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Against Militant Secularism: Let French Muslims Wear Scarves


The Daily Telegraph, Dec. 12, 2003

From across the Channel, the furore in France over the wearing of the hijab, or headscarf, by Muslim schoolgirls seems quite extraordinary. Does this symbol of feminine modesty really threaten the secular basis of the French state? And, if it does, would banning the wearing of it in state schools further the integration of a large Muslim minority into French society?

First, the secular case. In 1905, the French parliament passed an Act separating church and state, abrogating the 1801 concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII whereby Roman Catholicism was recognised as the religion of French citizens. The 1905 legislation thus fulfilled the republican promise of the French Revolution.

Defenders of this achievement view the wearing in state schools of the hijab, or, for that matter, the Jewish yamulka (skull-cap) or a large Christian cross, as ostentatious signs of religious proselytism that undermine the non-religious nature of the state. The hijab is particularly sensitive because of the size of the Muslim community in France (between four and five million) and the relative failure to integrate it into society as a whole.

Jacques Chirac decided to defuse the situation by commissioning a report under the chairmanship of Bernard Stasi, a former minister, into what should be done. Yesterday, it recommended that the hijab and its Jewish and Christian counterparts should be banned, but suggested that the Muslim Eid al-Kebir, the Jewish Yom Kippur and the Orthodox Christmas be added to the list of school holidays. President Chirac has said he will announce next week whether he favours a ban, though he has already hinted that he does. As for the political sop of the extra holidays, they would appear to fall into the same category of religious proselytism as the headscarf.

If he advocates a ban, M. Chirac will please most French men and women, who believe that there are too many immigrants and that not enough is being done to defend traditional French values. Such a step could help the president and his party in the run-up to regional elections in March. Much less certain, however, is that it will turn French Muslims into better citizens. It is just as likely to incite them to assert their religious identity in opposition to the government. America - whose constitution also enshrines the separation of church and state - allows Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab. That, surely, is a wiser approach than militant secularism.