Banning the headscarf

IT ALL began in 1989 in the small suburb of Creil near Paris when three girls of North African descent were expelled for wearing the Muslim headscarf to school. They were thrown out for violating the principle of laicity, the strict separation of church and state that is the bedrock of French republican values. Their expulsion gave rise to a lively debate about the place of Islam in France and, more generally, the issue of the integration of immigrant communities, their religious beliefs and lifestyles in a society that has kept religion out of the public arena for over a century.

With more schoolgirls defying the ban on the Islamic headscarf in state schools, the debate recently came to a head with calls for a full-fledged law — as opposed to Education Ministry rules — banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Many Muslims in France feel they are ill-integrated into the fabric of French society. Young French Muslims are often people with an attitude, born with a chip on the shoulder in the country's sordid suburban localities rife with delinquency, gang warfare, despair and drug abuse.

Official estimates place the number of Muslims in France at close to five million. Unofficial sources say they may be closer to seven million. Unemployment in the Muslim areas peopled mainly by North Africans is as high as 40 per cent against the national average of 12 per cent. In a post-September 11 world traumatised by terrorist attacks and haunted by the spectre of an aggressive, militant and fundamentalist Islam, the decision by a handful of schoolgirls to defy the laws of the Republic has been widely interpreted as symptomatic of a rise in sectarianism and communalism.

A specially appointed commission headed by Bernard Stasi, former Minister and a close adviser to President Jacques Chirac, held consultations with people from all walks of life and more specifically with religious leaders of every shade and hue. A new law banning the wearing of conspicuous or ostentatious religious insignia was its major recommendation, one that the Government has evidently decided to accept.

On December 17, Mr. Chirac in a major policy speech said that France's secular republican values were "not negotiable". He said he would ask Parliament to pass a law banning conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. His speech however also underlined the real fears behind the headscarf ban — that Islamic fundamentalism was gaining ground in France and unless curbed would lead to religious tensions in a society that was, until a couple of years ago, remarkably free from communal strife.

"The danger is that of letting lose centrifugal forces, the exaltation of specific interests that separate people. Division, discrimination, confrontation — that is the danger. Communalism will not be France's choice. We will not tolerate, under the guise of religious freedom, a contestation of the laws and principles of the republic. Laicity is one of the great conquests of the republic that we should work to consolidate ... The Islamic veil — whatever name we give it — the kippa and a cross that is of plainly excessive dimensions: these have no place in the precincts of state schools. State schools will remain secular. For that a law is necessary," Mr. Chirac said in his address.

For over 100 years France has maintained a strict separation of church and state. Article 1 of the Constitution promulgated on October 4, 1958 says: "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs."

But this consensus around secularism was reached after tremendous upheaval and turmoil that included wars, persecution and bitter quarrels. The source of French secularism lies in the 1789 Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man followed by the Concordat of 1801 that recognised the equality of all religions. Right up until the early 20th century however, France was divided into two camps, one pro- and the other anti-clerical. The former argued that France should once again become the "elder daughter of the Catholic Church". The latter held that France was the "daughter of the Revolution" and thus could not conceive of herself in religious terms. These quarrels ceased with a broad consensus emerging in favour of secularism and the debate appeared to have ended. Until 1989 that is, when it was suddenly jerked back to life.

Ironically, the expulsion of the schoolgirls from Creil in 1989 resulted from a decision of the teachers to oblige Jewish students to attend school on Saturdays. As Luis Cardoso, Professor of History and Geography at the Gabriel-Havez School in Creil where it all began, explains: "For several years, certain orthodox Jewish students did not attend classes on Saturday morning. At the start of each school year in September, these students began attending classes ten days after everyone else. The principal and staff decided that absence from class for religious reasons would no longer be tolerated. It was then that certain professors brought up the matter of the headscarf, which the school had tolerated alongside the Jewish absences. If Jewish children were going to be asked to abide by the secular rules of the school system, shouldn't Muslim students wearing headscarves also be expected to respect the same rules? That is how it all started."

Opponents of the Islamic headscarf say it is a symbol of women's subservience and inferiority and as such intolerable in a republic that claims to uphold and defend equality of the sexes. They stress the need for a distinction between belief and knowledge. Allowing the headscarf in a public space that must remain neutral would be tantamount to undermining republican values, they say.

Those who favour a more tolerant approach say that the transmission of knowledge need not necessarily take place in a void, that the Republic is strong enough to admit and tolerate individual quirks of dress and manner. Banning the headscarf, they say, would be an infringement of the freedom to practise one's religion. It will tend to push the Islamic community into the hands of extremists who favour a more fundamentalist, hardline approach.

The question is, will legislation resolve the problem? The law will give school principals clear guidelines that have been in scant supply so far. But social workers, especially in the difficult suburbs around France's big cities where North African Muslim populations are generally concentrated, have warned about the risks of further marginalising a community that already feels rejected by the country's white mainstream.

Moderate Muslims tend to favour what they call Islam de France — French-style Islam with maximum integration into the host community — rather than Islam en France (Islam in France), a transplant from purely Muslim societies. Islam de France, the home-grown variety, would incorporate the principle of laicity.

As John R. Bowen, a researcher at the Washington University in St. Louis, wrote: "Many Muslims with university positions urge Muslims to follow a French lifestyle in France, shaping their Islam around either private prayer or an appreciation of Arabo-Muslim history and civilisation. ... This foreign/local tension emerges in particular combinations of languages and objects at Islamic events.

"Non-Muslim French expectations from Muslims are strongly shaped by the idea of laicity, the idea that public institutional life in France should be devoid of religious representations, because citizens are to fashion themselves through their participation in these institutions."

Human rights organisations say that France is violating a fundamental principle, the freedom of free religious practice. Others who fear a backlash say the Government is making a mountain out of a molehill and that this approach will surely lead France to grief, alienating the five-million-strong Muslim community and further hampering its smooth integration into the national fabric. That this will only encourage Islam en France and scotch any chances of developing an Islam de France.

Already there have been demonstrations in France and warnings of dire consequences from various Islamic leaders including those of Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Backers of the ban say they are defending the principles on which French society has been founded and that any compromise on the issue of secularism would be a betrayal of those principles.

When asked what would happen to young Sikh students in French school, a teacher said: "Well, the turbans will have to go of course." When told Sikhs were not allowed by their faith to cut their hair and that the hair itself was a symbol of religious faith, her response was: "Well, either they will have to cut it off or we'll have to cross that bridge when we reach it. But when it comes to laicity there is no possibility of Vive la difference!"

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