A fight over religious symbols
French target Muslims
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/09/04
LONDON -- In the town of High Wycombe, England, a church was prevented from advertising a Christmas carol service on the public library's bulletin board for fear it would offend.
And today in France, the National Assembly is expected to approve legislation that would outlaw "conspicuous" religious symbols from public classrooms, including Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and big Christian crosses.
Across Europe, governments are grappling with dramatic demographic changes that have the potential to transform their culture. More than 12 million Muslims live in Western Europe, and some cities are on track to be majority Muslim by 2020.
The challenge, sociologists and political experts agree, is to integrate Muslim residents into secular societies when their devout culture and tradition recognize no separation of religion and state.
The bill French legislators are expected to approve today has sparked widespread criticism from Muslims in France and abroad who deem it discriminatory and warn that it could encourage, rather than prevent, Islamic radicalism.
France has Western Europe's largest Muslim population — 5 million — and a rigidly secular constitution, making it a test case for the rest of the continent.
"Islam is becoming the second most significant religion on the continent and it's created some public anxiety among those who practice other faiths, and so that's why what's happening in France is of interest to so many people," said Simon Serfaty, a European affairs expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Surveys show most Muslims in France oppose the ban, while a majority of the French favor it. Muslims constitute about 8 percent of France's population of 60 million. After the vote in the National Assembly, the measure is scheduled to go to the Senate for consideration early next month.
Political scientist Farhad Khosrokhavar recently wrote in the French daily Le Monde that even though the ban is against all large religious symbols, it is clearly an attack on the head scarf and, therefore, on Islam. "The rest is trivia," he said.
Complicating matters is that many feminists view the traditional Islamic head scarf, or hijab, as a symbol of oppression. They say many Muslim women are forced by their families to cover up.
The French government, admittedly concerned about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, points out the bill also would ban such symbols as Jewish skullcaps and large crucifixes. It also has pledged to review the measure a year after it takes effect, which has done little to placate critics.
Hundreds of people, mostly women wearing veils, marched Saturday through central Paris to protest the ban.
Tensions have been brewing for years and were aggravated after two girls in Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb, were expelled from school last fall for wearing the full head scarf, covering their ears, neck and hairline.
That led President Jacques Chirac to push for the ban, saying it is needed to stave off danger to the country's secular foundations, which date to 1789.
In Britain, where there is no formal separation of church and state, Muslims have expressed outrage over the French proposal.
"Look at nuns. They've been wearing a habit for years. Should we stop that?" asked Safina Sarwar, chairwoman and founder of the Basildon Muslim Women's Group in England. "I'm not bothered if someone wears a cross. We respect all religions. Intelligent people don't worry about things like scarves. I don't think Britain would ever attempt a ban on scarves."
Yet Home Secretary David Blunkett plans to introduce citizenship tests — requiring a basic knowledge of English as well as British history — to immigrants seeking British passports.
In France, officials fear that Muslims aren't assimilating as well as they could and say that failure has created tensions heightened by worries about terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.
The attitudes of some Muslims toward Jews, who number about 700,000 in France, are also an issue. According to a European Commission report, France has experienced a steady rise in anti-Semitic intimidation and violence, much of it committed by Muslim youth.
Alain Juppe, head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, said the ties between religious fanaticism and political militancy make a ban on head scarves necessary.
"It's not about forbidding head scarves, only about establishing neutral and peaceful spaces where the conspicuous assertion of religious belonging can have no place," he said.
But Abeer Pharoan, president of the Muslim Women Society in Britain, said more segregation will result if the ban on head scarves is approved.
"I believe the proposed ban will push the Muslim community in France toward isolation because they will end up forming their own schools and attending them and they will be isolated from society," she said. "I believe what is needed is religious freedom."
In recent decades in Europe, some officials say, migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have seemed more eager to preserve their identities than to assimilate.
An intolerant Muslim cleric who rails against homosexuals isn't going to sit well with, say, the famously tolerant Dutch.
Many in France are disturbed by the open display of religious beliefs and worry that if the government allows head scarves today, then what's to stop Muslims from making other demands in the future?
Already there have been calls for new school holidays for Jews and Muslims — calls that have been rejected by the French government.
"France has a long history of separating religion from public life and the issue goes to the core of the nation's identity," Serfaty said.
— Correspondent Sarah Dalglish in Paris contributed to this article.
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