Opinion Editorials, February 2004, www.aljazeerah.info
The French Ban on Islamic Headscarf, an Interview with Hassan El-Najjar
By Paula Montebruno
Al-Jazeerah & Qué Pasa's weekly Chilean magazine
Feb 24, 2004
Question 1: The press says that racism has been increasing in France since 2000. What can you tell us about this?
Answer1: Yes, there has been a rise in racism since the previous elections, when Le Pin and his National Front right-wing party won a considerable number of seats. Ever since the right of the center de Gallists, headed by Jacques Chirac, have been trying to combat the influence of Le Pin by appealing to the fears of the right-wing French citizens. These fears are not unique to France. They exist in recipient societies whenever immigrants or minority groups acquire a visible presence. In France, there are about five million Muslims, many of whom came originally from north Africa during the colonial era. These fears are unfounded and baseless simply because most of these Muslims are French citizens who do not know any other country than France. But it is a regrettable case of xenophobia towards immigrants and ethnophobia towards fellow French who have a north African origin.
Question 2: Why did the Chirac government propose this law? What are the real intentions behind this initiative?
Answer 2: The official explanation of banning the Islamic headscarves in French public schools and government facilities is upholding the secular nature of the French state, a tradition that goes back to a 1905 legislation, but it even goes back in history to the French revolution. Basically, they want to keep the state separated from any established religion, in order to eliminate the influence of religion and religious leaders on people's life. The law prohibits Muslims, Christians, and Jews from wearing headscarves, large crosses, or skullcaps. So, in the surface, it seems as if it is not discriminatory among followers of various religions.
However, the real reason behind the ban is competing with the extreme right-wing groups for votes. It is so sad that the French ruling party is using the same racist tactics to gain more support and consequently increasing racism in society. Another reason that made this anti-Islamic law possible is the overall aggressive attitude of Western governments towards Islam and Muslims in the world.
Question 3: President Jacques Chirac said that this law is meant to protect the country's strictly secular state from the perceived threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Do you think this is a sustainable argument?
Answer 3: No, I don't. Actually, it has violated the spirit of the French state secularism. It's a blunt governmental intervention in the right of individuals to express themselves freely. Further, it's targeting Muslim women, in particular. A devoted Muslim woman is instructed by God to dress decently, including covering the head, just like the case with Catholic nuns.
The headscarf is not a sign of Islamic fundamentalism. Throughout the Muslim World, average Muslim women cover their heads. This ban is an encroachment on the rights of Muslim women alone. Muslim men, for example, are instructed to grow beards. The law did not include that. Why? Because, some Christians and Jews also grow beards.
Finally, the law is discriminatory against Muslims only. Christians are not required by their faith to wear crosses. Jews are also not required to wear the Star of David. To say the ban includes these Christian and Jewish symbols, too, is misleading.
Question 4: Do you think that this law could generate a strong debate in France that could be expanded to other European countries with significant Muslim populations?
Answer 4: Actually, the debate has already expanded to Germany, which has a considerable number of Muslims. Most of these Muslims came originally from Turkey, at the end of World War II, when they were most needed for reconstruction that followed the war. Some German provinces are already debating imposing such restrictions on Muslims. The debate reached an extent that the German President interfered in defense of Muslim women's right to wear headscarves, as a personal freedom. The President's position provoked angry reactions from German right-wing groups. So, we may be seeing the first stage of compulsory assimilation of Muslims in European societies, which is tantamount to religious persecution. It happened before in Europe after the collapse of the Arab Muslim state in Andalusia, Arab Spain, in 1492. Muslims who remained there were forced to convert to Christianity in the first stage. Then, may Muslim men were sent to Central and South America to serve in the New World Spanish colonies.
Question 5: Sociologists said that instead of fighting against Islamic extremism, this law might encourage it. Do you agree with this statement?
Answer 5: Yes, I do. The law is an assault on Islam and Muslims. Muslims all over the world, including in France, protested it as a religious persecution. Most French Muslim women may be coerced to observe it in schools and government facilities. However, many of them may wear it more in public than ever before, as a reaction. Moreover, some Muslims may take their daughters out of public schools and send them to Muslim private schools. If this happens, it will represent a counterpunch to French secularism.
Question 6: Do you think that this law is a denial of personal rights?
Answer 6: Yes, I do.
Question 7: Do you think that the Law banning Islamic headscarves hides the failure of the French Republic's integration policy?
Answer 7: Yes, I do. This French law is leading to the exclusion of at least some Muslims from the larger French society, instead of integrating them. Muslims generally will be more alienated. And if they open their own schools, they will be segregated from the larger French society. When people are challenged in their own core values and beliefs, they usually accept the challenge. In the final analysis, it is coercion, not integration.
Paula Montebruno is a journalist who works in the Chilean "Qué Pasa" weekly Magazine, published in Santiago, covering topics about the economy, politics, and bussiness.
Dr. Hassan El-Najjar is a sociologist and cultural anthropologist. He is also the Editor of www.aljazeerah.info .
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