New York Times,
December 20, 2003
Head scarf debate : Lifting the veil in
By Marwan Bishara
In a landmark speech on secularism, President Jacques Chirac has called for a
ban on "conspicuous" religious signs in schools, thus putting the country's five million
Muslim citizens, the largest such community Europe, on notice.
Behind the president's discourse on republican values lies an embattled republic, one that
is internationally defensive about its "exception culturelle" and domestically aggressive
about the "cultural exception" asserted by a small fraction of its society. The hoopla is
motivated not by Jewish skullcaps or large Christian crosses, but by a couple of thousand
teenage Muslim pupils wearing head scarves to public school. (This in a fashion-
conscious nation with more names and uses for a woman's scarf than any other.)
The French government's move is meant to curb the influence of Islamic fundamentalists
and to block what the government perceives as their attempt to undermine the country's
secular system through the provocative use of religious symbols in the sanctuaries of the
republic — the schools.
As usual when dealing with a potential problem, France will slap this one with a new law,
extra bureaucracy and the gendarmerie to enforce it.
But such a move could backfire because, in the words of the French daily Le Monde, it
will render secularism "cold, closed and defensive," and exclude a large segment of the
citizens the state needs to integrate. Eventually, it could popularize those extremist
elements the government wants to contain. Religious leaders consider such a ban to be
divisive, Muslim moderates see it as a repressive measure against cultural expression, and
some liberal groups find it intrusive interference in individual choice and personal
The same girls who are coerced by men to put on the veil in public will now be forced by
other men to take it off in the public schools. Hurrah for liberté, fraternité and egalité —
and laïcité! Those pillars, the great founts of French democracy, are best upheld when
they are inspired by good governance, not coercion. That's why France, as Chirac wisely
said, must urgently reverse its social and economic discrimination against millions of
French Muslims as a way of integrating them into a state of all its citizens.
France needs to address the culture of despair that is infecting its urban areas — the
infamous "banlieue" mentality that has grown out of the decay of the belts of poverty