The conversation begins with an axiom with which everyone can agree: the oppressive treatment of women justified by a certain articulation of the Muslim faith, as exemplified by stories of domestic situations in which patriarchs force the women of the household to veil their faces, is regrettable and ought to be opposed on moral grounds. When Nicholas Sarkozy, responding to social uncertainty and strife over the increased numbers of immigrants pouring into France from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, called on the people of France to engage in a debate on national identity, the Muslim practice of hijab was singled out as antithetical to the principles of liberalism championed by modern Europe. In September 2010, the French senate moved to ban face-covering, with polls showing up to 81% of the French public in favor of the measure.
Slavoj Zizek is used to dissenting on matters that mobilize broad support. In the first chapter of his recent Living in the End Times, Zizek takes the knife of ideology critique to France’s prohibition against the burqa. For Zizek, any issue branded “post-political,” where the solution is obvious and presented as an ethical imperative that evades the ideological posturing one would expect in the political arena, is an exercise in ideology at its purest. Raising pragmatic objections against the legislation—that it will only increase oppression of women because they’d be forced to stay home, that the fine charged against infractions hurts those women least likely to have financial autonomy—is less important than challenging the ideological underpinnings of the debate’s urgency, which patently reached beyond the actual size of the so-called problem: only 2,000 out of France’s 1.5 million Muslin women don a veil, and of those the vast majority are converted, native-French women. To interrogate the ban on the burqa in this manner is to accept the cunningly humanistic, liberal-democratic creed, which, we will find, necessitates prohibitions against the non-Western subject’s demonstration of otherness. By reducing the problematic of immigration, assimilation, and French identity to a particular cultural practice, Sarkozy ensured that the conversation would safely reside within a framework of human rights structurally incapable of calling into question the French government’s right-wing agenda. Doing so requires an excavation of the historical matrix formed by the French nation-state and its response to Islam that will recover what Zizek terms the “background noise,” that which is filtered out by the debate over hijab, which, once interpreted, “provides the density of its actual meaning” and “conveys…the obscenity of the barbarian violence which sustains the public face of law and order.”
The official discourse that motivated the legislation provides pressing insight into the more fundamental antagonism it aimed to resolve. The problem, Zizek writes, “[begins] with Sarkozy’s statement that veils are ‘not welcome’ because, in a secular country like France, they intimidate and alienate non-Muslims…one cannot but note how the allegedly universalist attack on the burqa on behalf of human rights and women’s dignity ends up as a defense of the particular French way of life.” The French nationality recoils at the sight of a veiled woman because this encounter constitutes a confrontation with an other who figures as unintelligible when translated into the Western lexicon, whose mask erases the human face one could otherwise easily identify and render knowable. All that remains is the terrifying gaze of Muslim subjectivity itself and the attendant anxieties over Islam’s fanatical desire to undermine the liberal order.
In Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, Alberto Toscano sophisticates Zizek’s position by delineating between two psychoanalytic procedures that have taken the relation between Islam and the West as their object. The first is characteristic of France’s diagnosis of hijab as an unsuitable form of social participation, an amateur version of psychoanalytic thought that allowed Sarkozy to position himself as analyst and subordinate the Muslim immigrant to the role of “dislocated, maladaptive, voided subject.” George W. F. Hegel’s writings on history and religion were formative in the legitimation of the European mode of politics against the irrationality of the East. The French terror was a legitimate “modernizing agent” because it deployed fanaticism in the service of Spirit and served the construction of the modern state. Islamic “polemical piety” functions as a pathology that not only declines integration into the secular polity, but actively works to impose its own representational vision against the objectivity of law. The reaction of the French parliament, then, was in-step with its founding principles as articulated by the great philosopher of history himself; France could enact nothing less than violence against an Oriental subjectivity that exerted incommensurable difference and a competing claim to universality. The true contradiction of the French legislation is its mobilization of the organs of governance against a psychic orientation that denies the legitimacy of the French nationality altogether. This, for Toscano, is “not simply a question of immunizing society against the strife created by religious particularisms…what is at stake is a philosophical conflict between universalities which enter into rivalry once religious consciousness refuses its proper, subordinate, place”, as a basically passive, conservative guarantee of the efficacy of social ties as ordered by secular law and its monopolization of the public sphere.
What appears to be an impasse for psychoanalysis is more properly understood as the infiltration of conservatism into the psychoanalytic project. Freud’s commitment to atheistic practice, which proceeded with the stated intention of dispelling illusion and religious devotion, was overrun by that very strand of German Idealism which “[believes] that certain illusions have an emancipatory potential that makes them superior to others.” This diagnosis does not rest peacefully in the minds of practicing analysts or university libraries, but is the very logic that actualizes militarized conceptions of Islam and enables both politicians and the media to present the war on terrorism as a meaningful conflict waged in the name of human dignity and against an identifiable enemy. Toscano locates the solution in the second mode of psychoanalytic critique, one that respects the autonomy of the other’s fantasy, which can never be neutralized or unveiled, and instead reveals how the West’s articulation of this fantasy constructs certain defense mechanisms, as exemplified by the French animosity toward the burqa, which are erected in the name of the European political unconscious.
The French discourse on the veiled Muslim woman projects the uncertainties of the “dislocated, maladaptive, voided” subject of Western civilization onto a monolithic big Other termed Islam. In this way, Sarkozy was able to (temporarily) nullify the subversive potential of the clash over immigration by displacing the threat to the sovereign’s authority over territory posed by the migrant onto the role of paternity in Muslim belief. Toscano invites us to read the ideological foundations of this circumscription of Islam with Zizek (rather than reiterate the critique of Orientalism presented by Said) so that we can grasp its productive nature: the French government did not ban the burqa to marginalize or subjugate a religious identity, but to ensure that the symbolic authority that lends consistency to the West’s collective fantasy of the terrifying Muslim subjectivity might stabilize the fragile liberal-democratic accord under siege throughout the banlieues of Paris.