Bishara_HeadScarfDebate - New York Times, December 20, 2003...

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New York Times, December 20, 2003 Head scarf debate : Lifting the veil in France By Marwan Bishara PARIS— 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 expression. 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
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surrounding many of its cities. Sadly, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has only deployed more police to deal with these problems. The result — slightly less crime but much more tension and hostility. This is taking its toll on French Muslim women in more ways than one. The banlieue is witnessing an increasing number of attacks and rape by young Muslim men against unveiled teenage girls, who are seen as outside the community and hence permissible targets. The sense of being rejected among French Muslims is galvanizing a new "politics of
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Bishara_HeadScarfDebate - New York Times, December 20, 2003...

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