By Kris Kemeny
Yarmulkes, crosses and hijabs have all been banned from French public schools, so why do Muslims feel targeted?
The French National Assembly voted 494 to 36 on February 10, 2004 in favor of a bill that would prohibit the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. On March 3, 2004, the French Senate, with a similarly overwhelming majority of 276 to 20, passed the bill into law (Beller 581). The language of the law, although brief, is clear: “The wearing of symbols or articles of clothing by which students ostensibly display religious affiliations is forbidden in public schools through high school” (qtd. in Vaisse 1). Although it prohibits all obvious religious symbols, including the Jewish skullcap, “large” Christian crosses, and the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, many people feel that the law is an attack on religious freedom in general and on Muslims in particular. Included among the law’s detractors and skeptics are many members of France’s Muslim community and the world Muslim community at large, as well as many international observers. The controversy surrounding this law, which has been dubbed the “Headscarf Affair,” has risen due to misunderstandings of both the French conception of the secular state and the unique position of Islam and its practitioners in France. Thus, only through exploration of these issues can we hope to understand the law and the impassioned sentiments both for and against it.
French law gives preference to a greater measure of collective equality – and subsequently religious neutrality – over what is oft considered a most basic of individual rights: freedom of religious expression.
The French ideal of laïcité, or secularity, flies in the face of the American conception of freedom of religion. Standing in stark contrast to American beliefs about the separation of Church and State valuing government nonintervention in religious matters, French law is more concerned rather with the prevention of religious intrusion in the dealings of the state. This concern is legitimized by France’s past, which is rife with outbursts of religiously motivated violence, most notably the sixteenth century’s bloody Wars of Religion. Additionally, the power wielded by the Catholic Church over national politics for much of France’s history necessitated the secularization of France around the turn of the last century. It is not the goal of laïcité to create a nation devoid of religion. Instead, it is intended to foster a spirit of neutrality and égalité, which is itself intended to foster true religious freedom. The emphasis on secularism and democratic neutrality in France’s public sector, particularly in education, reveals the nation’s anxiety over its tumultuous past.
Complete religious freedom, although it is an admirable idea, is unrealistic. Society’s foremost role is to establish and preserve safety and stability. At times, certain religious freedoms must be relinquished for the sake of this over-arching principle. In all democratic states, a delicate balance must be struck between the interest of uninhibited personal religious practice and the need for public order and control. French law gives preference to a greater measure of collective equality — religious neutrality — over what is oft considered a most basic of individual rights: freedom of religious expression. If it can be said, however, that religion is fundamentally institutional, a picture emerges of a society that attempts to position religion, like sex, as a primarily private affair. Religious practices are being relegated to the home and place of worship. The desired result is a civil structure as uncompromised as possible by religious influence.
Complicating matters immensely is the fact that the headscarf is much more than a religious symbol, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Indeed, the “Headscarf Affair” is perhaps best understood through its simultaneous links to multiple ideologies of religion, gender, and ethnicity, each of which may be ranked and weighted differently, both at the individual and group level, depending on the context. On another level, the hijab is a visible expression of obedience and devotion, both to Allah and to men. As such, any attempt to disrobe women of it can be perceived as an affront to Islam on multiple ideological grounds. The religious dictum is founded on the belief that a single, universal code of conduct exists which delineates the path drawn and desired by Allah. Consequently, any deviation from this path, which, according to many Muslims, includes the removal of the hijab in public, qualifies as a breaking of faith. On another level, the hijab is a key component of Islamic group identity for both many members and nonmembers of the community. The symbolic potency of the veil derives from its ability to visibly demarcate the boundary between Muslims (in-group) and non-Muslims (out-group).
In terms of gender relations, the scarf serves as a visual marker distinguishing men from women, inhibiting male sexual desire, and helping women to appear modest. The obligation falls, disproportionately, on women, not only to bring purity and dignity to society and refrain from tempting men, but also to maintain the identity of the entire in-group and mark its boundaries vis-à-vis other religious and ethnic groups. Certainly, now that more and more Muslim men are shedding their long locks and shaving their trademark beards, in essence casting off the very distinguishing attributes central to their group, Muslim women, with their headscarves, are under more pressure to remain the bastions of Muslim faith, tradition, and community.
For millions of women the issue of the headscarf strikes a personal chord. Although for hundreds of years many Muslim women have worn their traditional garb with pride, it is seen by many outsiders (as well as by some feminist Muslims of both sexes) as a symbol of their subjugation. The hijab represents the sacred virtue of modesty as prescribed by the Qur’an, a quality that is also an obligation of men. Men, however, are neither forced nor expected to wear veils. The gender inequalities at play in this situation are becoming increasingly obvious in the contemporary globalized world. The headscarf has come to be viewed as the primary manifest symbol of the gender asymmetries alleged to exist within Islamic culture. It has been called tantamount to a yoke that enslaves women. Indeed, young women are often required to wear it by their male relatives. In diasporas such as France, however, its donning is sometimes wholly voluntary and represents a form of rebellion against mainstream society’s assimilative pressures. It becomes part of a young woman’s progression as she forges her identity with respect to others (and “the Other”) and discovers and then takes ownership of her faith, femininity, and ethnicity.
Adding to the controversy, some moderate and liberal Muslim scholars and leaders have argued in recent years that the wearing of the headscarf is not a requirement. They’ve based this claim on the fact that Muslim holy scriptures are ambiguous and indecisive in their discussions of the exact specifications and applications of veils for women. The increased insistence on headscarves for women by conservative and fundamentalist Muslims is, in part, a reaction to this interpretation. It is thus a reaction, not only to Western culture, but also to more moderate and modern approaches to Islam.
Also complicating matters is the peculiar milieu of this debate. Islam in France is a unique case and must therefore be examined independently of all other contexts. Of all European nations, France has by far the largest Islamic community. Official estimates of the size of the Muslim population range from 4 to 5 million people, or as much as 8.3percent of the total population. Of these, roughly one-half are foreign citizens (Vaisse 3). The majority comes from the Maghreb region of Northwestern Africa, which includes Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia; large numbers also hail from Turkey. Nevertheless, a great deal of diversity exists within the Muslim population, which problematicizes the semantics of labeling the group. Indeed, 36percent claim to be active members of their faith, 42percent call themselves non-practicing believers, and 16percent prefer to say that they are “of Muslim origin” (qtd. in Vaisse 3).
Muslims first immigrated to France in significant numbers after World War II, when largely unskilled male workers came in search of the jobs created by the postwar financial boom. The expectation was that their stay would be only temporary and, as a result, the group was isolated from the larger society. In the 1970s, however, the French economy took a turn for the worse and the perceived utility previously accorded to immigrant workers quickly dissipated as bitter competition for jobs began to set the tone. Earlier sentiments of goodwill and pragmatic tolerance turned to uncertainty, hostility and racism as more and more immigrants settled and brought over their families, who in turn demanded citizenship and “a slice of the shrinking national pie.” These feelings were, for the most part, concealed, only periodically aggravated and made overt by increasing activism, demands for more rights, violence, and international terrorism (Bowen 3). This resentment has played a divisive role in French society and has resulted in “in/out” and “us/them” grouping battles. What began as an economic issue has thus become a political one revolving around conflicts over immigration policy, ethnic disputes, and an array of religious arguments. The “us vs. them” dynamic has manifested itself in several strata of identity ideologies.
The fundamental issues and underlying principles at war in this controversy are clear. How best is freedom of religion ensured? Is it through “specification” and the assertion of uninhibited and overt practice of religion in the public arena? Or is it better yet through the “neutralization” of religion and the creation of a completely unmarked and leveled civic sphere? What if displaying religious symbols fuels hatred and violence? And what if certain religious practices are found to be oppressive? And who gets to decide whether or not something oppressive? Can laws exist which stand contrary to religious law? Can laws prohibiting actions prescribed by religious law — especially those laws that not only delineate the boundary of a religious group, but that are moreover fundamental to the very identity, existence, and progeny of a given group — be legal at all? Which law does one choose to obey: national or religious? And is it right that someone should feel, let alone be, compelled to make this choice at all?
In order to better understand what’s at stake in all of this, it is necessary to examine the most influential voices emerging in the debate in France. Included among them are those of the French majority, the ones representing the extremes within the French Muslim community – i.e., the constructionist group Union of Islamic Organizations in France, or UOIF, and the liberals typified by Oumma.com – and, of course, the voices of French Muslim women.
Members of the French majority have a vested interest in, even a desire for, the integration, and, to an extent, the assimilation, of all newcomers into the existing socio-political system. From their dominant-group perspective, it seems unfair and even potentially dangerous to make an exception for one minority segment of the population in allowing it to more openly express its religious beliefs than any other group. In the interest of a harmonious and egalitarian society, everyone, they feel, shares an obligation to keep his or her religious affairs private. Belief in the concept of laïcité is indeed a central reference point for many of their arguments. Another central reference point, also related to a desire for public order, is concern over religious and ethnic violence, particularly in the public schools. Some of the law’s most vocal proponents are educators, people who daily are privy to the tensions that can be the fruit of the prominent display of religious symbols.
According to one poll, 78percent of French Muslims support the principle of laïcité and agree that it is a powerful means by which to achieve a desirable state of religious freedom within society (qtd. in Vaisse 3). But that is about as far as the consensus goes. The hard-line, conservative approach favored by the largest segment of the Muslim community is championed by the UOIF. The group’s representative to the European Council said, “Islam requires women to wear the hijab [covering], and on this question all scholars, in the past and today, agree” (qtd. in Bowen 9). This interpretation of the law is unyielding regardless of context. It is Islam’s predication on a notion of universality that makes the notion of renovation — that is, of the modernization of religious practices to make them better fit a contemporary context — unthinkable for most conservative Muslim scholars. On the more liberal side of debate stands the editorial website Oumma.com, which sides with the French on this issue. The site denounces many of the beliefs espoused by the UOIF and instead adopts a more secular platform. The site urges “Muslims to follow a French lifestyle in France, shaping their Islam around either private prayer or an appreciation of Arabo-Muslim history and civilization” (Bowen 7). Many of France’s Islamic educators and university professors also advocate this approach.
Arguably the voices to which it is most important to listen to are also those most ignored and, ironically, those most impacted by the policy: France’s Muslim women. The interviews conducted by Caitlin Killian of 41 Muslim women as part of the research for her article “The Other Side of the Veil” offer important insight into these views. Killian asked the women whether or not they felt that veils ought to be allowed in public schools and to explain their reasoning. Killian found that “[a] little more than one-third of the participants support veiling in school, but there are two distinct arguments for allowing the veil and these arguments are made by different groups of women” (Killian 575). The first group was comprised of less educated women who did not understand the problem of wearing the veil in the first place; the second group, made up of younger, more highly educated women argued that everyone, including Muslim women, shares a fundamental right to expression of their religious and cultural affiliations. Other women in opposition to the law cited racist attitudes that single out Muslims and problems with identity formation for many young girls of Islamic faith living in France. Of those women who sided with French lawmakers, many subscribed to a belief in the need for integration into French society and acceptance of the social contract, or in the oppressive and patriarchal nature of fundamentalist Islam, of which the veil is a clear symbol. Others simply did not view the hijab as a necessary and integral aspect of being Muslim and maintaining an Islamic identity. The wide range of opinions is most easily attributable to the diversity of the backgrounds of the women interviewed. Differences in age, time spent in France, level of education, and degree of piety can help account for much of the variety in their stances (Killian 573-584).
There has been a rise in solidarity among people on either end of the debate, among both French nationalists and Muslims.
With respect to the “Headscarf Affair,” what we find is a lack of consensus both between and within different groups. Perhaps the key to understanding these differences in opinion lies in a careful exploration of Muslim group identity, especially with regards to the hijab and the French law forbidding its presence in public schools. Most basically, the scarf serves as a clearly visible wall of separation between Muslims and non-Muslims. As such, the veil manifests itself as that boundary marking group membership described by Fredrik Barth. In an effort to ensure the integrity of their group’s ethnic, cultural, and religious progeny, Muslims necessarily desire this distinction. To this, France’s own wishes for a homogeneous populous, in conjunction with its legal principle of laïcité, stand in direct opposition. This policy along with the subsequent debate to which it has given rise have sent ripples of influence worldwide, and have caused waves of protest within the Islamic world. Perhaps most importantly it has contributed to the strengthening of Islam due to the interplay of several local and global factors. That is, given the context of persecution and pressure on the part of “out-groups,” it has been the response of many Muslims to resist change and strengthen their “in-group” identity, a move best characterized as a defense mechanism. Fredrik Barth wrote, with reference to relational formations of group identity, that “ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of social interaction and acceptance, but are quite to the contrary often the very foundations on which embracing social systems are built” (Barth 10). As a result of this controversy, group boundaries between “out-group” and “in-group” have rigidified and, consequently, “in-group” unity has increased. Indeed, there has been a rise in solidarity among people on either end of the debate, among both French nationalists and Muslims. Rather than polarizing “soft” and “hard” Muslims, thus weakening group membership and allowing for implementation of a divide-and-conquer strategy, the Islamic community seems to be more united — and on an increasingly conservative front — than ever before. Indeed, the perceived threat to the group’s very survival the group has spurred a revival of sorts in the Muslim community as a whole.
This rejuvenation of the Muslim faith and community has occurred for a multitude of reasons. Among more conservative Muslims, the challenge has set in motion a sort of jihad against outside groups, be they secular or Christian. Within the liberal Islamic population — large parts of which have no objection to the French policy — the law banning their traditional symbol of group identity has necessitated a rethinking of what it means to be Muslim. This renewed conceptualization of their culture and religion has once again precipitated a revitalization of their Islamic faith. This “rebirth” has subsequently seen the unification of Muslims worldwide. As Barth contends, “The identification of another person as a fellow member of an ethnic group…entails the assumption that the two are fundamentally ‘playing the same game’” (Barth 15). It is this exact view of a shared culture, faith, and ethnicity that has had an energizing effect on group identity, which, though slightly altered, is emerging stronger than ever.
French society at large, which has tried to integrate this minority population into its own group, first stipulated that, for Muslims, membership was contingent upon the shedding, at least outwardly, of their own conspicuous ethnic and religious affiliations. Its desire for homogeneity and a public arena devoid of any religious presence has required, in a sort of implicit social contract, that all French citizens and inhabitants reevaluate each of their own multiple identities and pledge membership first to society. Working under this assumption, the banning of the hijab by the French government can be interpreted as an attempt to reduce Muslims’ perceived group distinctiveness, a distinctiveness that is viewed as an undesirable differentiation by the majority group. That being said, the effectiveness of such legal intervention can be expected only if members of the Muslim community show a relatively low level of identification with their “in-group” and display a voluntary and high level of identification with the “out-group.” Where this is not the case, antagonism and oppositional identification with respect to the “out-group” can be expected to increase along with commitment to “in-group” cohesion and identity maintenance.
It is arguable that, had it been confined to France, the policy would easily have accomplished its mission.
In effect, the French policy, intended to unite its population under a single banner of nationalism, has instead caused deeper divides. Not only has the policy split people politically based on their support of or opposition to the ban, but it has also worsened religious rifts. Instead of creating a more neutral public sphere devoid of religious influence, the law has inaugurated a sort of holy war in which even Islam’s less zealous members feel obliged to participate, in proud reclamation of their culture and faith and the various affiliations attached to it. Thus, the pitfalls of this policy can be attributed directly to the size of the controversy it has inspired. It is arguable that, had it been confined to France, the policy would easily have accomplished its mission. However, when the dispute came under international scrutiny, French Muslims were forced, under the unforgiving and uncomfortable gaze of the global community, to choose between their traditional heritage and their new homeland. Asked to take sides, many of them, who had previously felt a part of French society, now questioned this allegiance. When cornered, many French Muslims did what most of us would do in a similar situation: they turned and returned to the warm and welcoming embrace of their religious community.
About the Author:
Kris Kemeny is a sophomore double majoring in Political Science and International Relations, in which he is pursuing a joint BA/MA. He hopes to study in London for a year and plans to attend Law school in the States.
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