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Headscarves Worn by French Muslim Schoolgirls Called into Question - 2004-02-12

The issue roiling France today is an article of clothing – the headscarf worn by Muslim women. It has pitted traditional secularist France against its large and growing Muslim population with no apparent compromise in sight. The law now approved by the national assembly bans the scarf in state-funded schools along with other obvious religious symbols, though of course, they can continue to be worn elsewhere. VOA’s Ed Warner reports on the couture controversy.

The secular identity of the French state is at stake, warned French President Jacques Chirac in a much heralded speech at the Elysees Palace. To give in to this demand, he insisted, would sacrifice the heritage of France, its future, its soul.

The demand in question is the headscarf worn by Muslim girls at state-funded schools. In the opinion of the President and many French people this violates the strict separation of state and religion stemming from the revolutionary era.

Secularism in France has become almost a religion itself, says Simon Serfaty, director of the European program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But he notes another French tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants.

“The urge to be sure that the immigrants become not so much integrated into French society as representative of what that society stands for,” he says. “To become like any other Frenchman or woman within that society. So in the end this debate goes to the core of how the French view themselves, and that view seems to be clashing to an extent with the way in which Muslims understand themselves.

The Muslim population in France is the largest in Europe: five million compared to three million in Germany and 1.5 million in Britain. As this population has grown, it has understandably become more visible and thereby offensive or unsettling to some. Even though there are 1,600 mosques in France, many Muslims pray where they can in the streets or other areas frequented by non-Muslims, who fear allowing head scarves would lead to further demands such as facilities segregated by sex.

The new law includes all religious symbols in dress at schools. So Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps would also be prohibited. But that does not mollify Muslims. Khalil Merroun, rector of the mosque in the town of Evry, told the Economist magazine: “It’s not the crucifix or the kippa that is targeted, but Islam.”

That suits the anti-Islamic National Front Party, which won 18% of the vote in the last French election. It considers Islam a threat to Christianity, while the Trotskyite left finds it a similar threat to secularism.

Susan Ossman, professor of anthropology at Georgetown University, says the opposition is stubborn: “Obviously, the rise of the National Front in recent elections show that there is clearly a big distinction between people who would be more tolerant toward anyone who is not of French ancestry and those who want to keep France for the French, the French-French as they call them.”

But Professor Ossman points out that all Muslims are hardly identical. In fact, it is estimated that only 2,000 of 1.8 million Muslim girls wear the headscarf. Some 40% of Muslims in France marry non-Muslims. In many respects the Muslim community mirrors the rest of France.

“Within the Muslim community you have some of these same tensions,” she says, “people who react to different situations in different ways, middle class Muslims versus working class, some people attracted to different varieties of Islam than others, some being very strongly secularist. According to polls, about 50% of the Muslims who live in France approve of the current laws. Within the Muslim community, some people will refuse to identify themselves as Muslim.”

Yes, Muslims in France are perhaps more French than would appear at first glance, says Jon Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. They represent almost as broad a spectrum as non-Muslims.

“There are, of course, people who are very, very strongly opposed, for example to the new law that would require women not to wear the scarf,” he says. “At the same time, there are Muslims who feel that the kind of cultural phenomenon that the scarf represents is imposing the identity of their grandfathers upon them.”

Not all Muslims are especially religious, says Simon Serfaty of CSIS. Perhaps one-third attend the mosque and one-sixth perform their prayers on a daily basis. Their resentments lie elsewhere.

“A great deal of the rebellion is not so much related to religious issues,” he says, “as to the fact that the Muslim constituencies in France and elsewhere in Europe tend to have the most menial jobs. Levels of unemployment are the highest. The populations in prison tend to be majority Muslim. There are all kinds of issues, which seem to point to a sort of discrimination and stand in the way of integration of these constituencies within the respective societies.”

The question of a growing Muslim population involves more than France, says John Voll. It is a worldwide phenomenon. For good or ill, France can set a precedent.

“Europe like the United States has to really begin to cope with the fact that the majority of its population is not going to be of the same type that it was a century ago,” he says. “As one looks at Germany and France and Britain with their declining birth rates and growing immigration rates, Western societies in general are going to have to face the challenge of living up to what they have always said they are.”

Equal rights for all is the credo of Western democracy, says Mr. Voll. That includes Muslims.

But then there are the Muslim terrorists, a small if potent fragment, tainting all the others, says Simon Serfaty. “There is a pervasive tendency to view the ‘others,’ meaning the Muslims within each European society as quote ‘threatening,’” he says. “Another act of terror on the European continent would reinforce further that perception and would add to the conflicts that are inherent in any society‘s absorption of a significantly large and growing new community.”

That is the nightmare scenario, says Mr. Serfaty - a wrenching attack on Europe that redounds on all Muslims, however innocent.

But the victim of the major terrorist attack of September 11, the United States, is critical of the French reaction to the headscarf. The Bush Administration has gently admonished the French, and various newspapers have been more pointed.

The Houston Chronicle compares the French to Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers: “Whether it is residual Taliban elements forcing women to wear a burka or the French parliament singling out Muslim women and girls to remove their scarves, such restrictions on dress have no place in a secular democracy.”

The Columbus Dispatch notes the different way Americans and French understand separation of church and state: “In the United States, the intent of church-state separation is to protect the individual’s religious liberty from government infringement. In France, the threat works the other way.”

“The American media’s sympathy for Muslim women’s rights may surprise some people, particularly those living in the Islamic world,” says Alaa Bayoumi of the Council for American-Islamic Relations. “But it is real and heartfelt. Such interfaith understanding should be acknowledged and encouraged.”