The headscarf: Radical Islam’s greatest secret weapon

When I first came to Belgium, one of the things that genuinely surprised me is how people seem to think Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is a children’s programme. Admittedly, the title doesn’t exactly say “socially relevant drama”, but I doubt that the show’s success on American TV would have been possible without the age 24-55 market. Eventually, I started asking people what it was about the programme that made them come to that conclusion.

In most cases, people never really got past the name. Fantasy on the continent seems to be a very different animal than in the US. For example, when I suggested that Buffy is no more fantasy than Le Fabuleux destin d’Am?lie Poulain, I was greeted with shock. No, no – I was told – Am?lie is magical. The Paris it is set in – the clean one, without the graffitti and street crime – is fictional, of course, and the plot is certainly not realist, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same category as vampires.

In a lot of cases, the real problem was linguistic. Buffy in French sounds very childish, spouting verlan and action movie clichés. The wit and prose skill of the original writers is completely lost, and even if you watch it in English on Flemish TV or the Beeb, I guess non-native speakers just don’t get it.

But I had one answer that surprised me. One person thought it belonged in the same category of American TV as Beverly Hills 90210. Why? Because of the clothes Buffy wears. No school would ever let a girl dress like that to class. I had to explain that in California, Buffy’s clothes aren’t even close to excessive.

The Belgian school system places some demands on students that American schools don’t. Personally, I don’t have a real problem with the imposition of a reasonable dress code in school. It is, if anything, one of life’s most minor injustices. Besides, I remember what it felt like to wear clothes from K-mart at a school where designer jeans were de rigueur.

However, I have some problems with this:

Deux s?nateurs veulent interdire le voile ? l’?cole

BRUXELLES Deux s?nateurs de la majorit?, Anne-Marie Lizin (PS) et Alain Destexhe (MR), ont d?pos? une proposition de r?solution qui invite les autorit?s f?d?rales et f?d?r?es du pays ? adopter des textes l?gislatifs portant sur l’interdiction ? l’?cole, et pour les agents de la fonction publique, de signes manifestant une appartenance religieuse.

Anne-Marie Lizin esp?re que le bureau du S?nat mettra sur pied une commission ad hoc qui pourra se pencher sur cette question d?licate, avec comme fil rouge le texte de la proposition de r?solution.

Pour Alain Destexhe, qui s’appuie sur la position de la Communaut? fran?aise, sur l’avis du Centre pour l’?galit? des chances, sur les diff?rentes d?clarations politiques et sur divers arr?ts, rapports ou recommandations tant belges qu’?trangers, le d?bat est clos, il est temps d’agir. Pour le s?nateur MR, il faut se demander ce qu’implique de vivre ensemble en Belgique au 21?me si?cle.

Il s’agit de d?fendre la libert? de conscience et la compatibilit? des libert?s dans l’espace public, ce qui implique un certain nombre de r?serves au sein de l’administration et ? l’?cole. L’?cole doit ?tre le lieu de l’apprentissage d’une conscience critique et de la promotion de valeurs universelles, ajoute-t-il.

Pour Anne-Marie Lizin, ?le voile, c’est la pression sur l’individu au nom d’une religion ?. La s?natrice de Huy estime qu’il est urgent de l?gif?rer au nom de l’?galit? homme-femme et pour soutenir le combat des femmes musulmanes dans chaque pays o? elles disent ?non? ? l’inf?riorit?.

L’initiative des deux parlementaires se fait en toute autonomie. Tant au PS qu’au MR, on ne se prononce pas pour l’interdiction du port du voile ? l’?cole. Le pr?sident du PS Elio Di Rupo a m?me estim? qu’il n’?tait pas opportun de d?battre de cette question en p?riode pr??lectorale. Mais pour Alain Destexhe, ?ne pas en discuter en p?riode ?lectorale revient justement ? alimenter le poujadisme et le vote d’extr?me droite?.

(Read on for the English translation)

Two senators want to forbid headscarves at school

BRUSSELS Two senators from the majority coallition, Anne-Marie Lizin (Socialist) and Alain Destexhe (Reform Movement), have submitted a proposed resolution that asks the federal authorities to adopt legislation forbidding insignia that demonstrate relgious allegiances, both in schools and in the civil service.

Anne-Marie Lizin hopes that the Senate will set up an ad hoc commission to debate this delicate question on the basis of the proposed resolution.

For Alain Destexhe, the debate is closed and the time to act is now, as per the position of [Belgian] French Community [Government], the opinion of the Centre for Equal Opportunity,and various Belgian and foreign political declarations, excutive orders, reports and recommendations. For the Reformist senator, we need to ask ourselves what it means to live together in Belgium in the 21st century.

It is a question of the defense of the freedom of conscience and the compatibility of different freedoms in the public domain – a view which has produced some reservations in the government and in schools. School must be a place where a critical spirit is instilled as well as where universal values are promoted, the senator adds.

For Anne-Marie Lizin, “headscarves are a form of pressure placed on individuals in the name of religion.” The senator from Huy believes that we must urgently pass legislation in support of the equality of the sexes and to assist Muslim women in every country where they refuse inferiority.

The two parliamentarians are acting alone. The Socialists and the Reform Movement alike have not released any statements on the headscarf issue. The Socialist Party president, Elio Di Rupo, has claimed that it is an inopportune moment to debate this question, considering the upcoming elections. But, according to Alain Destexhe, “not discussing it before the election will only help the brown-shirts and the far right.”

The governments of Europe have, for the most part, caught on to the idea that the government has no place in the people’s bedrooms. It seems, however, that they still think they have a place in the people’s wardrobes. Just what is it about the headscarf that makes people like Jacques Chirac want to join the fashion police? There are fashions that annoy the hell out of me, but by what possible logic are headscarves more offensive than, say, big hair? Is there any way in which headscarves are more oppressive to women than mini-skirts?

What is it about headscarves that makes European politicians insane? I doubt that Al Qaeda could do more to unhinge the French government than this issue has. Is it, perhaps, a secret weapon designed to turn western governments into gibbering idiots that monitor women’s fashions?

This debate is fairly new in Belgium. It is far more advanced in France. There, not only do they intend to abolish headscarves, but also yarmulkes and visible crosses. Perhaps I missed the memo, but when exactly did it become cool to prove you aren’t really anti-Muslim by targeting orthodox Jews at the same time? As for people who wear crosses, if these sorts of laws are passsed, I will bet that the number of Christians prosecuted in France will be well within what I can count on one hand.

In Belgium, this sort of proposal is even more hypocritical. At the university I attended, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, there was a cross hanging in every classroom. Will the Belgian state be passing legislation requiring their removal as well as the elimination of the word “Catholic” from the names of the country’s two largest and most elite universities? Many Belgians study in the state supported Catholic school system, which is widely believed to offer superior education. Will all the Catholic schools become state schools? Will they be getting rid of catechism classes?

If you think the answer is like hell they will, you’re almost certainly right. Belgium suffered through painful debates about religion and education in the 50’s and 60’s, and reopening those questions by banning the appearance of religious allegiance is probably not going to happen here. In France, however, I can’t be sure.

I know I can’t be the only person who finds this whole argument over the defence of secularism and universal values to be a complete crock of shit. Is it even marginally plausible that Chirac, Raffarin and the RPR-UDP are really worried about defending secularism and women’s rights? French unemployment is hovering around 10%, and the biggest issue facing the government is what girls wear to school? Really, even George W. Bush knows better than to mess with freedom of religion issues.

I really don’t see how anyone can think either that all the girls who wear headscarves are oppressed or that the ones that are will be less oppressed by the interdiction. How, exactly, are mesures that will keep the most oppressed Muslim girls out of school altogether supposed to help liberate them? Belgian schools are notoriously lax in enforcing truancy laws, so there is no chance that the state is going to go and round up girls who won’t go to school if they can’t wear headscarves. And the spectre of French police running around dragging girls out of their homes and tearing off their headgear in the streets – even Chirac isn’t going to go there.

Had the French right proposed to teach girls in the public schools about their social and political rights, were they planning to build shelters for mistreated Muslim women, had they proposed spending money on TV campaigns directed at religious minorities to reinforce women’s rights – then I might have believed that the French government really cared about the equality of women in Islamic communities. But for now, this is about an unpopular government with unpopular policies pandering to the lowest elements of society in order to distract people.

It is my hope that these kinds of laws will never be passed, and that if they are passed, that national courts will strike them down. Failing that, I hope the European Court of Human Rights will do its duty. But in the meantime, I hope that French students will take matters in their own hands. This sort of hypocritical nonsense is just begging for some civil disobedience. I suggest that French students make headscarves, yarmulkes and big crosses the fashion accessories for 2004. Make sure that no kid is cool if they don’t wear something religious. Use that teenage hatred of authority to actually accomplish something.

If you want to convince Muslim women to adopt French values about the place of women, taking away the distinctiveness of the headscarf by having everyone wear one is a far, far better way to go about it.

The thing that bothers me most, however, is the direction this debate about “what it means to be French” (or Belgian, or European, or whatever) is taking. This kind of discussion almost never happens in Canada, where we have far more of these kinds of issues. Some years ago, there was a similar sort of fuss in the old country about Sikh turbans. There are two incidents from that era that come to mind. In the first, a Sikh student was prevented from taking a chemistry class because the safety rules forbade flammable headgear. Instead of kicking the kid out of school and forcing Sikh boys to take off their turbans, the school procured flame-resistant materials so that the student could safely do his chemistry labs.

But, the second incident is more revealing. Sikhs have a strong tradition of employment in the police and armed services, and it didn’t take too long after Sikhs started arriving in Canada in large numbers before one enrolled in the RCMP academy – the training school for Canada’s federal police. The RCMP have a very specific and moderately famous dress code – a code that specifies what kind of headwear Mounties can have. Rather than block SIkhs from becoming Mounties, the RCMP preemptively changed its dress code. Their solution was ingenious. Rather than creating an exception for Sikh Mounties, they added to the dress code a specification for an official RCMP turban, made of blue cloth held together with a maple leaf pin. This was an important statement. It said that being Sikh is not only compatible with being Canadian, but that there are and should be institutions distinctive to Canadian Sikhs. It proposed that there is a Canadian way to be Sikh.

That is what is missing in European debates about Islamic communities. The idea that there is some conception of Frenchness, Belgianness or even Europeanness to which immigrants must comply is an idea that deserves to be consigned to oblivion. Instead, governments ought to advance the idea that just as Arab Christians are still Arabs, and that Christians in the Middle East have distinctive institutions that are different from those found in Europe, European Muslims need to have distinctive institutions of their own too. Institutions which are at once Islamic and European, which are not necessarily shared by their non-Islamic neighbours but which aren’t shared by their extra-European brethren either, will do far more to advance the cause of a common identity than social integration at gunpoint ever will.

45 thoughts on “The headscarf: Radical Islam’s greatest secret weapon

  1. Scott, I think you just hit the nail smartly on the head.

    But I advise you now to duck, coz I have a feeling you just touched a very, very sensitive nerve.

  2. I good post, Scott, I think you hit on all the main points (misogyny, counter-productive measure, religios bigotry).

    A couple of points

    1) Tthe big Sikh kerfuffle was when the Royal Canadian Legion prohibited Sikh WWII veterans from wearing turbans at legion halls (but somehow, cowboy hats were OK). Since then, Sikh turbans and knives have beena accomodated in schools, bike safety laws, uniforms, and just about everwhere else.

    2) This may be an anglo-american thing. Quebec is a bit behind on the curve, and Lysiane Gagnon (a Globe and Mail columnist) recently lauded the French initiative, and suggested that Turbans should be banned in the RCMP as well.

    3) I am quite surprised by the uniformity of feeling among Europeans on blogs and newspapers. Everyone I have read supports the ban, and the reasoning they provide is fairly incoherent. What the Hell is going on?

    (You may want to keep in mind that Bavaria will be introducing a law specificaly prohibiting headscarves in school. Unlike Fracne, Bavaria will not be banning any Catholic or Jewish symbols. Perhaps this is the beginning of a Euro-trend)

  3. The premise of the veil seems to be that the female body is uniquely dangeorus, whether from the point of view of its appearance corrupting men, or from the point of view of its exposure corrupting the women themselves. This perspective is arguably quite misogynistic. (But then, if there’s a counterpart to the veil for men, that’s different.)

    A case can be made that minor children shouldn’t be forced to wear the veil in public, if only because it forces them to assume this full misogynistic baggage without any possibility of independently considering its merits, or any possiblity of developing an autonomous role. If young women are being pressured to choose between wearing the veil and subordinating themselves or not wearing the veil and being labelled whores, then the state should intervene to exclude the veil from the public sphere. (That’s the line of the French group Ni Putes, Ni Soumises, for instance.) This argument, of course, rests on the assumption that this choice is the case.

  4. Scott,
    your anglo-saxon sensibilities are shining through on this one:

    “French unemployment is hovering around 10%, and the biggest issue facing the government is what girls wear to school?”

    May I suggest that, yes, the assimilation of France’s Arab population is Chirac/Raffarin’s most important domestic issue. Of which this is a highly symbolic and highly visible sub-battle.

  5. Banning the Cross and Yamuka is being done to disarm the otherwise quite valid argument that Arabs would be unfairly discriminated against by being singled out while catholics and jews are allowed their religious articles of clothing…in what is supposed to be an aggressively secular institution.

  6. “3) I am quite surprised by the uniformity of feeling among Europeans on blogs and newspapers. Everyone I have read supports the ban, and the reasoning they provide is fairly incoherent. What the Hell is going on?”


  7. Excellent post Scott; I agree entirely with your conclusion, but not entirely with your reasoning. Patrick (G) is right; this is about a lot more than just dress styles and xenophobic pandering. To get to the end you want (i.e., articulating French/Belgian/”European” ways of being Islam), the last thing you want to do is, as you put it, take “the idea that there is some conception of Frenchness, Belgianness or even Europeanness to which immigrants must comply” and “consign it to oblivion.” Do that, and you lose the particularity–the historical, communal, national grounding–from which productive innovations and agreements may arise. I don’t care at all for the specific identity which Chirac, et al, seem to be defending through these proposals, but I do at least think they properly recognize the argument here: how, given the demographic reality on the ground, is a culture and its attendant ideals to be preserved and passed on? A headscarf ban is an enormously stupid solution to the problem, I think, but I can’t fault them for at least tackling the problem head-on. (More on my blog, here:

  8. There is a world of difference between the Bavarian rule and the French proposal.
    I second Patrick?s position. What?s at issue here is the generality of the principle – either everybody gets to display religious symbols, or everybody is banned from doing so. There are good arguments for going either way.
    However, it would be very naive to consider this matter a non-issue. It reminds me of the GM worker who bought a Chrysler – only to find that his co-workers demolished the car the first time he parked it at the GM factory. New Yorkers drive Japanese cars, people in Detroit don?t.
    One of the staples of my diet is d?ner. Turkish in origin, the meat was traditionally served on a bed of rice. But the d?ner bread sandwich common throughout Germany was supposedly invented in Berlin in the 1970s. The total number of outlets in Germany have a combined turnover higher than that of McDonalds, Burger King and Wienerwald, the German sausage vendor, put together. The annual sales of d?ner kebabs in Germany total almost ?1.5 billion with 720 million meat pockets sold every year. A German businessman started a restaurant chain by the name of “Rheinhaus” in the U.S. After 9/11 he had to remove d?ner and other suspicious items from the menu and turn the chain into a purified sauerkraut-only affair or face bankruptcy.
    Had Mohammed Atta chosen to crash into the Deutsche Bank tower in Frankfurt, similar developments would have occurred in Germany. Dto. for France. Chirac knows this. His opponent in the last election was Jean-Marie LePen, not some dreamy Trotskyite internationalist.

  9. David – I was mostly kidding. Buffy really is a quite mature programme, but I’m not actually that touchy about it.

    Ikram – I remember the business about the Legion now that you mention it. I don’t remember the order of events.

    Quebec has usually been ahead of France on ethnic issues, Parizeau’s swan song aside, and I hope this isn’t part of a general trend towards greater political alignment between France and Quebec. It is clearly the way the issue is being played out in France that is the major factor in the Belgian senate bringing it up. It is two Walloon senators who are making an issue of this, not Flemish ones. I never much liked Lysiane Gagnon anyway.

    I can’t quite gauge what has happened in Europe either. The roots of the current islamophobia predate my arrival in 2001, so I don’t have that much perspective. In some places and with some people, tolerance really does still reign. In others, it’s already long gone.

    My suspicion is that 9/11 raised the profile of European Muslims a lot. An issue that had been slowly simmering suddenly took on a new importance. All at once, even in Europe, people were afraid that their dark-skinned neighbours might be suicide bombers out to kill them.

    At the same time, there has been a huge change in people’s conception of European culture. In the not really very distant past, even Europeans saw America as “the land of the free” and Europe as an old continent stiffled by ancient traditions. In recent years, attitudes have reversed. Europeans have started to see their own society as free and dynamic and America as a land haunted by ancient lunacies. This has turned a number of traditionally liberal causes into almost conservative, chauvinistic ones, particularly causes like women’s rights, gay rights, public education, secularism, anti-monarchism and social insurance. The use of women’s rights and secularism as a bludgeon against the growing Muslim population is just a sort of unhappy coincidence, one that found some resonance with the public.

    That’s my provisional theory anyway. It is subject to change without notice.

  10. Randy, I can’t see Flash-only websites on my Solaris machine, so I don’t know what Ni Putes, Ni Soumises has to say. If what they want is the liberation of Muslim women living in abusive situations, I can certainly agree with their goals. But I will not budge from my belief that this is 180 degrees from the right way to do it. As for the premise of the veil being anti-woman, I won’t claim that that isn’t at least sometimes right, but I m pretty sure that it is not always right. You might take a look at veiled4allah if you want to ask a woman who wears much heavier stuff than a mere headscarf and certainly doesn’t sound to me like she takes a lot of crap from men.

    Patrick – if thinking that 10% unemployment is a horrifying waste, even in a state with extensive social supports, makes me an Anglo-Saxon, I plead guilty as charged. In the US, 10% unemployment borders on a cataclysm, and in a place like France it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay.

    Patrick and Joerg – I realise that adding crosses and yarmulkes to the list of forbidden symbols is intended to deflect the charge of specifically anti-Islamic intent, but no one is fooled. There isn’t any large movement in Europe to liberate Jewish men by taking away their skullcaps, nor can I recall ever reading an editorial in major newspaper demanding that the state free children from the clutches of the Pope by banning crosses. This is a measure intended to target Muslims.

    Fear over 9/11 may make current Islamophobia more comprehensible. It does not make it more defensible.

    Russell – Your post will require a bit of thought. I think our main differences are terminological and that we substantially agree, but I’ll need a minute to compose something.

  11. Okay, Russell, here goes:

    I am not actually opposed to the religious arrangements in Belgium. There is no real risk of a creeping sectarianism, and the state’s support for Catholic schools now no longer actually has much of anything to do with religion. Catechism is, I believe, completely optional in the Catholic schools, and certainly when I was at KUL I was not required to attend or participate in religious cerimonies. There is even a Protestant church that meets on school property – in a building named after a Pope! – and I believe the local Jewish community meets in the same room on Saturdays.

    Belgium’s compact with the Catholic church appears to me to be a functional and fairly satisfactory compromise. I would like to see European Muslims reach a functional compromise of their own. I doubt it would be terribly similar to the compromise that exists with Catholicism, but that isn’t what the situation requires.

    Frankly, until a few months ago I had hope that France was going to lead the way in developing just such a compromise. The French government has been concerned that French imams who receive their seminary training in Algeria are returning to preach a very fundamentalist, anti-European ideology. However, since there are no Islamic seminaries in France, there is no alternative but to go abroad. So, the government annointed a sort of French Islamic league to semi-officially speak for French Muslims and offered them subsidies to build a seminary in France.

    So far, so good. That would certainly be a compromise that, if functional, wouldn’t bother me too much and might actually lead to the development of a European Islam that feels freer of the Arab world’s long-running messes. But this effort proved quite unpopular, both among French Muslims and non-Muslims. I fear that Chirac has simply decided that if he’s going to offer carrots, he has to wield a stick too. This headscarf measure may be at once an attempt to use threats to keep French Muslims behind his quasi-official French Islam, to appease the French anti-immigrant right and to curry favour among French centrists and leftists who still feel strongly about secularism and women’s rights, while still distracting folks from the way he’s messing everything else up.

    Part of the problem is that France has no real history of compromise between the state and the church. Certainly, in this respect the rest of Europe is much better off. That is very much a part of the local traditions that immigrants to Europe are moving into, and it is one of the reasons why this conflict is so much more immediate in France than in Germany, where disaffection among Muslims is at least as common and far longer running.

    However – and here is perhaps where we differ – trying to negociate solutions within the social and historical framework you actually find yourself in is not the same as having a national identity to which someone demands that you comply.

    French-born ethnic Frenchmen can, and sometimes do, reject vast areas of the social compromise they find themselves in. The same is true everywhere. If black people in the US had not rejected segregation’s functional compromise on racial issues, there would still be segregation. Instead, they refused to comply, they mobilised, and they demanded a better arrangement. I am hard pressed to claim that being an immigrant diminishes that right to refuse the existing social structure in the same way. That is why I am always reticent to support the idea that immigrants ought to try to fit in wherever they go.

    Now, that is not to say that no standards can ever be imposed. Rather I want to make a two-fold claim: First, the standards that a society imposes on its immigrants are the product of a political compromise that follows the refusal to simply integrate. Second, since people are sometimes going to refuse to accept the culture that they are expected to integrate into, and sometimes I think they are right to refuse, the standards that a society really ought to stand its ground on should be the ones that their defenders genuinely believe ought to be universal.

    This is a bit aside from my basic claim, but I think it’s important for my case. I don’t think there are any God-given, eternal standards of human conduct. They are all fixed to a time and place. However, the things that I won’t tolerate out of people at all are the things that I can’t imagine ever being okay anywhere. This is why even if I were to conceed that Islamic headscarves are necessarily a symbol of the oppression of women, I would still oppose its abolition. I can’t see any grand moral error in a particular choice of clothing. This distinguishes this issue from, for example, female circumcision. I think female circumcision is wrong even in the places where it is routinely practiced, and just because I don’t have the power to abolish it in those places doesn’t mean I have to tolerate in those places where I do have the power.

    The arguments about headscarves are always couched in the kinds of terms that Destexhe uses in the article I cited: What does it mean to be Belgian nowadays? What I would like to propose is the idea that whatever is determined to be Belgian should not result in the interdiction of whatever isn’t Belgian. The things that should not be tolerated should only be the things people can defend as generally wrong, not merely different from the way they usually do things.

    Otherwise, I don’t see a general argument for making impositions on immigrants beyond the dual obligation, both on immigrants and their indigenous neighbours, to try to find a way to coexist. This is perhaps what you mean, and that is why I think we might have only terminological differences.

  12. It amused me, back in the day, to read about France being the only avowedly, expressly secular state in the EU without ever a question as to whether that might not be the best approach for France.

  13. I do not think that the “foulard” is a symbol of oppression, but a tool to it. A small tool indeed, but quite efficient. And the true problem is that the law is not to the task to counter aggressions on women who do not don any headscarve by “muslim” teenagers. To many of them, it is “right” to sexually attack a girl who goes without such headdress. And the consequence for the girls are not nice.


  14. Randy, I can’t see Flash-only websites on my Solaris machine, so I don’t know what Ni Putes, Ni Soumises has to say. If what they want is the liberation of Muslim women living in abusive situations, I can certainly agree with their goals. But I will not budge from my belief that this is 180 degrees from the right way to do it. As for the premise of the veil being anti-woman, I won’t claim that that isn’t at least sometimes right, but I m pretty sure that it is not always right. You might take a look at veiled4allah if you want to ask a woman who wears much heavier stuff than a mere headscarf and certainly doesn’t sound to me like she takes a lot of crap from men.

    As I’ve said above, my analysis only holds water if, in fact, the veil is being widely used in French Muslim communities as a weapon to bludgeon French Muslim women into a subordinate position in immigrant communities and to exclude them from public life. (That’s basically the argument of “Ni Putes, Ni Soumises.”) It’s only a symptom, but if it plays that central a role then immediate state action is a good thing.

    If it isn’t, then it’s definitely a strong overreaction, inspired by a nativism that’s generally too problematic and unrelated to the reality of general French Muslim assimilation, and the assimilation of Muslim immigrants across Europe.

    Pim Fortuyn claimed that he started his political party after a leading Muslim cleric in the Netherlands compared non-heterosexuals to pigs. A generally hostile reaction to that statement, and those of its ilk, is quite richly merited IMO. What is important to note–and what Fortuyn completely forget–is that this sort of conservative reaction to liberal societies is typical of first-generation immigrant communities worldwide, that assimilation proceeds quite readily so long as assimilation is possible, and that there is certainly isn’t anything innately conservative about Muslims or any other immigrants–cf southern and eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. It wasn’t that long ago that French were afraid that Catholic immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Poland would cause a reversion to clerical dominance, after all, and look what happened (in France and in those immigrant-sending countries).

  15. I concur in general with Scott’s analyses.

    First some remarks:
    1) Scott, you ARE touchy about Buffy 😉
    2) About 75-80% of Belgian children go to Catholic schools, the rest to municipality, provincial or communautarian schools. Catholic schools only offer Catholic religion; the others usually Catholic religion and neutre moral philosophy; when they are asked to, they also have to offer Protestant, Anglican, Jewish and Islamic religion. But in these days, there is not too much difference between Catholic religion and moral philosophy. Almost all religion teachers seem to be liberation theologists and so it’s more some Christian-Western ethics teaching than the Roman catechism. In Catholic universities, you have to one class in your senior bachelor year, but the same is true there.
    3) Why has the debate started in Belgium at this moment? It has nothing to do with elections. The reason is explained by the Flemish proverb: “Als het regent in Parijs, druppelt het in Brussel” (When it is raining in Paris, it drizzles in Brussels). This is especially true for the Francophone politicians.

    So, now my opinion about the headscarf issue. I think it is not a good idea for several reasons:
    – History has proven you cannot ban religion out of daily life (cfr. the Communist countries). If there is no organized religion, people tend to create their own and you get a whole bunch of sects. I don’t know if the Belgian law will only be agains headscarves or also against all obvious religious symbols, but with the current anti-Catholic liberals in power, it will probably be the latter. In any case, I think socialist and liberal politicians will be pro and Catholics anti.
    – If the idea came from a genuine wish to emancipate young Muslim girls that feel oppressed, I could live with it. But this is only a political move to counter the extreme-right. It is also not respecting the constitutional freedom of religion.
    – It will be counter-productive as you say, because a lot of Muslim girls that are not wearing it now, will do it to profile themselves. You can say that the authorities provoke Muslims to get more fundamentalist.

    Anyway, it is not sure there will a Belgian or Walloon law, because there are elections in June…

  16. The students of my World Religions 1A course agree with you, Scott. A few weeks ago I led a discussion on this very subject, and many of them concluded that the headscarf issue seemed a problematic, politically charged, red herring that betrays an ignorance of Islam being, generally speaking, a religion of praxis. As such, the the wearing of a headscarf is not simply emblematic or a means of religious identification, as with the cross, but a religious act itself. Europe has long dealt with the contestations, in various (often shameful) ways, between the secular and the sacred: the latter being, namely, Judaism and Christianity. In the case of the contemporary dialectic, that of French / Belgian identity and Islam, things are, to be very simplistic, very different. Negotiating the dialectic, therefore, too, must take a different tact.

    Obviously immigration requires some measure of accommodation; but this term, accommodation, is as much for the host as the immigrant. I agree w/ one of Scott’s comments, that negotiating the terms of national identity is one of identifying the terms of possible compromise and adaptation; versus one of doctrinaire, fictional constructs that fail to scrutinize the faults within more than all that falls without. It is a process fraught with problems, of course — problems that cry out for further adaptation, but rarely wholesale resolution — and one that takes, as one of the comments above recognises well, time.

    This debate of headscarfs, I cannot help but believe, is a reactionary debate, one that only *seems* to address the very real problems of identity that face European hosts and non-European immigrants alike in the coming decades. It may seem like a ‘bold start’ to some, but I agree with my students, though: it is, in the end, a ruse, one more way to not actually address the complexity of the question at all. In failing to do so, the status quo, without question or hestitation, is reaffirmed. To me, this is a false start.

  17. Peter – okay, maybe I am touchy about Buffy. :^)

    Brad – I tip my hat to your class.

    All substantial issues will have to wait til I get back from my Chinese class, since I spent the afternoon composing and posting an analysis of Marx’ On the Jewish Question for the post from the other day and now have to run off.

  18. If this report, filed by a BBC correspondent, is anything to go by, Chirac and political associates are responding to something deeper than just a passing bout of xenophobia at the margins in France:

    Because Islam is fundamentally a theocratic religion, it is naive to suppose that wearing headscarves is just an act of religious symbolism. The headscraves are a political symbol too. In Britain, the Public Order Act of 1936 banned political uniforms and there is no significant lobby nowadays for the repeal of that legislation to restore the loss of civil liberties.

    Of course, the persistently high unemployment rates in France warrant higher political priority but structural reforms by unwinding the scale of regulation and state-ownership of business to liberalise markets, reforming the tax-benefit system and reducing the high statutory minimum wage would most likely induce renwed rounds of strikes in the public services and a reversion to street politics.

  19. Scott,
    Per the book “60 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”, French and American unemployment rates can’t be directly compared; France doesn’t have part-time positions to count as full employment, like the U.S. does. Plus the U.S. only counts as unemployed those who are actively looking for jobs, not those who have given up.

    The recent “good” news concerning the U.S. unemployment numbers is that we seem to have stopped hemoragging jobs; that’s a scant silver lining considering that we need to be adding a sufficient amount of jobs to keep up with population growth, much less regain the jobs lost, and we’re not that far along quite yet.

    Back to France and Arab assimilation, the 60Million book is also illuminating:

    A lot of Arabs are in a Cabrini-Green equivalent environment. The French school system is how Arabic girls get themselves out of that environment. But it’s not providing the same opportunity to Arabic boys. Should the girls be handicapped so that their assimilation rate matches that of the boys?

  20. Scott,

    Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down so cogently. As you suggest, this whole debate about identity moves in the direction of arguments about relativism and universalism, and we probably have some ontological disagreements there. But insofar as practical matters are concerned (as I wrote in a further update on my blog), I agree with you: headscarf bans (as opposed to bans on other, more heinous practices tied to particular cultures) are a genuinely foolish way of getting at the necessary accommodation which both immigrants and indigenous peoples must make if they are to form a way life together.

    Oh and congrats to your World Religions class Brad; you’ve got smart students there.

  21. All obvious religious symbols, regardless of religion.

    Any volunteers to go to France and start a cult requiring its members to wear pants and then comply with the law by not wearing them to school?

  22. David ,

    Well, let me modify that statement. I don’t really read a lot of european press. Just a few French papers and newsmagazines. The sentiment in what I have read has been pro-ban, and the logic has been hard to follow. Here is an english language example of what I mean. I just don’t get what the author is saying.

  23. Well, Buffy IS a kids show, for kids.

    And religious symbols should be banned from schools.
    ’nuff said.

  24. One of my favorite books on religion is Scott Atran’s “In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary landscape of Religion”

    One of his points is that if you want to preserve certain lessons about human nature in an oral culture, it is easiest to do so by wrapping them in stories that have a mixture of realistic and fantasy elements…just like the familiar Bible stories. which most people don’t actually read from the Bible.

    …just like television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or Stark Trek, or Star Wars).
    So yes, Buffy is for kids, like most religious indoctrination. And it’s not too surprising that adults have a near-religious devotion to it either ;^)

  25. A lot of Arabs are in a Cabrini-Green equivalent environment. The French school system is how Arabic girls get themselves out of that environment. But it’s not providing the same opportunity to Arabic boys. Should the girls be handicapped so that their assimilation rate matches that of the boys?

    The whole question under debate is whether or not the headscarf is used to handicap French Muslim girls or not.

    Does anyone have any data on this?

  26. I don’t know if the veil itself is handicapping muslim womens’ integration ; but the marriage rate of muslim womens to non-muslims is about half that of muslim men. It seems harder to integrate muslim womens.

    More generally, in this debate Scott comes from the Canadian, multi-culural, comunautarian point of view. France is “indivisible” ; it does not recognizes muslim, catholic or jewish citizens (That’s why statistics on religion are hard to come by in France).

    Religious obligations are thus (justly, in my mind) viewed as no more important to accomodate to than any other whims of a citizen.

    The problem is that Scott is talking about women ; but the law is geared towards girls, and at school, under the authority of the state. Legally, and morally, the French state is in as much right to forbid the veil as the English one is to impose an uniform on its pupils. Political expression by pupils is also forbidden in schools ; and I see it as a rather more basic freedom that freedom of religion.

    It should also be noted that, indeed, Raffarin, Sarkozy and Chirac are scoring political points out of something of little practical importance ; girls are already prevented from wearing headscarves in secondary schools, usually by the headmaster ; only a few hundred come yearly to class wearing the veil, and most are talked out of it. Some who insist upon wearing the veil go to semi-private Catholic schools, as the rather large muslim community seems not to have started building its own set of schools. But accusing them of pandering to the Front National section of the voters is wrong ; those that have pushed for this measure for years are the public school teachers, who usually do not vote for Jean Marie Le Pen. And those teacher are against the veil from the perspective of preserving La?cit?, and women’s right, quite certainly. (And some have indeed already asked children wearing crosses visibly to hide them. It’s just that their parents didn’t have a taste for publicity.)

  27. Linca: “the French state is in as much right to forbid the veil as the English one is to impose an uniform on its pupils.”

    Excellent point. Long before muslim headscarves became a public issue, there were often stories in the news in England about various schools embattled over (non-muslim) girls wearing ear-rings, trousers, skirts of the wrong length, make-up and so on. It was often difficult for outsiders to understand the rationale for some of these quarrels with pupils and their parents but I think that the schools believed that if they once allowed exceptions then it would later prove impossible to prevent all sorts of abuses of the latitude.

    For similar reasons, I have sympathy with France’s predicament. Besides that, I think too many here and in other places are avoiding the question of whether the muslim headscarf in schools is as much a political symbol as a religious one.

    “Political expression by pupils is also forbidden in schools.”

    Does that mean pupils are not even permitted to discuss issues in the news? If so, then that seems sad to me. My school days are long since past but one of the valued experiences from my schooling were opportunities for formal debates which could and did range widely over topical issues.

  28. Political debates among pupils are allowed (and impossible to avoid) ; putting up posters for the PS or the UMP isn’t.

    Unlike in the UK, there is no real tradition of formal debates in France. You may get class discussions, but no more.

  29. I’m puzzled about this question –

    “There are fashions that annoy the hell out of me, but by what possible logic are headscarves more offensive than, say, big hair? Is there any way in which headscarves are more oppressive to women than mini-skirts?”

    Isn’t the answer to that obvious? Yes of course there is? The fact that nobody forces women or girls to wear miniskirts? There is fashion, peer pressure, all that, I realize – but nobody actually beats women up with fists or car antennas for failing to wear tiny skirts. Men in some places do beat up women for not wearing the hijab or the chador or the burqa. So the miniskirt is just not a very good analogy. And the point about the hijab is not that it’s ‘offensive’ – it’s that it’s misogynist (as said above) and coercive and oppressive. There may be compelling reasons not to ban it all the same, but you can’t have an honest discussion of the subject if you omit important aspects, surely.

  30. Linca – actually, it isn ‘t certain under French law whether headmasters have the authority to ban headscarves. There was a Conseil d’Etat ruling in 1996 which overturned exactly such a decision on the grounds that wearing something indicative of religious affiliation is not, by itself, prostelysing and can not be banned simply on those terms. Without a more specific French law, headmasters who ban the headscarf are unlikely to win court challenges. As you point out, the very small number of girls who do show up to school in hijab suggests that this is a non-issue.

    English law does give headmasters the right to impose dress codes, but I suspect a dress code which made it impossible for some students to obey what they consider the dictates of their religion would probably not survive a court challenge in the UK.

    Ophelia – I keep hearing too that women who would just as soon not wear headscarves are forced to do so because they risk rape or assault if they don’t. This may well be a real problem and if it is certainly merits action. However, how will banning headscarves in school make women safer? If the French government wanted to respond by passing a hate crimes law targeting assailants who attack women for not wearing the hijab, I could live with that. If they put more cops on the streets to make the suburbs safer, I would be okay with that too. But this measure is irrelevant to that problem.

    If the problem is that women are not free to refuse the hijab, then that that is the problem the state should be addressing. Banning headscarves will not address this problem in anyway, and is likely to even further polarise the issue in this communities where it is worn.

  31. Scott – You are still dodging the issue of whether the French could reasonably regard muslim headscarves as a political symbol. Such an interpretation is not, after all, demonstrably irrational in the light of the theocratic dimension of Islam.

  32. Bob – I don’t actually think that the French state should have the power to ban political symbols in and of themselves either. I think that it is no more reasonable to ban politics in the schools than religion. People don’t stop being Christians, Muslims or atheists when they step through the school doors, why should they stop being liberal, conservative or socialist? I do agree that schools have a responsibility to prevent pressure and disruptive advocacy. School administrators have a responsibility to keep the differences between students from becoming disruptive and undermining the school’s functions. However, otherwise I see no greater right for schools to block activities of a potentially political nature, or signs of political affiliation, than they do religion.

    The reason that I’ve dodged the issue is that I actually have been putting together a post on it. Essentially, I don’t think Islam is more inherently a theocratic religion than Christianity, but it is possible that more of Islam’s current adherents are more theocratic than Christianity’s. The discussion of Marx’ On the Jewish Question puts me in mind of a rather novel approach – to me anyway – to this issue. The point I’m going to try to make in my post is that I don’t think Islam’s embrace of politics is necessarily a bad thing.

  33. Scott: “I don’t actually think that the French state should have the power to ban political symbols in and of themselves either.”

    There is no detectable lobby in Britain for the repeal of the sections of the Public Order Act 1936 banning political uniforms. Hardly any regard that ban as an important curtailment of civil liberties.

    “I think that it is no more reasonable to ban politics in the schools than religion.”

    For reasons that quickly become evident from the scale of religious persecution in France’s troubled history, the prevailing constitutional arrangements there insist on a rigid separation between the state and religion – on the scale of the persecution, I commend a google search on “Huguenots”. In principle, the US constitution also makes a separation between the state and religion. The chief justice of Arkansas was recently obliged to remove a stone outside his office inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as I recall.

    On the evidence, I think it difficult to argue that France or America have suffered by enforcing the concept of a secular state. If anything, Britain is the curiosity by having an established church and laws precluding the head of state, the monarch, and the heir to the throne, from becoming a catholic or marrying a catholic. To understand why, you need to know our history. While parts of mainland Europe went in for anti-semitism, we persecuted catholics instead. Oliver Cromwell was instrumental in inviting jews to resettle in England in 1650, although jews were denied full citizenship rights until 1858.

    “I don’t think Islam is more inherently a theocratic religion than Christianity”

    Christ said: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. In its basic theology, Christianity is a personal, not a theocratic religion. Islam is fundamentally different, which is why the pressure for introducing Sharia law in countries with substantial minority or dominant muslim populations. Indeed, that is what seems to have provoked the periodic inter-communal massacres in Nigeria and Indonesia in recent years.

    While true that the medieval Christian church had theocratic ambitions, Europe went through a painful Reformation from the 16th through the 18th centuries and beyond. In Italy, it took Mussolini to curb the pervasive influence of the Vatican.

    “I don’t think Islam’s embrace of politics is necessarily a bad thing.”

    Personal values should, of course, inform political decisions but integrating politics and religion inevitably leads some to claim divinely inspired imperatives for their particular politics and that, equally inevitably, leads to a powerful reaction. We had a thirty years war in Europe between states where ruling monarchies in each were intent on saving neighbouring states from eternal damnation because they subscribed to the wrong brand of Christianity. That ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which established the working principle in international affairs of non-interference in the internal affairs of internationally recognised states. Unwinding that is a sure recipe for trouble, which is one reason why some, like myself, are so resistant to including a Christian commitment in any future EU Constitution.

  34. Scott,

    You may be right that a ban wouldn’t help. But there are people who think it might – ‘Ni Putes ni Soumises’ for example. (Actually I think they think it would, rather than that it might.) Of course it’s always hard to be sure how such things work out in practice, whether helps outnumber harms, etc. But I don’t think the ban can be entirely irrelevant to peer pressure to wear the hijab, and attitudes to girls who don’t wear it.

  35. Ophelia,

    You and I see this very differently even if we arrive at the same destination – or almost. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that but it could be worth exploring.

    As I understand it, you see an official ban on wearing the hijab in schools as a way of protecting muslim girls from improper group or family pressures to conform with a dress code the girls may not want to adher to. The problem I have with that is the state is thereby claiming to know what it is that muslim girls in France really wish to do and I want to know on what basis the state is placed to know that.

    My starting point is different. The wearing of hijabs is manifestly not the norm in France and, by accounts, many French people are disturbed by it, though for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, perhaps because I’m not steeped in French history and the nuanced ways of the French people. Whatever their reasons, they are entitled to a view and I don’t believe that I’m placed to tell them that they are wrong-headed about this. After all, France is their country, not mine and we Brits have often made issue in the EU of the principle of “subsidiarity” or the right of EU national governments to retain their autonomy except for matters which significantly affect the well-being of other EU member states. I don’t think we can claim hijab wearing comes into that elevated category so the French ought to be allowed to make their own decisions about this without being harried by rank outsiders.

    What I’d conjecture is that many or most of the French regard the hijab as a potential threat, perhaps because it might become a symbol of Islamic radicalism with the goal of semi-autonomous neighbourhoods subject to Sharia law, and they see intrusion of hijabs into school life as a disruptive influence with unforeseeable downstream consequences for their traditions of universality and secularism in state affairs. Given France’s long and bloody history of religious conflicts, I can understand that. Since I doubt most of us here are aware of the political chemistry in and around localities in France where many muslims live, it seems to me presumptious for us to tell them what they must decide. Whichever way, they will have to live with the consequences.

  36. How about the hijab as protection? To all who have mentioned Ni Putes Ni Soumises, you are probably aware of the kind of violence and criminal (versus merely cultural) oppression of women that goes on in the banlieues of Paris, for example. If a woman risks being persistently harassed, sexually assaulted, or, as in the case of Sohane Benziane, burned alive by her own male peers for being a ‘whore’ (or just a girl not wearing hijab, meaning, clearly, a “bad” girl), and the authorities (i.e. the French cops) aren’t doing enough to protect their own citizens, wouldn’t it be wise to allow (encourage, even) the headscarf everywhere, so women can be protected by it?
    Also, I agree with Scott on the issue of effectively, sincerely, publicly promoting Womens’ Rights. A little marketing research, and voila, reach your target audience! Where are the hotlines, the safehouses for battered muslim women, the TV ads on their rights and on definitions of abuse? Where are the improved housing conditions, the chance of a career, a future, the motivation to get out? Oh, apropos, read Samira Bellil’s “Dans l’enfer des tournantes” if you haven’t — she’s a survivor….

  37. Yes, I want to read Samira Bellil’s book. I have read a few articles about her. But she supports the ban, rather than a campaign to encourage girls to wear the hijab…

    Bob, well, there are a lot of factors. That is one way I see the ban, but it’s only one. One reason I mention it is because a lot of non-French opponents of the ban talk as if opposition to it is universal among Muslims and people of Muslim background and that therefore the ban is entirely an act of oppression or racial discrimination. But it’s not that simple.

  38. Up above, someone wrote “Men in some places do beat up women for not wearing the hijab or the chador or the burqa.”

    So why doesn’t the government prosecute such attackers, instead? How will banning these articles of clothing help the potential victims of such attacks? I suppose if fewer women wear them, the attackers have more victims to choose from, lowering the odds that any one woman or girl will get attacked, but that seems like an awfully inefficient way to reduce the occurance of such attacks.

    If the goal is to help girls whose families won’t let them out of the house uncovered, won’t this law just make it harder for the girls to get out at all? If you want to assimilate these girls, it seems to me that the first step should be to get them out of the house, away from the influence of their families. Make it *easier* for them to come into contact with non-Muslims, not harder.

    I don’t see how using government authority to further polarize the situation can be assumed to improve it.

    I like belle noiseuse NY’s idea about the hijab as protection. Maybe what these girls need is *more* anonymity, not less, so they can experiment with assimilation without their family’s knowledge. Here’s an idea: someone needs to start a fashion trend for hijabs among non-Muslim youth. That way, young Muslim women can mingle with their peers undetected by their families! It robs the clothing of its power as a political symbol if everyone else is wearing it too.

  39. Jeremy, Chirac has been criticised for pandenderin to extreme right parties for such mesures, you outdo him: you pander to ultra-fanatical islamicists. The “veil” is not so much a symbol as much as a tool. It is physical coertion.

    As to the law being against aggression, it is. But in the USA most rapes go unpunished even if a claim is done at the police. I do not think that it is much better anywhere else, so if tghe aggression is of a lower degree, and mostly done by under-age minors, then the law is irrelevant, unless any 12 years old boy that say bitch to a girl should be sent to prison for a few years on a simple claim.


  40. re: the side comment that Muslim men ‘marry out’ at twice the rate as do Muslim women — brave, and possibly secular women! Women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men while Muslim men are free to marry women from any religious tradition.
    Interested to see how many people react on a gut level to this preceived attack on religious freedom — corespondence that is being conducted in English. Those dicsussing the issue in French start out with a whole set of different assumptions because the humanistic secular and universal ideas of the French culture have become imbedded in the language itself. It is no surprise therefore that the headscarf issue has risen in France, in Belgium and in Quebec. And maybe a little cultural sensitivity should be slung in the French direction. Our English assumptions around free speech,freedom of religious expression and individual over collective rights are just swell for us but good golly – could there be another way to look at things? Is it possible that the French struggling somewhat incoherently to explain this puzzling distaste for Islamic headgear may just have a point?
    Joanne Murray

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