The schools in Brussels dependent on the municipal network decided in 2003 to disallow the registration of students wearing headscarves. The decision to ban headscarves in the city’s schools generated an intense public debate. The wearing of full veils was banned in the town of Maaseik in 2004. The present position in Belgium is that each school has the freedom to adopt its own policy on the issue. There is no country-wide ban on veils.
In the Netherlands, in 2003 some faculty members at Leiden University objected to the presence of two Muslim students wearing headscarves in class on the ground that face covering ‘impeded interactive communication in the class room and caused teachers and other students to be uncomfortable.’ They brought the matter to the Dean of the Faculty who placed it before the University Board. The Board decided to ban face covering in the class room. A proposal to ban veils in the country failed in 2006 after lawyers said it would be unconstitutional.
In September 2004, local politicians in the north of Italy resurrected old laws against the wearing of masks to ban the Islamic headscarf. In July 2005, the Italian parliament approved anti-terrorist laws which make hiding one’s features from the public—including through wearing the veil—an offence. Germany has followed a fairly liberal policy in respect of the veil. States or provinces have the freedom to adopt their own policy regarding the wearing of veils or headscarves in schools. At least four states in Germany have passed legislation banning teachers from wearing headscarves in public schools. In the state of Hesse the ban applies to all civil servants. Following the nation-wide referendum in Switzerland in November 2009 in favour of a ban on the construction of minarets, the Justice Ministry recently indicated that it would consider a ban on the wearing of full-body burqas.
The Veil Controversy in France
The growing opposition to the veil in France and the hardening of the government’s position on the issue should be seen in the domestic as well as the global context. Racism, the imagined conflict between Islam and the West, postcolonial guilt, immigration, the growing influence of the far-right parties and the rhetoric of the republican state are closely intertwined with the issue. In addition, certain recent developments in the wider world, especially transnational Islam, which is perceived as a threat to the West, and events in Iran, Palestine, Algeria, New York City, Afghanistan and Iraq have reinforced the negative perception of Muslims and Islamic cultural symbols. The growing popularity of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front party has pushed moderate parties further to the right.
In France the question of headscarves was first brought to national attention 2003 when Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then minister of the interior, insisted that Muslim women should take off their headscarves for official identity photographs. In July 2003, President Jacques Chirac, who had stated in 2003 that “wearing a veil is a kind of aggression,” appointed a commission, headed by a former minister, Bernard Stasi, to explore the feasibility of enacting a law in respect of headscarves. The Stasi Commission submitted its report Laicite et Republique in December 2003. The report reaffirmed the principle of secularism and called for the outlawing of all “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation in public schools. On March 15, 2004, the French government passed a law banning the wearing of “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation, including a large cross, a veil, a skullcap or a turban, in public schools. Private schools and universities were not governed by the ban. Women in the street were allowed to dress according to their choice. The ban provoked widespread protests by Muslims across France.
France’s high-profile, populist-minded and whimsical President Nicolas Sarkozy stirred up a hornet’s nest by stating in his first state of the nation address on 22 June 2009 that Islamic veils were a sign of women’s debasement and therefore not welcome on French soil. He said: “The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem; it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom”.
Sarkozy appointed a 32-member cross-party commission of French MPs shortly after his address to consider a ban on face-covering veils and burqas. In its report, released on 26 January 2009, the commission recommended a ban on the wearing of face-covering veils in schools, universities, hospitals, post offices and other state-owned premises and while using public services such as public transport. However, the ban would not apply to women covering their faces in the street. The commission’s report said, “The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable. We must condemn this excess”. The report called on the French parliament to adopt a formal resolution stating that the all-encompassing veil was “contrary to the values of the republic”.
“The full veil is the visible part of this black tide of fundamentalism,” said Andre Gerin, Communist MP and the commission’s chairman. He called the full veil “a walking prison”. Jean-Francois Cope, a politician with the ruling UMP party and a member of the commission, had proposed a total ban on the full veil even on streets and a fine of £750 on the wearer, but the proposal was rejected by the commission.
The Veil and Undercurrents of Islamophobia
France has the largest number of Muslims living in any European country, estimated at between 5 and 6 million. According to police figures, no more than 2,000 women—most of them young and a quarter of them converts—wear the face-covering veil. In other words, it is a non-issue. Muslim leaders had told the commission that the full veil was not supported by most Muslims in the country, but a ban would add to their feelings of rejection and alienation.
Three interrelated factors—one short-term and the other two long-standing—seem to underlie the current decision to ban full veils in the country. In the first place, the decision is a clever ploy by Nicolas Sarkozy and the ruling UMP party to deflect public attention from their failure to tackle some of the country’s knottiest problems, including poverty, unemployment, the consequences of the economic recession and crime. Nearly half of the households in the country live on less than $2,010 a month. About 13% of the population live below the poverty line. The gap between the rich and poor is widening. The problems of ghettoization and marginalization of French citizens of North African origin remain as acute as ever. The decision marks a populist attempt to woo French voters before the regional elections due in March this year.
The second factor is the deep undercurrent of conservatism, racism and Islamophobia in the country. Despite France’s avowed commitment to laicite (the French version of secularism), French society is shaped by deeply conservative, Catholic values. Sarkozy’s right-wing leanings have been known for quite sometime. He, the son of a Hungarian refugee who fled his homeland in 1944, made immigration one of his major campaign planks in the presidential elections in 2007. He has often spoken, much to the annoyance of French secularists, about the country’s Judaeo-Christian heritage. In his book La Republique, les religions, l’esperance (2004), he wrote, “it was a mistake to turn our back to our past and renege, in a way, on our obvious roots. Don’t tell me that we are contesting secularism. You just have to fly over France to see this long mantle of churches…… It would be wrong to limit the Church’s role to its spiritual aspects”. Speaking in Rome in 2007, he said, “France’s roots are essentially Christian. And it is in the Republic’s interest that there should be many believers. Gradual emptying of rural parishes, spiritual desertification of suburbs, vanishing of (religious sponsored) youth clubs or shortage of priests have not made the French happier”. Curiously, while Sarkozy makes no secret of his fondness and enthusiasm for France’s Christian legacy, he is ill at ease with the expression of religious identity on the part of the country’s Muslim population. Thus, when the issue of the ban on minarets in Switzerland was in the focus of global attention, he advised French Muslims to practice their religion with “humble discretion”.
During the past two centuries, France has tenaciously held on to the idea of a nation single and indivisible. Consequently, it has insisted on the assimilation of immigrants into the country’s common civic culture, which is premised on its republican values. French universalism insists that sameness is the basis for equality, and this sameness is achieved not simply by swearing allegiance to the nation but by assimilation into the norms of the national culture. That is why the French census makes no enumeration of the religion, ethnicity or national origin of its citizens.
There is a growing insistence among French politicians, intellectuals and writers that minority groups must assimilate into the country’s civic culture and abandon their distinctive religious and cultural identities. There is a widespread feeling among Muslims in France that citizenship does not guarantee acceptance by mainstream society, that in order to be accepted they are required to give up their traditions and identities and assimilate into French society. In 2005 a Moroccan woman’s application for French citizenship was turned down on grounds of “insufficient assimilation”; it was argued that her “radical” practice of Islam was incompatible with basic French values such as equality of the sexes. The said woman’s only fault was that she wore the Islamic veil, although she was married to a French national, had been living in Paris where her two children were born, and spoke good French. She appealed against the ruling, invoking the French constitutional right to religious freedom and saying that she had never sought to challenge the fundamental values of French society. But in July 2008 the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, rejected her appeal and upheld the earlier ruling.
The Paradox of French Secularism
Laicite or secularism is considered the corner-stone of the French republic. Notwithstanding the rhetoric surrounding the doctrine, France has worked out an accommodation with the Catholic Church in many ways. Even after the separation of church and state was mandated by law in 1905, public schools accommodated the desire of parents (and the pressure of churches) for children to have religious instruction and treated it as a right. In the early 1980s there were huge and successful demonstrations against government plans to abolish subsidies for the country’s predominantly Catholic private schools. Since 1958, the French government has contributed 10 per cent of the budgets of private religious schools. More than 2 million children attend state-supported Catholic schools. The school calendar still observes only Catholic and state holidays. The proposal of the Stasi Commission to add a Jewish and a Muslim holiday was rejected by President Chirac. The secular state also maintains religious buildings, including churches and synagogues, as a public responsibility.
Curiously, while a great deal of hue and cry is made about the Islamic veil, no one in the country seems to have any problem with the traditional, head-covering robe of Catholic nuns. Thus the tall claims about France’s republican values, laicite and the country’s all-encompassing national culture are selectively applied and implemented.
The rhetoric of laicite and of the republican ideals of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite scarcely conceals the deeply entrenched sentiments of racism and Islamophobia in French society. Thus, Rachida Dati, the most senior Muslim member of the ruling UMP party and an enthusiastic advocate of the assimilation of Muslims and other minority groups into mainstream French society, who is of North African descent, is invariably referred to by Sarkozy and his cronies as beurette (little Arab girl). The vandalism and rioting by discontented French youth of North African origin that erupted in Paris and scores of other cities in France in November 2005 exposed the fragility of the French system and the hollowness of the rhetoric of equality and fraternity. Gay J. McDougall, a United Nations independent expert on minority issues, said in October 2007 that “racism in France is alive, insidious and is clearly targeted at the “visible” minorities of immigrant heritage, the majority of whom are French citizens….The constitutional promise of equality is a vision, but not the reality of modern France”.
The decision to ban the full veil in public institutions, which is at variance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is fraught with unpleasant consequences. For one thing, it is likely to aggravate social divisions and further reinforce the stigmatization and demonization of Muslims in the country. Second, the decision will fuel Islamophobic sentiments not only in France but across Europe. Thus Mara Carfagna, Italy’s Equal Opportunity Minister, recently said that the French initiative “will encourage other European countries, including Italy, to pass legislation on the issue”. Third, it will dent France’s international image and expose the hollowness and hypocrisy of its much-trumpeted commitment to the ideal of freedom.