There are 960 miles as the crow flies between Paris and Stockholm, but when it comes to dealing with Islam they are separated by light years. In France this week there has been something of a kerfuffle caused by a Gap back-to-school campaign that features a young girl in a hijab. One female MP from Emmanuel Macron’s ruling La République en Marche party said the campaign left her ‘sickened,’ while Marlène Schiappa, the gender equality minister, has demanded an explanation from Gap, saying: ‘You don’t choose to wear the veil at nine to ten years old.’
Incidentally, France has looked on in bemusement at Boris Johnson and his comments about the burka. The controversy that captivated Britain for a week made the periphery of the French press but there was little in the way of in-depth analysis. France had that discussion in 2010 when it banned the burka and the word most closely associated with the garment in France today is ‘séparatisme’. That needs no translating, and as recently as March this year 100 prominent intellectuals wrote an open letter to Le Figaro warning that the Islamists’ strategy of creating separate societies within France was still very much alive. The difficulty that the extremists have is France’s strict laïcité law, the shield that protects people of Muslim faith from the Islamists whose ambition is to intimidate them into following a more hardline interpretation of their religion.
Which brings me back to Sweden and the decision of the country’s labour court to find in favour of Farah Alhajeh, a 24-year-old who failed an interview for an interpreter’s job because she refused to shake the hand of her male interviewer on religious grounds. The court ruled that Alhajeh had suffered discrimination and the company was ordered to pay her 40,000 kronor (£3,420) in compensation.
In an interview with the BBC after the judgement Alhajeh said: ‘I believe in God, which is very rare in Sweden…and I should be able to do that and be accepted as long as I’m not hurting anyone.’ Despite Alhajeh’s apparent disdain for those who don’t share her faith, she nonetheless believes Islam is compatible with Godless Sweden. ‘I can live by the rules of my religion and also at the same time follow the rules of the country that I live in,’ she said.
Sweden must think it’s being wonderfully liberal in accommodating Alhajeh’s beliefs but in doing so they’ve sanctioned intolerance. Rather than respecting Sweden’s centuries-old customs, Alhajeh has successfully argued that her religious beliefs come first.
France was faced with a similar case earlier this year when an Algerian woman applying for citizenship refused to shake the hand of the man officiating at the ceremony. Fine, said the French, if you hold our customs in such contempt then you have no place in our society, and her citizenship application was shredded. That’s what the Swedish labour court should have done with Alhajeh’s discrimination claim. But they were weak and Sweden is sadly mistaken if it believes this will be a one-off. Other challenges will surely come, as they have across Europe: the right for girls to opt out of school swimming lessons, the demand for halal meat in school and workplace canteens and the implementation of gender segregated classrooms.
Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, westerners who break strict local customs are sometimes bullied and brutalised. At the same time that Alhajeh was having her case heard in Stockholm, a doctor called Ellie Holman returned home to Europe after spending three days in a Dubai jail with her four-year-old daughter for company. Born in Iran and raised in Sweden, Holman was accused of possessing an invalid visa and was asked about the glass of wine she had with her meal on the government-owned Emirates airline. A human rights group, ‘Detained in Dubai’, warned: ‘Her arrest highlights an issue that is an ongoing risk to travellers. Tourists can be charged with having alcohol in their bloodstream in public… they could be arrested the minute they leave (a bar) for having alcohol in their blood.’
France is two decades ahead of the rest of the West in this ideological war. It knows that the soft-power strategy of the Islamists is to first create separate societies within the host country and then, when the demographics are in their favour, to take control. It’s a long-term strategy, as the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal warned in an interview last year. ‘The Islamists are convinced that Europe is on its last legs,’ he said. ‘The problem is that there still aren’t enough radicalised Muslims in Europe for the final phase, the seizure of power…but they are patient.’
Their patience will be rewarded if Sweden’s weakness is anything to go by, a country that no longer has faith in its customs or culture.