For several weeks, I have watched opposition build to a proposal by the French government to ban the wearing of hijab, the headscarf adopted by some Muslim girls, in state schools. President Chirac is refusing to back down in the face of demonstrations, and now his education minister, Luc Ferry, has suggested the ban might be extended to beards and bandannas. This is entirely consistent, for the proposal is intended to outlaw all prominent religious symbols even if, as one commentator pointed out, beards are not a big issue in primary schools.
Unease about the proposed ban extends beyond the Muslim community in France. In this country, people have expressed astonishment at the inflexibility of the French government, with some liberal commentators suggesting that their own dislike of the veil has to be put aside in favour of respecting individual preference. This is a benign version of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations" thesis, which divides the world into two camps, Western and Islamic, and assumes that their values are different, if not mutually hostile. Yet some of the most impassioned denunciations of the veil come from women in Muslim countries, some of whom go as far as describing women who wear hijab as brain-washed.
There is not even any agreement as to whether covering the hair is a religious or cultural prescription. It is imposed on reluctant women in Saudi Arabia by clerics like Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, who at a conference in Jedda last week denounced a leading businesswoman after she called for more freedom for women. He inveighed against "the mixing of men and women and the latter's appearance without wearing the Islamic hijab ordered by God", even though newspaper photographs - also denounced as an offence against Sharia - show Lubna al-Olayan with most of her head covered. For the cultural relativists among us, the Saudi authorities are not noticeably sympathetic to foreign visitors who reject the veil as a manifestation of shame culture: so much for respecting other people's values.
In a sense, though, debates about the veil miss the point of what is happening in France. Chirac's tough stance has come about because his Government sees demands that Muslim girls be allowed to wear hijab in state schools as a calculated challenge to laïcité - the principle, supported by most of the population, that religion should be kept out of public life.
It is a debate Britain cannot afford to be complacent about. We will struggle to defend secularism for as long as the Government refuses to dismantle the established church, blasphemy laws and state-funded Christian (and now Muslim) schools.
Even so, secularism has to be defended because the alternative is so dire. The Archbishop of Canterbury has already jumped on the bandwagon, making belligerent speeches about the time being ripe to push back secular values. I hope he realises that what the Islamists are proposing in Europe, like fundamentalist Christians in the US, is a different relationship between the state and the individual, in which the Enlightenment principle of universal human rights is abandoned. He should acknowledge the likely result: a struggle between militant forms of different religions over the final say on sexual relationships, crime and punishment, education and foreign policy.
It is a large project to hang on an issue like the right of Muslim girls to wear the headscarf in school. But that is, I suspect, exactly why it has been chosen. The children are pawns in a larger battle, and who can say that girls of eight or nine are able to make an informed choice about wearing the veil? Let's not forget last year's courageous march through Paris by young women from Muslim families who declared themselves "ni putes, ni soumises" - neither whores nor subservient to male relatives who try to enforce rigid codes of dress and behaviour. It is that unpleasant choice, between the racism of the wider culture and patriarchal attitudes at home, that is the most pressing issue for girls from Muslim backgrounds in Europe. Arguments about hijab in French schools are a distraction from that reality, as well as an assault on secular values.
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