Lyautey’s whiskers and sexual predation

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Coming out of my hotel near the Ecole Militaire in Paris a few weeks ago week, I found myself directly behind a large bronze statue. From each side of its – his – face sprouted a luxuriant and wonderfully curly moustache, silhouetted against the sky well beyond each cheek. “That,” I thought idly to myself “looks like Maréchal Lyautey,” and walked round the front to check whose the statue actually was. It was indeed Lyautey’s, and I think I can now claim the only occasion in my life when I have recognized someone from behind by his moustache.

I was in Paris for a lecture, about ‘violent democracy,’ the notion explored by the speaker, Jef Huysmans, that there is a fundamental shift taking place within democracies as the conflicts which are negotiated and fought over in the democratic space become less about horizontal divisions, like class; and more about vertical divisions of identity. And with this compartmentalising shift, argues Huysmans, comes a new place for violence as intrinsic to the way we think about politics – a corollary of the vertical identities that make of fellow humans quite other categories of being. For those others, violence of vocabulary, violence of metaphor, violence of fact seem increasingly appropriate. One of the instances on which we dwelt was how violence is being injected into the way we look at migrants. Not just the way that violent episodes are stressed, and absurd inferences drawn about terrorists flooding in through the Greek islands, but more banal questions of language. Why, I wondered as I stood in line at the Gare du Nord, was my passport being examined by a ‘Border Force,’ rather than ‘UK Immigration’? It conjures up – as is intended – a firm and fierce corps d’élite committed heart and soul to fighting off unwanted intruders, rather than facilitating entry. A sort of liminal Dad’s Army on spinach.

The sexual harassment of hundreds of women by crowds of young men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, or St Sylvester’s Night, has cast this violent rhetoric into high relief. It is clear that there are many people who are keen to tar migrants from the Middle East and North Africa with the brush of unbridled sexual predation: and it’s also clear that there are others who are so uncomfortable with this association that they freeze into silence rather than admitting it. This doesn’t look to me much like an evidence-based stand-off: the position you take is fairly predictable from your politics. Not long ago a former head of the French Foreign Legion, a septuagarian general with a moustache no doubt rather like the Maréchal’s, was arrested for refusing to disperse at a venomously anti-immigrant rally at Calais.  He didn’t go to the Pegida march wondering whether all this gossip about immigrants was true or not: General Picquemal knew it was true because he could smell it. And this is what violent democracy seems to me to mean in practice – the using of others whom you have no wish to understand, no desire to know, no hankering to like, as whetstones on which to sharpen the blade of your own preconceptions.

But nonetheless the question of sexual aggression is important, and needs to be discussed carefully. This doesn’t mean refusing to acknowledge it, nor does it mean glibly attributing to every young Muslim man a ravening, animal lust. First, remember that it is not just European right-wing commentators who comment with horror on the phenomenon. Here is the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany describing the ‘Eid riots in Cairo in 2006 in his newspaper column:

More than a thousand young men gathered between Adli Street and Talat Harb Street and started attacking and molesting women at random for four full hours. Any female who had the misfortune to be passing through the area at that time – girls, women, young and old, with or without hijab or niqab, walking alone, with friends, or even with their husbands – would have met the same fate. Hundreds of sex-crazed young men would have would have attacked her and completely surrounded her with their bodies, and dozens of hands would have reached out to pull off her clothes and grope her breasts and between her legs.

But this kind of pack aggression, as al-Aswany puts it, “is not just an expression of sexual frustration. Sexual desire can often have buried within it despair, frustration, injustice, insignificance and futility, and all these are common among the poor in Egypt.” These young men “are the children of unemployment, impotence and overcrowding. They live crammed into tiny rooms in buildings without utilities …  They have lost all hope for the future, hope of work, of marriage, or even of emigration abroad. They live without dignity …”

This description of life at the very bottom of the Egyptian heap is chilling. It is from here that some of the wilder, less thoughtful energies of the Arab Spring came – and it is in this darkness that religious violence, so often subcutaneously sexual, brews too. Most of his columns (though not this one) al-Aswany ends with the short sentence, ‘Democracy is the solution,’ which echoes parodically the Ikhwan’s glib ‘Islam is the solution.’ He is probably right to avoid the facile in this context. There are many, many things that need addressing in this situation before democracy can have any traction – but the crisis is socio-political as much as it is sexual and behavioural. What is the solution to this toxic mess, and how are we to deal with its export to Europe? Because this is where – metaphorically at least – a proportion of the migrants comes from, the hopeless slums of the Arab world, without “hope for the future, hope of work, of marriage, or even of emigration abroad.” What does it mean to arrive in Europe from a Middle East where so much of the experience is of this sort, and where the whole nexus of women’s rights, of sex and of honour is so differently imagined from Europe’s own (often inconsistent and ill-applied) notions.

It so happened that I picked up Le Monde on the train home and found a long article by Kamel Daoud, the Algerian novelist whose Mersault Investigation was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and won the English PEN award. Daoud is very clear about the background – as the headline in Le Monde has it, summing up the piece rather well, Welcoming refugees means admitting that giving them ID papers is not enough to heal them of the deep sexism that is rampant in the Arab-Muslim world. (An earlier but related article by Daoud was later published in the New York Times, here.) He puts it at slightly greater length:

So, is the refugee a savage? No. Just different. And it’s not enough to welcome him by giving him papers and shared accommodation and washing our hands of him. Certainly we must offer asylum to his body, but we must also convince his spirit to change. The Other comes from a vast, sad, frightening universe of sexual misery, of sick relations with women, with the body and with desire. Welcoming him is not healing him.

So what’s going on here? Daoud sees the woman in the Islamic world – and especially in the Islamist worldview – as endlessly depersonalised and owned, quoting himself as having written

Who does a woman’s body belong to? Her nation, her family, her husband, her eldest brother, her neighbourhood, the children of her neighbourhood, her father, the state, the street, her ancestors, her national culture, her taboos. The woman’s body is the place where she loses ownership of herself and her identity.

Focusing his anger not on Islam (though not sparing it) so much as on Islamism, to which he was himself attracted as a younger man, he writes that

Sex is the biggest misery in the ‘World of Allah.’ To such an extent that it has given birth to this porno-Islamism which Islamist preachers make use of to recruit their ‘faithful.’ Descriptions of a paradise more like a brothel than a reward for the pious, fantasies of virgins for suicide-bombers, the hunting of female bodies in public places, the puritanism of dictatorships, veils and burkas.

But essential to what Daoud is saying is that he is not condemning out-of-hand every young Muslim male. He tries instead to understand the ætiology of the profoundly unattractive relationship with sex that is displayed by a proportion of young single male migrants from Muslim countries. He believes that it is the result of terrible distortions in the Muslim world, focusing on the religious. One might add the political constipation of the last half century that has kept extractive Western-backed dictatorships in power, dictatorships that have had Islamist radicals on and off the leash whenever either tactic has seemed useful to the short-term political and security needs of the dictators; and has abandoned large tracts of the welfare realm to private – generally Islamist – providers with an ideological agenda based on a bizarre and destructive view of sexuality and woman.

And the corollary, in Daoud’s view, is that we need to think in moral terms about how we treat migrants. We have welcomed them to Europe, and it is not an adequate response simply to give them a roof and let them join the alienated pockets of European societies simply because we can’t be bothered to do more. Daoud concludes his piece:

Is Cologne a sign that we should shut our gates – or shut our eyes? Neither. Shutting the gates – that will ultimately constitute a crime against humanity. But shutting our eyes to the long, drawn-out work of welcome and assistance and all that that means in terms of work on ourselves and on others is also a lethal otherworldliness. Refugees cannot simply be reduced to a delinquent minority. But this raises the question of ‘Values’ to be shared, imposed, defended and made understood. And it raises the question of responsibility after the initial welcome – and who is going to take that responsibility.

Now you don’t need to agree or disagree in its entirety with his argument, to acknowledge that it is important, a serious attempt by an Algerian writer who understands the position of women in European societies to be central to European culture, and the position of many women in many Muslim societies to be dire, to analyse the meaning of St Sylvester’s Night.

So what was the reaction to his essay?

It was so aggressive, so negative that Daoud announced shortly afterwards that he was giving up journalism for good to focus on novel-writing. This was what a band of French intellectuals and New York bien-pensants managed to achieve – drumming the editor of an Algerian newspaper, Le quotidian d’Oran, out of journalism for his opinions. He was, said one, “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European population … more than just the usual colonial paternalism, he is effectively saying that the deviant culture of this mass of Muslims is a danger for Europe.” Which is not actually what he was saying, but hey, who cares about accuracy when there’s a snide polemical point to be made.

It goes to show how hard this business is to discuss at all, let alone to discuss intelligently. Accusations that Daoud is calling for re-education and indoctrination, displaying culturalist tendencies and so on, are designed to stifle discussion. Faouzia Zouari, a French-Tunisian writer, called the letter from French intellectuals “a secular fatwa.”

But it is not illegitimate to wonder whether guests invited into one’s home shouldn’t be asked to observe the customs of the house, and the ferocity of the response, often from those who understand – or should understand – perfectly well the predicament of the woman in many parts of the Muslim world, is fascinating. It seems to me that Daoud’s questions are right, and his analysis useful. His answers are uncomfortable, contestable and – certainly – prone to being misemployed by the malignant. But the basic message, that real hospitality demands more than a crust of bread and today’s equivalent of a Nansen passport, is right. It demands longer-term human engagement, and rather more than vapid moral outrage and cultural relativism. This, it seems to me, is what Daoud bravely gives it.

I find it very interesting that the two people I have read recently who give this nasty business serious thought (whether their conclusions are right or wrong) are novelists-cum-journalists, Daoud and al-Aswany. Perhaps it takes a novelist’s imagination to transcend the rigidities and the compartmentalisation of ‘Violent Democracy.’


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