A French lesson for Muslims

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The Independent Online
IN NOVEMBER the French authorities changed course over the treatment of cultural minorities. Up to then, official policy had been similar, outwardly at least, to that generally prevailing in Britain and the United States. For at least four years, tolerance of cultural diversity was not merely encouraged, but officially presented as a demonstration of Western values in action. But the French are beginning to set limits to this. In Paris, multiculturalism has gone out of fashion.

Four schoolgirls were suspended last month from a state school at Nantua for having presented themselves for class wearing headscarves, thus obeying the orders of their parents against those of the principal. Formally, the school's decision is based on the old laic tradition - a heritage from the French Revolution - that no religious expression of any kind is permitted in French public schools. The headscarf is seen as the Muslim equivalent of wearing a visible Catholic symbol (a crucifix on a chain, as it might be), which has always been banned in this particular context. Thus the authorities can claim, not unreasonably, that the headscarf ban involves no specific discrimination against Islam, merely an assertion of the principle that the French state is a secular one, and therefore its schools must be strictly secular.

The trouble with this, at the present stage, is that the principle - though never, I should think, relaxed where Christian symbols are concerned - has not generally been applied to the dress of Muslim children for more than four years now. The Government allowed principals to set their own rules and most chose to let secularism go by the board rather than risk confrontation with Muslim parents.

In some newspapers this international story has been accompanied by an emotive photograph. Two girls, looking about 14 and wearing the now- prohibited headgear, are shown hurrying away from a school playground; they are being watched by two teenagers, of European appearance and dress, with not particularly friendly expressions. Others are playing, and paying no particular attention.

That picture carries extremely painful associations: of racial and religious persecution, of official condonation of the same, and of collusion on the part of the general public. One thinks involuntarily of photographs of 60 years ago showing Jewish children wearing the Star of David.

Like so many other analogies, this one is strongly suggestive, up to a certain point. The common feature is the association of distinctive garb with ostracism, and with the pain that that implies. Yet the circumstances that gave rise to the wearing of the distinctive garb are widely different. In the Jewish case, the distinctive garb was imposed by the state alone, as a preliminary and prerequisite for a programme of persecution which was to culminate in the Holocaust. In the case of the Muslims of France, the distinctive garb was voluntarily assumed, and implied a rejection of the secular state in favour of a theocratic system laid down in a Holy Book. The modern French state did not impose, but now prohibits, the wearing of this distinctive garb.

The wearing of the Star of David was imposed by decision of a hostile state. The wearing of the headscarf by children attending secular schools is imposed by the families of the children, in practice primarily by their fathers. The girls suspended from school for wearing the headscarf are victims, not of a persecuting state, but of a Kulturkampf, pitting Muslim families and the Muslim community against the secular state.

The wearing of the headscarf can be seen as a symbol of Islamic self-respect. It can also be seen as a symbol of the subjugation of women to patriarchal values, and their exclusion from the benefits of a secular value-system increasingly orientated towards gender equality. For some at least of the girls concerned, that headscarf must be a symbol not of collective self-respect but of cultural imprisonment: a psychological Shirt of Nessus.

Islam, more than other religions, is triumphalist, not merely sub specie aeternitatis, but here below. This is not, as is often suggested, the advent of something new: Islamic fundamentalism. It is part of the nature of Islam itself, except in contexts where its teachers have been prepared to compromise with the West. A youth brought up on the Koran will be conditioned, by the literal meaning of what he reads, to despise unbelievers, and will expect their undoing to be imminent.

Other forms of revelation also encourage such attitudes, but not as starkly, unremittingly and undeviatingly as with the Koran. There is nothing here equivalent to the Christian 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's'. An unbelieving Caesar, such as any Western government, simply has no entitlements, in this world or the next.

Of its nature, therefore, Islam poses a challenge to post-Enlightenment society and its outgrowth, the secular state. The French are meeting that challenge in a more forthright way than either the Americans or the British have yet done. A local Turkish imam, Husseyin Konos, urging defiance of the French ban on headscarves, proclaimed the principle: 'Allah's law takes precedence over French law.' The French government promptly deported the imam. It also placed Moulay Hassan, an Islamic adviser to the parents of the suspended girls, under house arrest. The French government thereby clearly committed itself to the principle that French law, within the jurisdiction of the French Republic, takes precedence over Allah's law.

I believe that message to be a salutary one, not merely to Western society, but also to Muslims who have chosen to live within Western jurisdictions. And especially to Muslim women.

Neither the British nor the American authorities have yet adopted as clear- cut a position as the French authorities now have. It is true that both John Major and Bill Clinton, by receiving Salman Rushdie, have implicitly challenged the applicability of 'Allah's law' (at least as laid down in Tehran) to British and American society. Yet, in Britain at least, those who uphold the infliction of the death penalty on British subjects for blasphemy against Islam can still do so with impunity. These particular matters are better ordered, in my opinion, in France.

(Photograph omitted)