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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture
Vol. 4    Issue 05   16-31 July 2009

Professor A. R. Momin

Unmasking France’s Veiled Islamophobia

Joan Wallach Scott: The Politics of the Veil (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), 208 pp.

France’s high-profile and whimsical President Nicolas Sarkozy stirred up a hornet’s nest by stating in his first state of the nation address in the Chateau of Versailles 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”.

President Nicolas Sarkozy

A week before the president’s address, more than 50 MPs, mostly from his centre-right UMP party, backed calls for a parliamentary inquiry to debate whether Muslim women who wear full-body veils with only their eyes visible posed a threat to the republic’s secular values and gender equality. A government spokesman had suggested that a law could eventually be proposed to ban the wearing of full veils in public. In his address the president backed the setting up of a parliamentary commission on the issue of full Islamic veils.

The Veil across Europe

The response of European governments and civil society to the wearing of headscarves and veils by Muslim women varies across the 27-member European Union. There is no ban on headscarves and veils in the UK. However, Jack Straw, Britain’s former foreign secretary, stirred up a controversy on October 6, 2007 by stating that the veil created a barrier and “separateness” between Muslims and other people and made relations between communities more difficult. Straw, who has been known as a fair-minded advocate of minority rights, said in his controversial remarks that when he met Muslim women from his Blackburn constituency—which has a large Muslim presence—he often asked them to remove their veils so that he could have a real, face-to-face interaction.

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 schools in Brussels generated an intense public debate. Two French-speaking members of the federal parliament introduced a bill in the Belgian senate to ban the headscarf in public places. The present position in Belgium is that each school has the freedom to adopt its own policy on the issue.

In the Netherlands, the wearing of headscarves by three Moroccan girls in a French public school in 1989 generated an intense public debate. The editor-in-chief of a Dutch feminist monthly declared in 2000 that she would in no case accept a woman with a headscarf as an editor of her magazine, which added fuel to the controversy. 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. The Dutch cabinet has backed a proposal by the immigration minister to ban the wearing of the veil in public places.

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. In 2003 an interesting case related to the wearing of headscarf by a teacher in the class room came up before the Federal Administrative Court. The plaintiff, a Muslim woman (Fereshta Ludin) born in Afghanistan in 1972, had lived in Germany from 1987 and had acquired German nationality in 1995. In 1998, she had completed her education to become a teacher in an elementary school, but was refused commission because she was not willing to remove her headscarf before class. In her petition she maintained that her wearing of the headscarf represented individual and religiously motivated conduct that was protected by the German constitution. The court gave its verdict in her favour, saying that the right to wear the headscarf by a civil servant was part of the freedom of religious expression guaranteed by the German constitution. At the same time, however, the court said states could change their laws in this respect if they so desired. 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.

In 1998 the European Court of Human Rights upheld Turkey’s headscarf ban in public buildings, calling it “a victory for Ankara’s secularists after a long legal battle”. The court in Strasbourg also confirmed an earlier ruling that barred a Turkish woman from talking a university exam because she wore a headscarf.

Muslims in France

France has the largest concentration of Muslims living in Europe, estimated at over five million. By and large, Muslims (including the descendants of immigrants born and raised in the country) are faced with a host of problems, including discrimination and stigmatization, educational backwardness and poverty and high unemployment rates. Islam is France’s second largest religion after Roman Catholicism. The country swears by the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, but French society in reality is highly differentiated in terms of race, class, religion and ethnicity. Mainstream jobs and positions are almost the exclusive preserve of the white majority. By and large, Muslims have to bear the brunt of widespread discrimination and stigmatization and are excluded from mainstream society. Most of them live in working-class suburbs of immigrants—known as banlieues—which have become virtual ghettos, characterised by poverty, high unemployment rates, crime and drug addiction.

According to the Institut Montaigne, a French think-tank, the unemployment rate among French Muslims is three times the national average and in some housing colonies is as high as 40 per cent. Poverty, unemployment and exclusion are part of a vicious circle of deprivation and exclusion. Only 4 per cent of the beurs or French-born children of immigrant Muslim parents get to university compared with 25 per cent in the majority population. In 2004 the Monitoring Centre on Discrimination at the University of Paris sent out different standard curriculum vitae in response to 258 advertisements for a salesperson. It was found that a person of North African origin had five times less chance of getting a positive reply. Faced with this frustrating situation, many young Muslim men and women in the country are forced to change their names or to conceal their addresses for fear that this might jeopardise their chances of getting a job. 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.

The Veil Controversy

Joan Wallach Scott’s book The Politics of the Veil focuses on the controversy surrounding the Islamic veil since the 1980s and brilliantly exposes the undercurrents of racism and Islamophobia, postcolonial guilt and ideological shibboleths that underlie the headscarf controversy. Scott is the Harold F. Linder Professor at the School of Social Sciences at Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Study.

Scott points out that debates about whether girls could wear Islamic headscarves in public schools erupted at three separate moments in 1989, 1994 and 2003. During this period, one could clearly see a hardening of government’s position on the issue, which was largely a response to the growing political influence of the anti-immigrant far right. The events that became known as the affaires des foulards began on October 3, 1989, when three Muslim girls who refused to remove their headscarves were expelled from their middle school in the town of Creil. The principal, who expelled the girls, claimed to have been guided in his decision by the cardinal principle of laicite (the French version of secularism). The incident quickly became a major media event, inflaming public uneasiness about the place of North African immigrants and their descendants in French society. The headscarf was widely perceived as a threat to France’s republican values and ideals. The controversy exposed the deepening crisis of French society: how to reconcile an increasingly multiethnic population with a universalism that precluded the recognition of social and cultural differences.

The celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 insisted that universalism was a defining and enduring feature of French republicanism and the key to national unity. There were widespread protests against the expulsion of girls by Muslims across the country, which were joined by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious leaders. Those who opposed the expulsion order emphasized that laicite meant respect for and tolerance of differences of religious expression among students. In 1994, 69 girls wearing headscarves were expelled from public schools.

In 2003 the question of headscarves was first brought to national attention when the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, insisted that Muslim women should take off their headscarves for official identity photographs. In July 2003, President Jacques Chirac 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 held interviews and meetings with a fairly large cross-section of people and submitted its report Laicite et Republique in December 2003. The report reaffirmed the hallowed principle of secularism and called for the outlawing of all “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation in public schools. At the same time, the commission acknowledged the reality of the diversity of French society and called for “full respect for spiritual diversity”. It recommended the introduction of the history and philosophy of religions in the educational curriculum, the establishment of a national school for Islamic studies, the creation of Muslim chaplaincies in hospitals and prisons, the provision of alternatives to pork and fish on Fridays in schools, prisons and hospital cafeterias, and the recognition of Yom Kippur and Aid-El-Kabir as national holidays. However, the sole recommendation accepted by President Jacques Chirac was for a law prohibiting the wearing of “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation in public schools (pp. 33-34).

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.

Protests by Muslim students in Marseilles against the ban on headscarves

The Historical and Cultural Context of the Controversy

The veil is considered inimical to France’s cherished republican values, including laicite, individualism and universalism. It is considered unacceptable because it insists on the recognition of differences among citizens in a nation one and indivisible and because it entails the subordination of women in a republic premised on equality. Many supporters of the ban looked upon the veil as the ultimate symbol of Islam’s resistance to modernity and an emblem of radical Islamist politics. The supporters of the veil were dubbed as fundamentalists. The former French president Jacques Chirac stated in 2003 that “the wearing a veil is a kind of aggression” (p. 84). The veil controversy was seen as a war between the French republic and Islam, modernity and tradition, and reason and superstition (p. 98). The veil in French republican discourse was seen in racist terms; it has conjured up fantasies of domination and submission as well as seduction and terror (p. 89).

Scott points out that 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.

Racism and the Colonial Legacy

Scott says that expressions of bias and prejudice against Muslims draw on a deep reservoir of racism that extends as far back as the early 19th century, the moment of the first conquest of Algeria in 1830. Since then it has been widely believed in France that Arabs and Muslims are a lesser people, incapable of improvement and so impossible to assimilate to the French way of life. In French eyes, the veil has long been a symbol of the irreducible difference between the country’s republican values and Islam, which precludes any possibility of assimilation.

From the time of the arrival of the French in 1830, the violent imposition of colonial rule over the country was justified in terms of a “civilizing mission”—the introduction of republican, secular, universal values in a society steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness. The notion of mission implied that the assimilation of Algerians to French culture was possible. But, on the other hand, and at the same time, the colonial adventure was legitimized by racist depictions of Arabs and Muslims which called into question the very possibility of the civilizing project. Racist attitudes and sentiments are reflected in the writings of some of the most eminent scholars and intellectuals of the time. Alexis de Tocqueville, the celebrated author of Democracy in America, wrote in 1843: “I must say that I emerged convinced that there are in the entire world few religions with such morbid consequences as that of Mohammed. To me it is the primary cause of the now visible decadence of the Islamic world” (p. 46).

French colonizers and settlers claimed some 675,000 hectares of farmland and 160,000 hectares of forestland in the first 40 years of rule and introduced massive changes in agriculture with a view to implant the French presence permanently, to displace indigenous populations and replace them with representatives of “civilization”. Francois Guizot, minister of foreign affairs in 1846, said that in America as in India, and now in Algeria, one is faced with “people who are half savages, accustomed to devastation and murder and therefore one is obliged to employ more violent and sometimes harsher methods than those who command the soldiers are naturally inclined to use” (p. 47). The French settlers shifted cultivation from wheat to wine, substituted private property rights for communal land ownership, and developed market economies in place of economies of exchange. In addition, they closed down religious schools and libraries and seized the properties of the Islamic foundations that supported them. This was done with a view to eliminate all indigenous resistance to the imposition of French rule. Tocqueville argued that whole villages must be wiped out and their inhabitants not killed off but dispersed, if France were to conquer this territory and thus reestablish her preeminence as a European power. “Once we have committed that great violence of conquest, I believe we must not shrink from the smaller violences that are absolutely necessary to consolidate it,” he wrote (pp. 47-48). One commentator wrote in 1903: “Intellectually superior, morally superior, economically superior, the colon will drive out the Arab, only leaving him with those lands which he (the colon) judges too poor to make use of” (p. 48). One French general called the followers of Islam “our eternal enemy”. The law of 1919 extended naturalization only to those Arab men who were willing to relinquish their “indigenous” status, which included following Islamic law.

During the Algerian war (1954-62), some veiled Algerian women who were involved in the anti-colonial struggle transported messages, cash and arms under cover. So potent an instrument did the veil become that French soldiers patrolling the countryside violated Algerian women first by forcibly removing their veils and then raping them.

Two million French soldiers had fought to keep Algeria under French occupation and 35,000 died fighting. After the liberation, hundreds of thousands of Algerians arrived in France, beginning a long drawn-out process of marginalization. Algerians were soon joined by Tunisians and Moroccans. Muslim immigrants from North Africa were seen as the quintessential Other, as an unassimilated presence that exposed the failure of integration. Their demonisation was reinforced by the far right political parties and the media. Jean-Marie Le Pen described immigrants as “breeding like rabbits”. The veil was represented as a threat and as an attempt at the takeover of France by Islamists. An Islamic party won municipal elections in Algeria in June 1990 and then the first round of legislative elections the following January. In response, Algeria’s military government cancelled the elections with France’s support, and a brutal civil war ensued.

Republican Values

Laicite or secularism is the cornerstone of the French republic. Roughly speaking, the term secularism denotes the separation of church and state, but there are significant differences in the historical and social context and connotation of secularism. In America, home to religious minorities who fled persecution at the hands of European rulers, the separation between church and state was meant to protect religions from unwarranted intervention by the government. In France, separation was intended to secure the allegiance of individuals to the republic and so break the political power of the Catholic Church. In France, the state protects individuals from religion. It is considered essential to republican democracy that religion is a private affair. The distinction between private and public (religious belief and one’s obligation to the state) is based on traditions historically associated with Christianity (p. 92).

Laicite is regarded as not just any secularism, but a special and distinctive French version, at once more universal than any other and unique to French ethos, traditions and national character. According to this principle, matters of individual conscience are private and should be free from public interference. “Unlike other secular democracies, France has raised laicite to the level of a founding value,” wrote Bernard Stasi in his report (p. 98). Laicite is part of the mythology of the specialness and superiority of French republicanism (p. 15).

Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century, France was a society of immigrants. It received more foreign-born people than any other Western country, including the US. 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 population.

A glimpse into the historical and cultural context of laicite is sufficient to expose the mythological superiority of the doctrine. Historically, 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. The secular state also maintains religious buildings as a public responsibility. This applies not only to Christian churches but also to synagogues and to the Paris Mosque, which was built in 1926 to commemorate the sacrifices of Muslim soldiers who died in World War I. 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 (pp. 100-101).

In some areas even more dramatic compromises with religion have been worked out. The three departments of Alsace-Moselle, lost at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and regained after World War I, have never been required to conform to the terms of the 1905 pact. In Alsace-Moselle, religious instruction (for Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Jews) is still a mandatory part of the curriculum in public schools. With the permission of their parents, children who do not want to take these classes may substitute courses in morality. Curiously, the Stasi Commission recommended that, in addition to the existing lessons, Islamic instruction should be added for Muslim students (p. 101).

Scott says that the controversy surrounding the veil in France is the result of a sustained polemic, a political discourse which emphasizes assimilation of immigrants and minorities into France’s dominant culture. She convincingly argues that the attack on the veil does not represent a struggle between tradition and modernity or about the presumably universal values such as the separation of church and state. Rather, it is symptomatic of the deep-seated prejudices that white Christian Europeans harbour against Muslims. She quotes the anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, who has argued that the headscarf controversy was a form of “political hysteria” in which real social anxieties were displaced onto phantasmatic enemies and phantasmatic solutions were offered in place of concrete social policy (p. 120). The problem of the status of immigrants and of the racist practices that kept them on the margins of French society was redefined as a problem of Islamism, an external threat with links to Iran and Saudi Arabia. The solution was an endorsement of militant secularism. Scott points out that, over the years, assimilation has been the standard for becoming French and, at the same time, the characterization of Muslims as an unassimilable group has persisted alongside it. She says the odd thing about the Stasi Commission report and indeed about the argument of all those who favoured the prohibition of headscarves in schools, was that it took integration to be a prerequisite for education, rather than its outcome (p. 102). Scott emphasizes that instead of assimilation we need to think about the recognition and negotiation of differences: how can individuals and groups with different interests live together.

A notable feature of Scott’s brilliant book is that it objectively and carefully analyzes the complex issues involved in the headscarf controversy. It exposes the pretensions underlying the ideology of French republicanism and draws attention to its inherent limitations and shortcomings. Her critique of the model of assimilation that France has steadfastly followed during the past two centuries and her plea for the recognition and negotiation of cultural diversity are cogent and convincing.

A Postscript

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 expected 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.

Christian churches in France have played a significant role in fostering closer ties between the majority Catholic population and Muslims. The Catholic Church in France is opposed to the ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools. Unlike public schools, Catholic schools in the country allow Muslim students to wear the headscarf. Many Catholic schools take Muslim feasts into consideration for fixing parent-teacher meetings. Some Catholic schools offer Arabic as an optional subject. France’s Catholic schools are quite popular among Muslims. Muslim students form more than 10 per cent of the two million students in Catholic schools. In the ethnically mixed areas of Marseille more than half of the students are Muslim. Nearly 80 per cent of students in Saint Mauront Catholic school in Marseille are Muslim. During the month of Ramadan, the school provides a special room for prayers to Muslim students. Catholic schools remain popular even in cities like Paris, Lyon and Lille where Islamic schools have sprung up in recent years.

The issue of integration is of paramount importance to all Western countries. The European Union has taken a balanced and realistic view of integration. It has endorsed the principle that integration is a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by immigrants and mainstream society. In a recent document “White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue 2008”, the Council of Europe has emphasised that neither multiculturalism nor assimilation represents an adequate response to the management of cultural diversity. What is required, the document says, is the approach of intercultural dialogue, which is understood as an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups with different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds and heritage on the basis of mutual understanding and respect.

In his momentous speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, the US President Barack Obama said: “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear”.

The public utterances of President Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, betray an evident contradiction. Thus, on the one hand, he has often spoken about the diversity of French society and has recently raised the possibility that researchers might begin gathering statistics on ethnicity in the country. On the other hand, he continues to be obsessed with the fetish of cultural homogeneity and assimilation. His short-sighted move to have Islamic veils banned in public places has not only engendered deep anger and resentment among French Muslims but has also created fissures in the ranks of the government and the country’s political elite. The Immigration Minister, Luc Chatel, said legal action against the wearing of veils would “create unnecessary and unwelcome tensions” and would reopen the anguished dispute which surrounded the 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools. The leftwing senator Jean-Pierre Chevenement cautioned against whipping up “pointless provocations”. One hopes that better sense will prevail upon Sarkozy and he will desist from pursuing a disastrous goal.

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