A dispute over pizza in Indiana has lead to a discussion abotu the nature of freedom. Sort of. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Watch out for “Big Gay”: why the freedom to discriminate is a funny sort of freedom

Discrimination under the banner of “freedom” is on the rise again.

How, you may well ask, did a dispute over pizza and cake lead to a question about the nature of freedom? Food and for that matter, drink haven’t exactly played a leading role in the construction of the so called free world, but they’ve always been lurking in the background. There was the Boston Tea Party. “Let them eat cake,” tower-haired posho Marie Antoinette probably didn’t say. “Ich bin ein Berliner [a doughnut]”, JFK definitely did say. This time around, freedom is being called into question at a pizzeria in Indiana and a bakery in Belfast.

Last year, a Christian-owned bakery refused, kind of predictably, to make a cake that celebrated same-sex marriage. Finally, last month, the discrimination case brought against Ashers Baking Company went to court. Meanwhile Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party have been happily beavering away at some legislation that would protect businesses exactly like Belfast’s most reactionary confectioner from having to relinquish their religious principles to the evil Gay Agenda. That’s to say, the DUP want to officially legalise discrimination against LGBT people by businesses.

Also last month, owners of a pizzeria in the American Midwest whined about being persecuted into niceness. The owner of Memories Pizza in Indiana isn’t just rubbish at coming up with restaurant names, she’s also quite rubbish at not being bigot. And the fact that she thinks a gay couple would allow somewhere called Memories Pizza to cater their big day certainly hints at her never even met an actual homosexual. What’s more, fictional Indiana stateswoman and friend o’gays Leslie Knope would most likely be ashamed of the (now amended) corresponding “religious freedom” bill which threatened to legally entrench anti-gay discrimination in that state.

Aside from being small businesses run by even smaller minded people, what the UK bakery and US pizzeria have in common is their dependence on discrimination in the guise of freedom. In several US states, religious freedom bills are threatening to override anti-discrimination ones. The idea that business owners should be free not to accommodate LGBT people, on moral grounds, is right at libertarianism’s core. The spate of religious freedom bills are an important reminder that this is a political philosophy that favours the rights of bullies over their victims. It’s about the right to shoot over the right not to be shot and the right to be an utter bastard over the right to not have to suffer utter bastards.

Right-leaning LGBT people drawn to libertarianism for its supposed social liberalness, especially those voting in next year’s US presidential election, need to take a much closer looks at whose interests Republican senators like Rand Paul represent. Paul, a reasonably hardcore libertarian and presidential hopeful, is no proponent of gay rights. In a 2013 TV interview, when asked about his position on gay rights, Paul said, “I don’t really believe in rights based on your behaviour”. Except, of course, when it comes to the behaviour of gun owners. Or the behaviour of racists and homophobes. “Republican in not giving a fuck about gay rights shocker” isn’t going to appear on any front pages soon, but it’s essential that libertarianism isn’t seen as the cuddly (as cuddly as anything inspired by Ayn Rand can be…) sort of conservatism.

Bryan Fischer, head of the fundamentalist Christian American Family Association, recently tweeted that something called Big Gay is trying to restrict religious freedoms. Big Gay. Like Big Oil, or Big Pharma. I hope I’m not alone in finding this new term for the “gay agenda” more precious than a hedgehog in a tutu. And I’d personally like to thank Fischer for giving me the opportunity to tell people, “I work for Big Gay.” It sounds so much better than, “I lie in bed writing down words, eating Mini Cheddars and trying to masturbate as little as humanly possible.”

The fact is though that Big Gay exists. And thank fuck for that. Freedom to discriminate is a funny sort of freedom. I’d like to say it’s the kind that could only exist in a country where you can buy ammunition from supermarkets, but we have a fair bit of it in the UK too, as proven by the Belfast gay cake debacle. Meanwhile, LGBT activist group All Out have nearly reached their goal of 300,000 signatures for a petition aimed at blocking the DUP’s proposed anti-gay amendment. Nice work, Big Gay.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.