Irrespective of his political intentions when he signaled his refusal to invite President Donald Trump to speak in the parliament when he visits the UK, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, cited his opposition to racism and sexism, as well as his support for an independent judiciary (in reaction to Trump’s infamous “so-called judge” remark) as reasons that explain his anti-Trump stance.
For her part, Marine Le Pen seemingly faced no such difficulty convincing the Lebanese President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Grand Mufti, Maronite (Catholic) Patriarch, a delegation of parliamentarians, Samir Geagea (Lebanese Forces) and Sami Gemayel (Phalanges) to meet with her during her two-day visit to Lebanon on the 20th and 21st of February 2017.
In fact, it was Le Pen’s first meeting with a head of state, President Michel Aoun, and arguably a successful one, judging from appearances. They discussed improving the relations between the two countries as well as Lebanon’s refugee crisis.
She also expressed her concerns for Lebanon’s Christians with foreign minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian party based on the 2009 parliamentary elections’ results.
On the issue of refugees, and on the need to protect the “Christian presence” in the Orient and Europe’s “Christian heritage”, it comes as no surprise that Le Pen and Bassil would see eye to eye. Both have adopted an overt anti-refugee discourse on countless occasions. Bassil had warned Europe, during one of his notorious speeches as Foreign Minister in June 2016, about the ill effects of migration and the influx of refugees that threatened its “diversity and values” and rendered it vulnerable to terrorist infiltration by Islamic extremists.
It is very difficult to determine where to start in discussing Marine Le Pen’s visit to Lebanon. In a very unique manner, every word she said, and every move she made, in addition to the reactions she provoked – both with and against - provide a microcosm of the political struggle taking place between proponents of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and advocates of a liberal, multicultural, open and diverse society where Muslims do not pose an existential threat to the well-being and security of a society.
Marine Le Pen may well be ‘Donald Trump without the crazy’, as one commentator put it. She manages to carry herself about without provoking outrage in the same manner in which Trump does. She has not attacked an independent judiciary or the free press (yet), nor does she blatantly attack intellectualism and reason in the same way in which Trump has heralded a post-truth world where, for example, Sweden witnesses an imaginary attack if Trump happens to believe that it did based on his reliance on Fox News and Breitbart.
To be sure, saying this by no means exonerates Le Pen, or her far-right party, of their many lies and absurdities that affect real lives and have led to the rise of Islamophobic, anti-migrant and anti-refugee discourse and hate crimes in many countries, as documented by their own government and security agencies, in addition to human rights organisations.
The point here is that there is a difference in dealing with Trump and Le Pen when it comes to what they say and how they behave.
In other words, Le Pen’s statements in Lebanon cannot be brushed aside in the same manner in which Trump’s tweets and incoherent statements can almost automatically turn into the subject of memes and Andy Borowitz jokes. They cannot be simply laughed off or ignored, regardless of how repulsive they may be. Le Pen measures her words and understands the impact of what she says on different audiences in a way in which Trump (deliberately or non-deliberately) doesn’t.
Taking her remarks after her meeting with PM Saad Hariri (a vocal anti-Assad Sunni politician) as an example, she did not cry #fakenews or attempt to bully reporters. Rather, she admitted a ‘difference in analysis’ between the two politicians.
Her statement was calm, as nuanced as it gets from the mouth of a far-right extremist, and showed that she had no problem sitting down and interacting with a “moderate Muslim” politician who disagrees with her, both on the thorny issue of Syria, Assad’s fate, and her simplistic binary view of “either Assad or ISIS” - as well as on the dangerous conflation of Islam and terrorism.
Refusing to wear a scarf to meet the Grand Mufti
Furthermore, and perhaps as an example of her preparedness and ability to anticipate and seize opportunities for positive press and sensational material beloved to social media users, she brilliantly outplayed the Lebanese Grand Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian with an outcome of millions of views and likes of the video in which she proudly and (to her fan base) dignifiedly refuses, on live camera, to wear a scarf handed to her by a man, telling him:
“you can pass on my respects to the Grand Mufti, but I will not cover myself up.”
That was political theater at its best. And for Marine Le Pen, it was “mission accomplie” (mission accomplished)!
A spokesperson for the Grand Mufti responded, drawing a comparison between the way in which she wants immigrants to respect France’s culture and her refusal to practice what she preaches in Lebanon.
Let me be very clear from the outset to avoid a confusion of issues: I am in no way justifying the right of any person, religious or secular, to dictate to women or to anyone what they should or should not wear –especially in Lebanon (and the Arab world) where women’s rights are not respected in full by the state, and where they are at times victims of injustices and discrimination perpetrated by the religious courts, both Muslim and Christian.
The issue here is that Le Pen was visiting Lebanon and refused to accommodate the protocol for visitors when they visit the Mufti. In doing that, she exploited a very complex and controversial issue that touches upon the relationship between civil rights (a woman’s right to choose what she wears) and the expectations for respect of cultural and religious traditions in various settings.
She also used the incident to reiterate her view that she considers the requirement to ‘cover up’, specifically when it comes to the Islamic religion, as a sign of the subjugation of women.
Dealing in depth and comprehensively with said issues is beyond the scope of this article, and there are no easy answers to whether she was right or wrong in absolute terms.
The simple point submitted here is that Le Pen managed to use a complex issue and turn it to her political advantage, since many women and men who are not naturally sympathetic with Le Pen would commend her choice to wear whatever she wants regardless of the context, and especially in an Islamic context where compulsory veiling (and in general, the notion of men dictating to women what they should wear in public) is considered by many to be an affront to human rights and a symptom of a patriarchal structure rampant with gender inequality.
Le Pen knew the protocol involved in a visit to the Mufti as she had been informed beforehand that she would be required to wear the scarf. Instead of cancelling the visit as a means of protest, she showed up and appeared to be, to the observer who does not understand Lebanon’s intricacies or her motives, a defender of women’s emancipation in front of a prime example of patriarchy: a male handing her a scarf in order to make her ‘fit’ or ‘acceptable enough’ to meet another male religious figure, and an Islamic one for that matter.
This incident took on particular significance in local and Western press, especially among the far-right media in light of criticisms against Sweden’s ‘feminist government’ that took on Trump but later “succumbed” to Iran’s ayatollahs when they agreed to wear the veil.
Florian Philippot, Vice-President of the Front National, turned it into a global moment for oppressed women tweeting: “In Lebanon, Marine refuses to wear the veil. A magnificent message of freedom and emancipation sent to the women of France and of the entire world.”
Le Pen even made sure to say that "the highest Sunni authority in the world [Al-Azhar] had not had this requirement, so I have no reason to," in what can be seen as a well-rehearsed statement to remove any hint of hatred or ill-intentions towards Muslims or Islam.
Make no mistake, however; Le Pen is not a politically correct politician who makes sure her speech does not include discriminatory or hate-filled innuendos. In 2010, she had compared Muslims praying on the street to the Nazi occupation during World War II, and for that reason she is on trial on charges of “incitement to discrimination, violence or hatred towards a group of people on the basis of their religion”.
Yet, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti was happy to meet with her - but she eventually turned out to be the dignified principled person in the story, according to the narrative espoused by those supportive of her decision to refuse to wear the veil.
“No other religion is causing problems”
Be that as it may, in the specific context of Le Pen and the background of her comments on Islam, the veil and burkini since she entered politics, it is worth remembering her words during the discussion of the burkini ban in France:
“No other religion is causing problems,” she said.
In this light, she will go back to France with yet another example that the only problem with her entire visit to Lebanon was with the Grand Mufti, thus confirming in her supporters’ minds the view that Islam is inherently at odds with western values and Le Pen’s policies to fight the spread of Islamism are what France needs to protect its values and freedoms.
Moreover, she managed to portray herself to her supporters, unlike Swedish feminist politicians, as someone who intends to fight for her values at home as well as in a Muslim-majority country, Lebanon - never mind the fact that the Lebanese President is Christian and that women in Lebanon are not forced to wear the veil, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia for example.
Le Pen came and left on her own terms. The voices denouncing her visit were marginal and inconsequential, albeit important in their own right, both on charges of fascism and support for Zionism.
Thus, Lebanon, the “message of coexistence” between Muslims and Christians, became the stage for Le Pen’s (from her standpoint) successful visit. Internal divisions were exposed and old wounds came to the surface due to Le Pen’s Front National ties with Christian militias or resistance during the civil war. She told a group over dinner:
« Il n’y a pas de lien plus fort que le lien du sang versé. Nous avons ce lien, ce lien du sang versé ensemble. Ce lien-là est indissoluble.” (There is no stronger bond that the one of fallen blood. We have that bond, the bond of blood sacrificed together. This link is unbreakable.”)
She moves ahead eyeing the Presidency leaving behind a stagnant and struggling country none the better, none the richer, and none the safer - only with promises to Christians that she (like Trump) will have their best interests at heart and will work to make them stronger in their lands, without providing any evidence that she understands how she would make that happen or whether she genuinely intends to fulfill such a promise.
Significantly, Christian politician Samir Geagea told Le Pen that there is no clash between Muslims and Christians, trying perhaps to thwart an image she tries to portray of Christians forming a homogenous bloc and supporting far-right candidates like herself and Trump. He also tried to explain to her, as PM Hariri did the previous day, the notion that “terrorism has no religion”.
Unfortunately, their words will go to waste.
She will go back to France to feed her fan base’s xenophobia and Islamophobia, remembering only her own words: “no other religion [Islam] is causing problems”.
This article originally appeared on openDemocracy on February 22, 2017.