02/02/2004, 00.00
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Headscarf: symbol of religious freedom or Islamic colonization?

by p. Samir Khalil Samir SJ
Tomorrow in France discussion and voting gets underway concerning the law which would ban the Islamic veil, or headscarf, in schools. French bishops have already noticed that the law risks becoming a statement of "secularism" against religious expression (it prohibits not only headscarves, but also crosses, kippahs and turbans). The February issue of the monthly magazine, "Mondo e Mission", offers the opinion of a Jesuit priest, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir. According to Fr. Samir, a well respected Islamic studies scholar, the battle over the headscarf is part of an "Islamicist" plan that risks crumbling Europe's socio-political identity. Below we report Fr. Samir's analysis.

September 1989. At Gabriel Havez à Creil (Oise) school, three 14 year-old girls (Samira, Leila and Fatimah) arrived wearing their hijiâb (veil or headscarf). The school's principle tried to convince them to take it off. But there is nothing left to do: automatic expulsion. And in the name of school secularity, the "veil controversy" begins.    

During that year France was celebrating the French Revolution's bicentennial anniversary (1789). Lionel Jospin, the then minister of education, had no opinion on the matter. The State Council allowed headmasters to decide the issue for themselves, case by case, but did not consider the girls' attitude to be incompatible with secularity, as long as it was not used as a form of proselytism.  In 1994, the Bayrou newsletter considered "signs of religious ostentation" to be elements of proselytism. Then cases multiplied all over France, supported by Islamic associations. Numerous legal proceedings ensued.     

October 2003. In Aubervilliers, a Paris neighborhood made up of 75% immigrants, two sisters (Alma and Lila Lévy) were kicked out of school for having refused to take off their hijiâb (not a simple foulard). Their father said he's an atheist Jew, while their Algerian mother, who doesn't live with them, is a baptized woman, but doesn't believe in her faith. On Oct. 14 in Thann (Haut-Rhin) a 12 year-old girl was expelled from school, merely because she had refused to take of her hijiâb.     

During the last 14 years Islamic claims in France have increased exponentially. Now "Islamic food" is demanded in schools, hospitals, prisons and the army. It is becoming an everyday issue in cafeterias. The "Islamic veil" is propagating in an often aggressive way. Sometimes it is imposed on adolescents by group pressure both within and outside families.   

In hospitals husbands and fathers attempt to have their wives and daughters cared for only by female doctors and nurses. Days off school are increasing due to religious reasons. There are growing requests to suspend exams and lessons for prayer and fasting. Girls refuse to go to physical education classes and some biology and science courses, and even refuse to take an exam before a male teacher. Some towns, at the request of Muslims, have set special "women-only" hours at swimming pools. Muslim prayer rooms and centers (but not chapels for Christians) are becoming more common in factories and elsewhere.  

In the face of this situation and numerous debates concerning the matter, the president of the Republic gave Bernard Stasi the responsibility of acting as the "Republic's mediator". Stasi, the son of Italo-Mexican immigrants, since 1998 has been in charge of the state commission on secularity, set up with a group of 20 intellectuals.

After 5 months of intense work, having listened to for hours on end each of the 120 representatives from all categories, and examining 2000 letters, the commission reported the situation as such: "The reality we discovered is more serious that what we expected: the Republic's unity is in danger." And what's more: "We think that today the issue is no longer one of freedom of conscience, but of public order. The context has changed over the past few years. Tension and clashes over the issue have become all too frequent in schools."

Hence the commission came to the conclusion that any "ostentatious" religious or political symbol (e.g. headscarf, kippah, or cross) must be prohibited in schools. On Dec. 17 President Jacques Chirac announced his intention of enacting such legislation before summer 2004.    

Many people in France and especially outside France think the decision is exaggerated, stating that it is not respectful of freedom of conscience and religion. French bishops have opposed such legislation (perhaps because they fear that it will have an ill-effect upon state-recognized Catholic schools).   

In reality, for those who are familiar with the Muslim world and its facets, today's problem is not freedom of conscience. It is a socio-political problem. What kind of society is being sought after? There is an "Islamicist" plan underway, which aims at visibly affirming Islamic life as different in all aspects, but at the same time it is perfectly legitimate in Europe since the latter is not opposed to the human rights. Whoever is opposed to this plan is intolerant and racist, as he does not respect the religions convictions of Muslims.   

And therein lays the ambiguity. The plan implies the fact that a nation is one community living among other communities, each with its own set of rules and customs. If the plan is valid for spiritual realms (indeed it is the basis for ecumenicalism), it does not seem possible that it be carried out in socio-political realms. It is, at any rate, a position contrary to the tradition of France, which has always insisted on integration, not juxtaposition.     

Behind the headscarf issue, the question of integration of immigrants looms into view, and in a final analysis, that model of society which Europe sets for itself. The headscarf is a symbol of separatist desires. Hence, it seems useful to pass a law helping Muslims to not bolster this attitude.  
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