New Orleans It’s one thing to try and balance secular claims with religious freedoms, but it’s another to directly discriminate against an entire people for their religion and religious practices. These are not the normal issues that a grassroots organization of lower income families would choose to tackle. Organizing 101 would normally nudge organizers and leaders to look for immediate and resolvable issues that are as widely shared by the constituency being organized as possible. ACORN is a membership organization though and that makes the calculation a bit different sometimes. When our membership comes to us with an issue that is widely shared, we have no choice but to try and figure out how they can use the organization as a vehicle for making progress. In France, after years of difficult struggle, we may be making progress on the question of religious minorities, Muslims, being able to participate in secular affairs. In India, we worry that many of our members who are informal workers in informal communities’ are facing life-threatening divisions for their religious practices, because the commitment to a secular society is itself under attack.
This week, I was scheduled to talk to Adrien Roux, the head organizer of the Alliance Citoyenne / ACORN France. I was running a bit behind, but he was also trapped in a call to their lawyer, because the Paris Prefect of Police was issuing a ban on their demonstration scheduled next door to the meeting of the Parliament. The demonstration was actually as much a celebration as anything. We had organized an affiliate during the last year which was a union of Muslim women who wanted to be involved in sports but had been barred from doing so because they wore hijabs. For several years we have also supported our members who wanted to be able to access public facilities, like swimming pools, with their families while wearing a hijab or veil. The pushback has been fierce. The government blocked a grant to us from the European Union. The mayor of Grenoble banned any meetings with our members or representatives. We had become a political soccer ball ourselves.
Finally, we had a breakthrough. After delivering a petition of over 50,000, we had enough members of the Parliament willing to support Muslim women playing that the Senate is expected to approve a bill allowing their participation. The demo that the police were trying to block, ostensibly to protect us from the anti-Muslim far right, was a soccer game in which we had some French stars and even members of Parliament who were willing to play with our members in hijabs. This is potentially a huge victory.
India is another matter though. The rightwing, communalist government is standing by as Muslims are targeted. Some are arguing that millions in India should be killed. Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, we see the same attempts to prevent wearers of the hijab from participation in public life or of course sports, regardless of their ages or the policy of their schools.
It’s taken ACORN several years to see real progress in France. Given the domestic politics in India, it could take longer there. If our members demand their organization take action on an issue, then we’re in it to win it, no matter how long it takes.