Originally created 05/03/04

Veiled threat? French secularism confronts Islam



Earlier this year, France banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves and veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in France's public schools.

The law stipulates that in public schools signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden. French leaders hope the law will calm debate over Muslim headscarves that have divided the country in recent years between secularism and public displays of religious expression. But, in light of the March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid carried out by radical Islamic extremists, the French government should expect a very vocal and discordant debate to ensue.

Secularism is a central characteristic of modern France. The French state traces it's secular roots to the anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution. The French revolutionary leaders of the time were determined to limit the role of the church in the lives of French citizens and in keeping with this tradition religion in France is confined to the individual's respective house of worship.

Most religions in France have at one time or another come into conflict with the French state. Jews were expelled in the Middle Ages, Protestants were expelled in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Catholics accused of being enemies of the Enlightenment were harshly persecuted after the French Revolution in the late 19th century.

Yet, France, home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population numbering 5 million, or 9 percent of its population, is confronting an increasingly frustrated and restive Muslim minority who wish to openly express their religious beliefs. The majority of Muslims in France are of North African origin whose presence in the country can be traced to France's colonial experience.

They live disproportionately in isolated, run-down public housing projects on the outskirts of the large cities such as Paris and in the south of France around Marseille. Because of their social exclusion they are much more likely to be jobless, undereducated, and commit crime. And as they lose faith with their adopted homeland, many turn to radical Islam as a symbol of identity. France's determined secularism exacerbates this tendency.

Needless to say, the new law is sharply divisive. Many believe that it will only exacerbate anti-Muslim sentiment on one side, and anti-French sentiment on the other. While others believe the key to successful integration is to accept the secular values of the French state and if that means removing the headscarf in a public school, then so be it.

Yet, the chief issues which must certainly be considered are, will this ban turn French Muslims into better citizens? Or is it likely to incite them to assert their religious identity in opposition to the government? I would argue the latter.

First, the law is transparently paternalistic. Supporters argue that headscarves and veils are forced upon young Muslim women and therefore manifest an overt sign of female submission within a male dominated Muslim culture. But, the moral obligation of the state saving a people from its own belief system and culture has a long, violent history in Europe.

Second, the law is directed principally toward France's Muslim minority. Ultimately, any attempts by the French state to ban religious symbols such as the headscarf or veil will, in the end, be unenforceable and only play into the hands of extremists on both sides. And that could divide a secular France even more.

In Georgia and South Carolina, this debate may seem to be a distinctively French problem, but consider the following: Earlier this year several Muslim women asked officials at the Alabama Department of Public Safety to reconsider a decision requiring them to remove their headscarf if they want to get a license.

Alabama officials are defending the legality of its policy asserting that all head coverings are to be removed when a person is having their driver's license photograph taken. If that is so, shouldn't men who wear hairpieces and women who wear wigs be required to remove them before they are issued a driver's license?

What the Alabama case demonstrates is that Americans also look to the state to legislate religious expression, as do the French. Even in a country with a strong tradition of religious tolerance such as the United States, overt signs of religious identity such as the Muslim headscarf or veil are often met with alarm and consternation.

(Editors note: Dr. Harris is an associate professor of political science at Augusta State University and a research associate with the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego).