Letter: Religious symbolism under attack on both sides of the Channel

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The Independent Online
Sir: Conor Cruise O'Brien's article on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in French state schools (10 December) is strewn with factual errors. It is entirely false to say that under French law 'no religious expression of any kind is permitted in French public schools'. More specifically, it is wildly untrue to say that the wearing of Catholic crucifixes 'has always been banned'. On the contrary, it is commonplacefor youngsters attending state schools to wear crucifixes, or, in the case of Jews, yarmulkas.

The law does ban acts of proselytism in state schools, and the current controversy hinges on the question of whether the wearing of an Islamic headscarf intrinsically constitutes such an act. In 1989, the Conseil d'Etat, France's highest administrative court, ruled that as a general principle this was not so. At the same time, it found that religious insignia could be banned by schools if they were used as propaganda.

Recent jurisprudence has confirmed that it is unlawful for schools to ban the headscarf per se, although they are entitled to prohibit its usage for the purpose of proselytism, and the present centre-right government has reminded schools of the need to conform with this ruling.

In Nantua (the town referred to by Dr O'Brien), one school has excluded four girls for wearing headscarves during lessons. This decision, which has not been followed by other schools, may well be challenged in the courts.

Dr O'Brien considers that 'Islam, more than any other religion, is triumphalist'. In this reading, Muslims are inherently intolerant, and, as such, constitute a threat to Western society. In reality, there are as many different versions of Islam (ranging from the confrontational to the conciliatory) as there are of Christianity or, for that matter, of Judaism.

There are many in France who favour banning Islamic headscarves from school while continuing to accept Catholic crucifixes and Jewish yarmulkas. They would do well to scrutinise their own double standards before accusing Muslims of intolerance.

Yours sincerely,

ALEC HARGREAVES

Department of European Studies

Loughborough University

Loughborough, Leicestershire

11 December

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