitas called on Christians to gather and denounce “Christianophobia” and Argentine-born author Rodrigo Garcia’s play Golgota Picnic, which the fundamentalist Christian group judges as “blasphemous.” Thousands of Catholics took part in the demonstration and stopped at the Théâtre de Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees which is running the play, which contains a stage littered with hamburger buns and scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion with biblical readings.
Golgota Picnic is a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture and religion in which, Garcia said to the BBC, “depicts the life of Christ through shocking images of contemporary consumer society.”
Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.
Will Muslim Women Feel at Home in Their Home Country of France?
by Anna Mansson McGinty, special contributor
Muslim men and women stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. (photo: Archibald Ballantine/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
“Of course, I’m at home (laughter). Who else’s (country) am I in? I feel at home. I have my family here, we live, we eat, we cry, we laugh, we suffer, we don’t suffer. Some people are pleasant, some insult us. But truthfully, the day the law will be (implemented), I’ll no longer feel at home.”
Camile is one of the Muslim women interviewed in “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France,” a report written as part of the “At Home in Europe Project” of the Open Society Foundations. The report was released in April, as the ban on the covering of the face, such as with the niqab or burqa, went into effect on April 11.
The law has been fiercely debated since the French National Assembly voted in favor of it (336-1) in July 2010, six years after the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban makes it illegal to wear any face covering in public spaces in France, and thus, from the perspectives of the opponents of the law, a religious act and symbol has been criminalized. France, with an estimated 6-7 million Muslims, is the first European country to make it illegal. Belgium and the Netherlands may soon follow suit.
The “burqa ban” and its current popularity in Europe raise several questions pertaining to religious expressions in public, freedom of expression, the future of Islam, and the growing Muslim population in Europe, but also, as the quote of Camile points to, national identity and citizenship. The ban rests on the salient notion of French secularism, laïcité, the separation of church and state and the division between private life and public sphere.
Laïcité requires that in order for the state to secure the equality of all citizens, these individuals have to present themselves as free from religion. Consequently, the notion of laïcité, together with a prevalent public discourse of Islam and Muslims as the ultimate “other” incompatible with “French values,” has made Muslims, who publicly display their religious affiliation, the target and object of scrutiny. In effect, a woman who does not abide by the law could be fined up to €150, and in some cases be required to take citizenship classes.
But why this urgent and intense focus on Muslim women’s garments? The relationship of the West to the veil and Islamic dress code is a complex political and social phenomenon, with a long history, suggesting several interrelated factors at play. Considering the very small number of women in France who wear the full-face veil (estimates range from 400-2000), one wonders if this is, as the proponents argue, an effective means to combat Islamic extremism and enhance integration. In which ways can policies prohibiting certain attire promote the preservation of “French culture” as well as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the French mainstream?
This kind of state regulation and control over certain gendered and religious (as well as political) bodies demonstrates the symbolic meaning and weight a national community can place on women’s dress and conduct in public, as women represent, in Cynthia Enloe’s words, “nationalist wombs;” they are not only bearers of the future generation, but also the ones transmitting the nation’s culture and values from one generation to the next.
Furthermore, it is hard not to make historical parallels to colonial times in places such as Egypt and Algeria where the “veil” and “the Muslim woman” became the battlefield between the anti-veil colonialists and the native, national liberation movement. Similar to the colonial politics of the veil and the discourse of “saving the Muslim woman” from her oppressive and traditional man and religion, French president Nicolas Sarkozy uses “feminist” rhetoric arguing for Muslim women’s dignity and equality in the French Republic. Interestingly, 10 of the 32 women interviewed in the report indicated that they had started to wear the niqab as a protest to the ban.
In response to the ban, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which makes recommendations on human rights issues, passed a resolution that emphasizes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination,” urging EU countries to protect women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing.” While perhaps not representative, the many personal experiences and testimonies of Muslim women featured in the report “Unveiling the Truth” resonate with this declaration.
To the proponents of the ban, the face veil symbolizes the most extreme version of Islam and poses a threat to national culture and secularism, but the women who claim to have chosen to wear the face veil, speak of the niqab as part of a spiritual journey, as reflecting a deepened relationship with God and the desire to follow the actions of the prophet Mohammad’s wives for guidance. The question now is how and to what extent the ban is going to be implemented, the social and political implications of it, and whether some of these women, such as Camile, will ever feel at home in their own home country.
References in This Article
- “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others” by Lila Abu-Lughod in American Anthropologist
- “The Burqa Debate. Are Women’s Rights Really the Issue?” in Der Spiegel
- Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics by Cynthia Enloe
- “France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public” by Steven Erlanger in The New York Times
- “Deux Mille Femmes Portent la Burqa en France” (“Two Thousand Women Wear the Burqa in France”) by Cécilia Gabizon in Le Figaro
- “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France” in the At Home in Europe Project by Open Society Foundations
This article is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
A Poetic Street Sign Encounter in the City of Light
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Last week, I spent two days exploring the glorious streets of Paris in the emerging bloom of spring. As I wound my way through the city’s arrondissements toward the Eiffel Tower, I serendipitously stumbled upon this street sign honoring the French poet Sully Prudhomme.
I’d never even heard of the Nobel laureate until reading Xavier Le Pichon’s essay “Ecce Homo.” In it, Le Pichon shares Prudhomme’s poem “Le Vase Brisé” (“The Broken Vase”), which his mother taught him, and relates the poem to his mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.
Rossini’s “Meow!” by “The Little Singers of Paris”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Ilona, our first Web intern, posted this video on my Facebook wall with the comment: “I know you’re all dog lovers at SoF but here is some cat love for ya.” For the first minute, I thought this was one person’s attempt at some humor-filled dubbing of a concert given in Seoul, Korea in 1996. But, when the boys and the pianist cracked smiles, doubt disappeared.
Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois (also known as “The Little Singers of Paris”) is a century-old boarding school based in the outskirts of Paris. The Catholic institution admits boys from ages 9 to 15 and integrates traditional studies with arts and the humanities. A core component of the the school is social action in which they are “sensitive to people and populations in need” and “maintain the right to education, fight against discrimination and help the weak and the victims.”
Although similar in spirit to a previous video we posted of Les Freres de St Francis de la Sissies, this choir is a legit. The boys sing both sacred and popular music, often performing little-known French folk music. They tour throughout France and the world as part of their mission. I’d dig being able to hear them live.
I don’t read French, and the translations I pulled up about the school are pretty spotty. If you know more about the school’s efforts, please post a comment and share your knowledge.
A Question From Behind the Glass
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Most of the time, Krista is not physically in the same room with the person she’s interviewing. This was the case during her recent conversation with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon, who lives in southern France. She spoke with him from Studio P in Saint Paul while he was an ocean away in another studio in Aix-en-Provence.
A typical Krista Tippett interview lasts 90 minutes, give or take. Mitch, our senior producer, usually handles audio engineering while others take turns transcribing in real-time. In this photo you can get a sense of the set up. This image was taken by Trent on the day of the Le Pichon interview and here you see me transcribing while Colleen listens in the back. Mitch is taking notes and John Scherf, the technical director, makes sure that everything goes smoothly with the recording.
Krista (pictured at right) is situated in the studio while the rest of us listen in the control room. A soundproof glass panel separates us.
As Krista enters the last stretch of the conversation, she’ll usually pause to ask if there’s a question “from behind the glass.” This is our opportunity as production staff to contribute a question or two.
In her conversation with Le Pichon, I noticed that he became animated when Krista first referenced an emerging wave of research on the science of altruism. Le Pichon responded that in addition to altruism, scientists also need to study compassion and empathy “otherwise they will not understand anything. They need to go beyond that.” From there, the conversation took another turn to Dorothy Day and the San Francisco earthquake and then to 9/11. When the behind the glass moment came, I asked if Krista could revisit her earlier discussion about the science of altruism, compassion, and empathy.
You can hear their exchange in the audio clip above. Here Krista mentions that Le Pichon has written about a proposed research study with a colleague on vulnerability and fragility. I couldn’t remember where Krista found this reference so I went back to some of the materials Le Pichon originally forwarded. In one essay he sent, entitled “The Sign of Contradiction,” he references a colleague named Dominique Lambert who teaches at Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, Belgium.
Le Pichon writes:
“…we have pleaded for a scientific research program that will try to consider the importance of the fragility and vulnerability of humans in the development of humanity. As I have implied in this short essay we believe that vulnerability and fragility played an essential role in the origin and development of humanity. We believe that the implicit and sometime explicit denial of this fragility and vulnerability in our modern societies put us in great danger of losing the meaning and value of human life.”
I haven’t been able to find much about Professor Lambert’s research on fragility and vulnerability beyond this link. If more surfaces, I’ll post it here. Or, if you’re familiar with his research, let us know!
Photos by Trent Gilliss using his hand-dandy Nokia N95!