National Identities and Transnational Intimacies: Sexual Democracy and the Politics of Immigration in Europe
On February 10, 2008, a public meeting at the École normale supérieure in honor of Ayaan Hirsi Ali attracted considerable media attention during her brief stay in Paris. The Somali-born immigrant turned Dutch politician now resided in the United States. In 2004 the fierce critique of Islam’s brutal oppression of women she developed in the eleven-minute film Submission had caused violent reactions in the Netherlands among some fundamentalists, and after the assassination of her white codirector, Theo van Gogh, the young black woman remained the target of death threats.1 However, and despite her new international fame, accusations in 2006 about her use of lies (including on her very name) to be granted asylum in the Netherlands in 1992 led her own party, the “liberal” (free market) People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, to withdraw its support — especially Minister of Integration Rita Verdonk, which is not exactly surprising, given the anti-immigration agenda carried on by her party. After an apology, Hirsi Ali finally retained her Dutch passport, but she still resigned from Parliament and the same year accepted a position as a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In 2007 the Netherlands announced that it would continue to pay for her security only if she lived in the country. While the United States could not legally cover such expenses to protect a foreigner (unless she had an official status), Hirsi Ali declined an offer of Danish citizenship that also entailed residence and chose to remain on American soil.
Thus the public meeting in Paris was not merely the symbolic recognition of her political stance on women’s rights (though she did receive a Simone de Beauvoir Award): Hirsi Ali made a plea for French citizenship that carried political resonance thanks to the presence of the former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, alongside Rama Yade, the right-wing government’s minister then in charge of human rights. The latter has been one of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s most symbolic appointments: one of only a handful of black political figures in France, this young, attractive woman born in Senegal provides a face to his claims of “diversity” in response to the accusations of xenophobia leveled against current immigration policies. Hence Yade’s speech in the first person: “Like you, I am of African origin. Like you, I migrated to Europe. Like you, I was born in a Muslim country.” But the principles at stake go beyond personal similarities: “Eternal France has heard you, the France of 1789, Victor Hugo, De Gaulle,” she exclaimed, even adding to the list, for good measure, Neither Sluts nor Doormats — Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS), an association founded in 2003 that speaks in the name of women against the physical and symbolic violence they undergo, but only in the underprivileged banlieues (the French equivalent of inner cities or “outer cities”). On behalf of the administration, she added, “We are trying to think of a way to give you access to France and naturalization.”2 Why should Hirsi Ali become French — although she did not announce she intended to live in France, nor did she speak the language, especially at a time when immigrants cannot resist expulsion by claiming long-term residence or bring in their families unless these prove already “integrated,” in particular by displaying a command of French? During the meeting, no one justified more eloquently this logic of exception than the media intellectual (and 1970s nouveau philosophe) Bernard-Henri Lévy. The reason France must “adopt” her, he argued, is quite simply that “Ayaan Hirsi Ali is already French (yes, she is!) in her heart, her values and her mind.” According to him, the refugee from Islam defends not only Western-style secularism but, more precisely, its French version: “la laïcité à la française.” Hirsi Ali is thus presented as the true heiress of the French Enlightenment, the worthy successor of Voltaire. But her Frenchness is not narrowly defined: as a consequence, “she is a European — so to speak, quintessentially, par excellence.” Indeed, “is not the soul of Europe at stake, its profound identity and heritage when she makes a plea, after Voltaire, after her compatriot Spinoza and others, for a society that would sever, once and for all, the link between politics and theology against which modern Europe was once erected?”3 Today, Hirsi Ali is a global icon of the so-called clash of civilizations. Her own trajectory, fleeing Africa to find refuge in Europe, before finding a true home in America, can be read in such terms. After all, Submission was meant less for a Dutch than an international audience: in this English-language film, the lascivious body of the female protagonist writhing in pain in stylized oriental settings manifestly borrowed from international codes of soft pornography, as corroborated by her (somewhat improbable) “Valley girl” accent.
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All translations from the French in this article are mine.
- On the Dutch context, see Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin, 2006).
- Rama Yade’s comments, along with Hirsi Ali’s, are to be found in “Menacée pour ses critiques de l’islam radical, Ayaan Hirsi Ali demande la nationalité française” (“Threatened Because of Her Criticism of Radical Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali Asks for French Citizenship”), Le Monde, February 11, 2008.
- Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Adresse à Nicolas Sarkozy à propos d’Ayaan Hirsi Ali” (“An Address to Nicolas Sarkozy concerning Ayaan Hirsi Ali”), Libération, February 11, 2008.