A Religious Symbol of Secular Conflict; Muslim Headscarves Spur French National Debate

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

PARIS - France's latest national drama started with several thousand Muslim schoolgirls across the country demanding the right to cover their heads in public-school classrooms.

The demand was considered to be both excessive and political, and gradually mushroomed into an emotional nationwide debate - a kind of religious confrontation in this secular state. A tangle of issues is involved, including the concept and extent of secularism and the future of relations of French Christians with Muslims and Jews. There have been few clear-cut answers or suggestions acceptable to those most involved.

The crisis led to intervention by President Jacques Chirac, who announced a planned ban in state schools on what has become known as the "Islamic scarf" - the "hijab" in Arabic - as well as other "conspicuous religious symbols." The latter was interpreted as including skullcaps worn by Jewish boys and large crosses or crucifixes worn as pins or on neck chains by Christians.

The development followed concern about the growth of France's Muslim population and about a wave of anti-Jewish harassment in schools and at places of work, often inspired by Muslims.

With the largest Muslim population in Western Europe - estimated at 5 million - and also the largest number of Jews - 600,000 - France has found itself confronting a problem that few European countries have been able to handle with satisfactory results.

In fact, after the French president's statement, the situation appeared to be more confused and potentially explosive, as Muslims condemned the proposed ban. Nonetheless, the French methods are being watched carefully by other countries, particularly Germany, which faces a similar problem.

To many, the hijab has virtually become "the banner of Islam" and a springboard to other demands. Several Muslim communal authorities demanded special menus in school cafeterias for their children - quickly followed by Jews asking similar treatment.

Muslim accusations of xenophobia multiplied, while France's Jewish community, almost miraculously revived after the Holocaust, once again felt endangered.

To calm the rising tensions, Mr. Chirac promised "a pitiless battle against xenophobia, racism and, in particular anti-Semites."

The French president's main concern is to stop the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the resulting Jewish reaction, and to block what the government perceives as an attempt to undermine the country's secular system of government "through provocative use of religious symbols."

The liberal daily Le Monde wrote that the measure would make secularism "cold, closed and defensive," and exclude large segments of the population that the government would like to integrate into public life and civic participation.

According to Marwan Bishara of the American University in Paris, Mr. Chirac's decision "could eventually popularize those extremist elements the government wants to contain."

Public opinion - overwhelmingly approving the French president's stand - was stunned by a report of a special commission headed by Bernard Stasi that underlined the government's difficulties in accommodating different races, cultures and religions and the resulting - and growing - tensions.

The 67-page report singled out insults against Jewish children in schools, refusal to attend courses on the Holocaust by Muslim students, and the forcing of Muslim girls to wear the scarf by parents or relatives.

It recommended a ban on "conspicuous" religious symbols, urged the appointment of Muslim chaplains in prisons, and suggested making Yom Kippur and Eid-al-Adha official holidays.

Suddenly, France was swamped with often-conflicting statistics.

The Interior Ministry said that during 2003, there were four times as many violent attacks on Jews as on Muslims. …