Tens of thousands of French Muslims took to the streets of Paris, Marseilles, Lille and other French towns and cities on January 17 to express their anger at the government’s proposal to ban hijab from public schools. The protests were supported by demonstrations in London and other cities around the world. The strength of Muslim anger in France, led and dominated by the women whom the French liberals claim to be trying to liberate, has shaken the country’s establishment; politicians and commentators admit that the move has gone too far and may cause irreparable damage to the French government’s efforts to neutralise and integrate the country’s Muslim population.
Senior government and ruling party figures, however, have remained steadfast in their support for the bill, with president Jacques Chirac determined to go ahead in order to appease the massive anti-Muslim opinion in France before the country’s elections. The draft bill is due to discussed in parliament later this month. The increasing confusion surrounding the issue was demonstrated last month when Luc Ferry, the education minister, who had drafted the bill, tried to explain what the bill means in parliament, and indicated both that beards could possibly be targeted, and that the scope of the bill could be expanded in future to bring in additional "ostentatious signs of religiosity". Although it is generally acknowledged that the proposed legislation is aimed primarily at Muslims, Christians, Jews and Sikhs will also be adversely affected, and have protested against it.
Officially, the proposed legislation does not target the Muslim headscarf, but concerns all "ostentatious" signs of religiosity, including the Jewish skull cap and a "too large" cross. However, the fierce debates about it have referred exclusively to Islam, and have been dominated by official and unofficial reasons for the need to legislate, totally ignoring the issue of Muslim women’s desire to be modest and decent according to the Islamic definitions of these qualities. The point is, it has been argued, to promote equality and inclusion among pupils from a variety of backgrounds. However, MPs, politicians, some notorious ‘intellectuals’ and most journalists have always focused the debates solely on the hijab, and presented a double argument against it: on the one hand it is seen ideologically as a threat to France’s secularism; on the other, it is claimed again and again that it is a sign of women’s subjugation.
This orientation of the debate about hijab has been well orchestrated, almost invariably by the media. Notorious ‘intellectuals’ start the debates to show that the headscarf is a major problem, and that there is a strong drive in society and among intellectuals and politicians for an anti-scarf law. Almost invariably there is one committed Muslim woman or man against four or five very articulate people arguing against the scarf and for a law to ban it. Among the latter are one ex-mahjuba who has discarded her hijab and written a book about it, and a few notorious anti-Muslims, some of them Algerians, all of whom are given almost all of the air-time available for the debate. The Muslim element is rarely allowed to speak, and is usually interrupted almost immediately either by the programme presenter or by the hostile participants or audience, especially if he or she is producing an argument that obviously makes good sense. The other side argues and accuses emphatically at will, secure in the knowledge that its opponents will not get a reasonable opportunity to answer.
The conditioning of French public opinion is orchestrated in such way that most serious French intellectuals are kept out of the limelight. Yet some of these do manage to get their views known, if only briefly. Among these is politics lecturer and philosopher Elisabeth Sledziewski, who has praised Muslim girls for having put in such a state an establishment "well used to images most degrading to femininity, …well used to humiliating postures, to pairs of lips, of bosoms, of buttocks of visible women, ostensible and ostentatious, which universally summon the consumer-citizen."
The issue of Muslim girls’ headscarves initially emerged in 1989, when an over-zealous secondary school headmaster decided that Muslim girls would not be allowed into his school wearing headscarves. In the ensuing debate, the Conseil d’État ruled in favour of Muslim girls wearing scarves. Since then bouts of anti-veil hysteria have occurred now and then, carefully maintained by certain pressure groups and interested parties, and exacerbated by the notoriously anti-Islamic French media.
The Muslim scarf issue flared up again last May, when French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy declared, out of the blue, at a Muslim students’ conference, that he was thinking about banning headscarves on identity-card photographs. He then shifted the debate to a ban on the headscarf in state schools. President Chirac decided in July to set up the Commission of the Wise on Laicité, headed by MP Bernard Stazi, to report on the issue.
After the findings of the Stazi commission, President Chirac, a former lieutenant in the French colonial army in Algeria in the 1950s, eventually decided on December 16, 2003, that legislation was necessary to ban "ostensible" religious signs in state schools from the next school year. Such legislation would also enforce mixing of the sexes even in the gym, and would force Muslim women not only to accept being examined by male doctors in hospitals but also to remove their headscarves in clinics and hospitals.
French Muslims’ reactions to the scarf issue started with Sarkozy’s initial move and snowballed thereafter. The main Muslim bodies in France include Tariq Ramadan’s organisation of mainly young Muslims, the Union of the Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF); the Muslim Party of France (PMF); and the the widely publicised, yet largely symbolic and rather rubber-stamp French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFEM), set up by the initiative of, and is under the aegis of, interior minister Sarkozy, and headed by Dalil Boubakeur, the Rector of the Central Mosque in Paris.
Tariq Ramadan has made a good impression among young Muslims. This has attracted media attacks, local authorities’ embargoes and pro-Zionist attempts to ban his participation in the European Social Forum last November. The UOIF has been active in the scarf debate, and organized the demonstration on December 21 in reaction to president Chirac’s speech on the anti-scarf legislation. M. Latrèche, leader of the PMF, has been outspoken against the anti-hijab law and against Zionist lobbies in the French establishment, which he has accused of being behind the anti-Muslim campaign. It was the PMF which called for demonstrations on January 17, resulting in the French media redoubling their attacks on him. Jewish institutions in France announced on January 23 that they would start legal proceedings against Latreche for "anti-Zionist and anti-semitic" statements, and called on the authorities to dissolve his party. The CFEM, in contrast, has been totally unable to take a firm stand on the proposed legislation. Dalil Boubakeur’s call for Muslims not to react against Chirac’s announcement of legislation was widely attacked, and the issue may prove to be the death of its efforts to impose government-backed leadership on French Muslims.
Apart from Iran, Muslim governments have also kept silent on the issue. The main argument in the Arab world is focused on Sheikh al-Azhar Dr Tantawi’s move to give the French the ‘Islamic alibi’ they desperately need from a high Islamic authority. In a press conference held jointly with French interior minister Sarkozy on December 30, Sheikh Tantawi repeated emphatically that the French were right to legislate on this matter in this manner within their own country. This public statement followed an earlier communiqué by his office, which said that the scarf issue in France was an internal matter. Even before Tantawi left the press conference hall, other al-Azhar scholars strongly and publicly expressed their disapproval of his statement; soon they were followed by other ulama. Most outspoken of these was Sheikh Fadlallah of Lebanon, who said in his jum’ah khutbah on January 2 that Tantawi had added to the problems of Muslims, and that his stand was typical of "court ulama". He demanded that Tantawi apologize to the world’s Muslims, pointing out that his opinion will be a green light for other western countries to follow France’s example.
The increasing stigmatization of the Muslim community in France will be the first result. Interestingly enough, three out of four French teachers’ unions have warned about the adverse effects of a law that would discriminate against Muslims, but their voices are rarely heard on the various TV programmes. These programmes strive to lead viewers to think that most teachers support legislating against hijab.
By forcing the Muslims to integrate or withdraw, the French authorities are gambling with the future of their society. Many girls will find themselves forced to adapt to the new requirements. Other families will withdraw their daughters from schools. This will not serve equality of the sexes, or any other sort of real equality. Unlike the Jews and the Christians, Muslims do not have their own schools; nor are they allowed to obtain funding from outside France to build them. All this is likely to bring about a vicious circle of revolt followed by repression and renewed malicious propaganda against Muslims, who will be depicted as willing to impose their laws on France and French society. This will lead to increased conditioning of an already well-conditioned French opinion against Islam and Muslims. Consequently, more attacks against Muslim symbols and lynching of individuals will take place. The National Front’s membership will increase, and will shout more loudly for the ‘repatriation’ of Muslims to "their countries of origin". There will also be increased discrimination against Muslims in employment and other spheres.
Moreover, no sooner had the Commission on Laïcité submitted its report than voices started rising to suggest similar legislative moves with regard to public services, enterprises and the universities. While the debate continued, a bank in Paris refused entry to a Muslim customer who was wearing a scarf. The headmaster of a secondary school refused to allow to six Muslim mothers in hijab to enter a parents’ debate on the impending legislation. Lyon University and Paris town hall have prevented Tariq Ramadan from giving talks on this issue.
Officially, state schools instil into the pupils the republican values of secularity and equality for all pupils, while religion is considered a private domain not represented at school. In reality the Muslim scarf, at school especially, is visible evidence of an increasing Islamic revival in French society, despite efforts in the last four decades to brainwash immigrants’ children through the educational system, which is considered a failure of ‘integration’ (in the French sense of complete loss of Islamic ethos and faith). This has alarmed mainstream France, which has attempted to dominate Islam abroad for many centuries. It also explains the panic and confusion surrounding the proposed legislation against the scarf at school, and by extension, in all walks of public activity.
Since the first scarf issue in 1989, cases have been reported of Muslim women with hijab who have been expelled discreetly from their professional positions. At least one French Muslim has had the comment "fervent Muslim" stamped on her identity card; two years ago another French convert reported that she had to fill a long form at the Paris railway station Gard du Nord after the passport policeman had made sure that she was wearing the scarf because she is Muslim.
Despite all official statements to the contrary, there is no doubt that enmity of and hatred for Islam is at the heart of France’s attitude. A longstanding, notoriously negative French orientalism that made its way into the French educational system, the anti-Arab/anti-Islamic official French rhetoric during the Algerian war of liberation, and the loss of several hundred thousand French soldiers in that war, are all factors that have fashioned French society’s prevailing negative views of Islam and Muslims.
French colonial policy in Algeria also offers a striking parallel to what is now happening to Muslims in France. In the 1940s and 1950s, France made a long-term plan to unveil Algerian women in order to tame Muslim men. Franz Fanon, French psychiatrist and theoretician of the Algerian war of liberation, explained in his less well-known Sociology of a Revolution (1959, 1968, editions Maspéro) that the French administration defined a "precise political doctrine" whereby "If we want to hit hard Algerian society in its very fabric, in its faculties of resistance, we must first conquer its women; we must fetch them [from] behind the veil where they hide…" Fanon then comments: "To convert the [Algerian] woman, to win her over to alien values…means at the same time to wield an actual power over [the Algerian] man and obtain the efficient, practical means to ‘destruct’ Algerian culture." He also quotes the significant, still relevant colonial administration’s bitter statement that: "‘We strive in vain’ as long as ‘Islam holds its prey’." The prey, of course, are Muslim women.
Thirty years after Algeria’s independence, the French managed to foster a coup in 1992 against FIS, a new Islamic party that was close to winning the general election and coming to power by the popular will. Since then France has supported pro-French generals in their attempts to stifle their people’s Islamic aspirations, with the result that more than half a million people have been massacred in Algeria since 1992. The reason given is that "We do not want an Islamic republic at our door gates." The French authorities’ persecution of North Africans in the eighties and nineties on French, Belgian, Swiss, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish soil is well documented. The main reason for France’s hostility to these activists is that they oppose anti-Islamic, westernizing dictatorships in their countries.
Clearly Islam still is the target of France’s domestic and foreign policies. Such inimical policies have continued to this day. But, as French radio and television reports had it on January 23, France is still undecided about how to implement its anti-hijab legislation. Dominique de Villepin, France’s foreign minister, warned the French parliament on January 23 against an anti-hijab law that would backfire, pointing out that France’s attitude is unpopular in the Gulf and Egypt. Signs in the French parliament are, therefore, that even slight pressure from Muslim countries could well carry weight. But the level of complicity of Muslim governments with the West is high, and for the time being French Muslims will have to fight, probably alone, from within the country.