Diverging Views on Secularism within Muslim Communities

How does one live in our society if one is a believer and moreover, if one wishes to actively worship their religion? France has a complex stance regarding the relationship of the State and religious issues due to its long-lasting historical conflicts with established churches. Religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, as well as strong interference from the Catholic Church in French politics throughout the 19th century finally led to a total separation of Church and State in 1905. In practise, this means that the State does not show any preferences for a religion and does not concern itself with religious matters which consequently fall exclusively under the private sphere. Thus, there is no state “recognition” of religions even though the State is “aware” of the existence of different religious communities. The State, however, does help to regulate some religious issues through elected or appointed officials as the ‘French Council of the Muslim Cult’ (CFCM), which holds a degree of power.

Secularism (laïcité) represents one of the most important pillars of the French Republican model. Nevertheless, for many religious people secularism has a rather restrictive nature since it does not take into account one religious affiliation as a part of his or her identity. As the former President Chirac stated, the State “refuses to recognize community membership as a component of citizenship.”  Once sacred and untouchable, secularism seems to be challenged today more than ever by the growing number of Muslims in France: Islam’s all-encompassing nature and the fact that it actually overlaps the private sphere explains the phenomenon.  Indeed, for many believers, Islam is not just a belief but a way of life which can hardly be confined exclusively to the private sphere.

French schools have been the major battlefield for theses issues since the French Revolution. After being totally occupied by the Catholic Church, they became a place of religious neutrality. To preserve the neutrality of public schools which was challenged by members of various religious communities such as Sikhs, Muslims, Jews or Catholics, in July 2003 the then-President Chirac appointed a commission of nineteen experts headed by Bernard Stasi (called the Stasti Commmission) to research various questions related to secularism. The commission handed in an elaborate report containing 25 propositions. Only the proposition to ban conspicuous religious singing in schools was finally voted as a law in 2004. 

In order to evaluate the outcome of the law four years on, we decided to focus on a group which is affected by the law in the most direct way, Muslim girls who choose to wear a headscarf, whilst also giving voice to other religious communities and academics as well. However, as our research progressed we were confronted with several issues and interrogations: Are Islam’s values incompatible with the French concept of secularism? To what extent does the law stigmatize Muslims? How can one reconcile the public and the private spheres? Where does secularism end and discrimination start? What career opportunities are there for veiled women?  These are pretty much the issues around which the lives of the French Muslims have evolved since the law was passed. We tried to find our way through the cases instrumentalized by the media, people’s unfamiliarity with the law and biased testimonials, from which it was not possible to draw simply one clear and concise conclusion.  

Islam and Laicité: complete confusion of the terms

Secularism: a fuzzy concept which needs to be rigorously redefined

There is an ongoing debate on secularism and its impact on the religious freedoms of different religious communities since the law of the Separation of the Church and the State was passed in 1905. The new law forbidding conspicuous religious symbols in high schools stirred the debate again, since despite its generic nature, it singled out young Muslim girls as the most frequent victims of the new measures. In order to prevent victimization on the one hand and grievances of the Muslim community on the other, it seems essential to consider its exact nature and suggest a precise definition of it, indicating the consequences that follow. 

For Moustafa Traoré , a young French Muslim who obtained a Doctorate about the integration of the Muslim subculture in Great Britain and who is really active in several Muslim organizations, there is confusion between an “imposed laicité” which tends to establish by force a religious neutrality in our society and a “libertarian laicité” which proclaims the freedom of conscience and worship and is at the source of the clash between Muslim communities and French authorities.

Indeed, we can say that two different conceptions of secularism seem to coexist in France. For some, it is defined by the separation of Church and State regarding the law of 1905; for others, it lies in the state’s neutrality towards religions, which entails its respect for religious freedom.

Maurice Barbier, a political scientist and the author of La Laïcité (L’Harmattan, Paris 1995) tried to define this confusing concept, insisting on the fact that secularism has a negative character by excluding religion (or its representatives) from the public sphere (the State or schools). In his opinion, the freedom of worship and conscience can exist independently from the concept of laicité because they had been consistently accepted since the 1791 Constitution and indeed pre-dated secularism.  Moreover, he argues that secularism cannot be defined by tolerance, pluralism, or even democracy, which can be detached from secularism and exist without it. In his view, secularism implies a purely negative notion consisting, according to the 1905 law, of the absence of recognition and state support of forms of worship and, according to the Constitution, it involves the exclusion of religion from the public sphere of the State. Thus, according to M. Barbier, two different sorts of secularism presently exist in France, creating a general confusion: on the one hand, legislative secularism, based on the 1905 law, which can be called secularism-as-separation and which is clearly defined; on the other hand, constitutional secularism, established by the Constitutions of 1946 and 1958 which is not defined and thus open to interpretation (there is no formal definition of laïcité in the Constitution, which according to Barbier is regrettable since the Constitution has a bigger legal value than a law). 

No wonder if different people understand the concept of laïcité differently. One of our interviewees Asmaa , a young Muslim girl of Moroccan descent, argues that the principle of secularism remains highly paradoxical in its terms because it claims a strict separation of Church and State and at the same time allows the State to meddle with religion, virtually deciding the degree of secularism tolerated in  society. For example, the former Secretary of state Nicolas Sarkozy who has created the French Council of the Muslim Religion (CFCM), a representative organ whose role is to regulate the religious affairs of the French Muslims, favors the top-down approach: he chose to appoint the president of the council himself, rather than agree to democratic elections. Appearance of the head of State and members of the government at the religious services of a different kind (Christmas mass or the religious service in memory of the late Abbé Pierre ) is also very common. Sarkozy was the second French president to attend the annual dinner at CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France), where the government accepts the approval or criticism from the Jewish community for the reforms it carried out.  Moreover, president Sarkozy, who is overtly Catholic, created even more confusion during the last Papal visit to France, when he displayed his vision of laïcité by introducing the concept of the “positive secularism”.

According to Samir Amghar, lecturer at the Institute of Islamic studies, Muslim cultures and societies (IISMM), it seems necessary to place the concept of laicité in its historical context and not to perceive it just as a constitutional or juridical concept. He states that nowadays secularism is understood in many different ways by the people who are affected by it: Muslim communities often interpret secularism as a freedom of conscience rather than the establishment of State’s neutrality and the ban of religion in public sphere.

As for the ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools based on the report of Stasi Commission and passed in 2004, it is an extension of this concept and seems to have added to the feeling of general confusion. Barbier reproaches the researchers for having artificially expanded the term to such an extent that it has lost its original significance and acquired new dimensions of the “republican pact” – “the necessity to learn to live together and build a common future”.  As a result, secularism has become a tool or a means to reach certain ends and not an end in itself.

Confronted with the growth of Muslim community in France, secularism seems shaken and sometimes even powerless when faced with the complexity of Islam: its all-encompassing nature, the fact that it contains a social and political dimension, and is therefore an ideology capable of inspiring a practice is still misunderstood by the French society in general. Esther Benbassa, a French historian and a specialist on Jewish history claims that the State’s treatment of French Muslims is almost identical with that of French Jews in the 18th and 19th century: Muslims, just like Jews, are required to adopt the “French” way of life, cut off the ties with their parents’ homeland and even worse – authorities require reforms of Islam even though “it is not at all part of their competences within the framework of the separation of the Church and the State”.  Thus arguments for integration of Jewish people are very similar to those urging French Muslims to integrate: “we must refuse everything to Jews as a Nation meaning an assembled electoral body, and give everything to Jews as individuals”.

Apart from that, we must bear in mind that the majority of Muslims in France arrived in the 1960s and 1980s and even today, almost half are not French citizens.  Hence it is only realistic to allow them more time to integrate, as integration is a slow process and other immigrants, notably Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese also took a long time to integrate.  As we have seen, while speaking to 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation  French Muslims, a clear difference and signs of integration could be noticed on the 2nd and 3rd generations. Even though there may be some anger voiced by French Muslims over the State’s “combative secularism” , the prejudices against Islam seem to cause them even more harm. 

Islam: apprehensions and prejudices in our society

In addition to the misinterpretation of the concept of laïcité, there ¬seems to be a real misunderstanding of Islam itself and confusion about how to define a Muslim in our society. Indeed, the increased presence of Muslim immigrants raises questions not only in France but all over Europe. The establishment of several million citizens from Muslim culture or faith on the European continent has created huge polemics in which some assert that secularism as well as the fundamental principles of neutrality in schools and in laws are today jeopardized by Islam. According to Alain Gresh, a journalist and the former editor of the monthly journal Le Monde Diplomatique, people fear Islam and this fear is the result of a convergence of two levels: international and national, which makes the debate much more difficult and complicated.  Indeed, one cannot express their approval of headscarves in France without being immediately associated with the oppressive regimes of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.

Raïssa, a young, black Catholic woman admitted that she felt Muslim people have more difficulties than Jews and Catholics in becoming respected  and integrated in our society because of this confusion between Arabs, Muslims and terrorists. Asmaa also regretted that people and especially the media were not careful enough in the way they used words, thereby often creating conceptual confusions. She told us about her experience at university, where one of her teachers asked her why she wore a veil before arguing that she couldn’t allow it in her class because it reminded her the bourkha and the condition of women in Afghanistan (the 2004 law against religious signs does not concern universities). This sort of stigmatization, she added, was not just detrimental for Islamic and Muslim communities, but also for the people themselves who were not always conscious of their mistake and their confusion.

For Samir Amghar, Islam inspires both rejection and fascination in France. Fascination, as in general people have a substantial knowledge of Islam in our society because of its proximity, but the places of expression of the Islamic faith (the mosques) are inaccessible to the public. This kind of mystery around the actual religious expression of Islam contributes in some way to that kind of fascination and attraction. He regretted that Islam was often seen as an attempt on women’s liberty and on the equality between men and women in our society. 

Law on conspicuous religious symbols: creation of a discriminatory tool to defend secularism?

The Stasi Commission: aims and stakes of a controversial report

In July 2003, the French President Jacques Chirac created an independent commission for studying the application of the principle of laïcité in the French Republic. Its 19 members were composed of schools principals, teachers, researchers, civil servants, businessmen and members of parliament representing very diverse origins, beliefs and political opinions. Nevertheless, as Samir Amghar points out, most of them were close to Islamic affairs or specialists in the domain of Islam. After several months of interviews and auditions, a report was compiled recommending 26 different measures. On the one hand, the report  reaffirms among other things the strict neutrality of civil servants, the necessity to protect schools against identity fights, the ban of religious symbols at schools (that are considered as conspicuous) with the vote of a specific law (the 2004 law). It also evoked the necessity to pass a law for the hospital service in order to guarantee that each patient has the possibility to practice his religion and worship in the hospital. Nevertheless, the public service would be preserved against all interests of political religious groups thanks to the establishment of a hospital Charter which would list all the sanitary measures and the rules that would be necessary for the good operation of the service.

In private companies, the Stasi Commission recommends the respect of the labor laws and the establishment of a legislative disposition to allow the president/CEO/manager of the company to regulate the wearing of some clothes and religious signs for security requirements or for the social order.  Moreover, the Commission calls for a firm stance from the State towards racist and anti-Semitic behavior, and supports the idea of a transversal approach to religions in the national curriculum. Its members believe in the development of university studies on Islam, suggesting the creation of a National School of Islamic Studies. Last but not least, the Commission affirms its attachment to the establishment of two religious feasts in our Christian calendar: the Kippur and Aïd El Khebir in the respect of the plurality of religious beliefs and opinions in the French society.

The 2004 law: the “apple of discord” 

The 2004 law bans conspicuous religious symbols in school. In other words, this law only forbids clothes or signs which lead to an immediate recognition of one’s religious beliefs,  such as the headscarf, the kippa or a crucifix. It is not prohibited to wear discrete jewelry which could be perceived as religious signs such as the Fatma hand, Christian medals, little crosses, or the David star. The 2004 law on a ban of conspicuous religious symbols in schools concerns all the pupils of primary and secondary public schools but does not concern people who have to pass an exam in these buildings. This legislative disposition is quite unique in Europe.

According to Patrick Weil, the 2004 law was established in order to protect young Muslim girls from religious pressures at school . He argues that the Islamic veil is becoming not a sign of individual liberty but a tool of political religious groups who use schools as their principal battlefield.  Under these specific circumstances, the 2004 law does not violate the European Convention for Human Rights because even though it is not affirmed that the headscarf is a conspicuous sign liable to be forbidden in schools, the Convention allows states to limit one’s freedom of expression when there is a compelling public safety reason, when the manifestation of religious beliefs would impinge on the rights of others, or when it serves a legitimate educational function (such as prohibiting practices that preclude student-teacher interaction). 

Yet for Samir Amghar the Stasi Commission report seems evasive because most of the Muslim girls wear the headscarf out on their own free will. Indeed, the headscarf has a strong identity dimension, contributing to their identity construction in terms of spiritual maturation. In his opinion, the main goal of the Stasi Commission was rather to settle Islamic communautarism and integration issues, holding that Islam can only be integrated in our society only if it is expressed in private. In addition, he underlines that Muslim populations are traditionally seen in France as “troublemakers” because they are mostly recent immigrants and as such they are at the bottom of the social ladder, struck by poverty and unemployment. According to Moustafa Traore, the 2004 law flouts the main value (Islam) that immigrants bring with them and which makes them united beyond the diversity of their origins. In his views, the law prevents immigrants from blossoming freely in our society and children from being open-minded towards religious beliefs from their early age.

However, it is still unclear why and to whom the ban of conspicuous religious symbols caused harm. Religious Muslims consider that the 2004 law targets mainly practising Muslims since wearing a headscarf is a religious obligation for a Muslim girl while Jews and Christians are not formally obliged to wear a kippa or a cross and if they decide to, they can still go to a private Jewish or Catholic school. According to Samira Zaid , a young practising Muslim woman of Moroccan decent, Muslim girls are unquestionably the most affected by this law for the simply reason that the headscarf does not have the same function and impact on their personal life as a cross for a Christian or kippa for a Jew. She even argues that asking a girl to remove her headscarf deconstructs the fundamental function of the object, which is to keep one’s beauty hidden as a sign of modesty.

The statistics, however, show different results and give us a slightly different insight. According to the survey done by the Ministry of Interior before the bill was introduced in Parliament, only 1254 schoolgirls wore headscarves in French schools in 2003, which represents about one percent of all Muslim girls. Their number had supposedly dropped from 2000 in 1994.  Government polls do not change anything due to the fact that this data is highly questionable: so far, different polls have produced different results. Our working group has decided to stick to the interviews we carried out in order to give voice to a larger spectrum of opinions. 

Secularism and French women

How wearing a headscarf is seen by French Muslim women

The number of Muslim women in France is approximately 1.7 million, and demographers estimate that 61 % of them hold French nationality. In December 2003, a cross-section of women from various Muslim backgrounds but born and raised in France was polled by the Institute Ifop for the Elle magazine. The poll has collected their opinions on various questions including integration, identity and secularism. The results were quite surprising: 

Do you wear a headscarf ? 14% yes, 86% no

Do you feel well integrated into French society ? 91% yes, 9% no

Are you in favour of the 2004 law ? 49% yes, 51% no

How would you define yourself:

  • Practicing believer 51%
  • Believer but not practicing  29%            
  • Of Muslim background 17%                
  • No religion  2%
  • Different religion 1%

As much as “86 % of women questioned do not wear the headscarf; 91 % feel themselves to be well integrated into French society, even though 51 % of them say they are practising believers, 29 % believers but not practising, 17 % simply come from a Muslim background, 2 % say they have no religion, 1 % are of another religion. 49% said that they were in favor of the law of 15 March 2004 prohibiting conspicuous religious symbols at school.”  Even though the percentage of women who actually wear a veil is tiny, almost half of the women not wearing a veil and an even larger number of those who felt well integrated in the French society were not in favor of the ban. We assume from these figures that these women perceived the headscarf as a religious or a cultural symbol, rather than a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism. This kind of reaction was possibly provoked also by their concern with the infringement of religious freedom by authorities. As Samir Amghar put it, “these women expressed their identities when confronted with an external threat.”  

For Soraya, a secular Muslim girl of 26, born into a practising Muslim family, “Islam” and “secularism” are two terms, which can go together: “I consider myself a secular Muslim, I fast, I believe in God, I try to help others but I keep it to myself. I don't wear the headscarf and I don't pray, I consider my spirituality as a part of my personal life and I don't feel the need to show it to others or to talk about it. I think I would act the same way had I been born into a Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist family because I was raised secularly and with respect for others. And because I understood that the aim of secularism wasn’t to make people different from others, but precisely to erase differences between people."  Samir Amghar, however, pointed out that the private and the public spheres are interconnected for practising Muslim women and the authorities should make efforts to redefine both terms in order to make secularism acceptable for them.   

The Feminist’s point of view: from criticism to support of the headscarf

Feminists from a Muslim background, however, opposed wearing headscarves since they find them oppressive for women. Ni putes, ni soumises (NPNS, Neither whores, nor submissive) – a feminist movement founded in 2002, is one of the most vocal in protest against the ill-treatment of women in the housing projects around French cities and practices there such as gang-rapes, forced marriages or pressure to wear a hijab (headscarf). In March 2004, it took part in a landmark march supporting the ban on headscarves in schools alongside elected officials and political leaders, among whom Nicole Guedj, a secretary of state in the justice ministry and Arlette Laguiller, leader of the radical leftist group Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle).

Nevertheless, Asmaa is one of those Muslim women who has never really felt concerned by the issues that the previously mentioned feminist movement underlined: she has started wearing a hijab as a teenager in the late 90’s, but considered it a mere fashion accessory that she could, but was not obliged to wear, rather than something oppressive. During her junior high and high school years, she has not experienced any problems or harassment from other students. "What made the difference," she affirmed, "was certainly the manner in which I was wearing the headscarf" : not in a traditional way, but as a more stylish bandana.    

Activism of NPNS was strongly criticized by other left-wing and feminist movements all over the country. National Collective for the Rights of Women (CNDF) denounced its exclusive preoccupation with the oppression of Muslim women and pointed at a general tendency of the government to dismantle the social rights of women. “We condemn the veil, but we say that the social assaults by the government are just as serious” , declared its president Maya Surduts. Other feminist NGOs felt their work was being overshadowed by the movement NPNS which, as they stated, supported a racist, islamophobic instrumentalization of feminism by the French Right, as if other forms of sexism did not exist in France or as if Islamic feminism was just a pure nonsense. One of them, Houria Bouteldja even qualified NPNS as an “ideological state apparatus.”

Even though a headscarf is not always a matter of choice, some Muslim women argue that one can definitely be a Muslim and a feminist at the same time.  One may wonder how these two terms go together: the feminist movement is most broadly defined as campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights. From a Western perspective, wearing a headscarf seems more like fitting into norms and traditional gender roles and complying with archaic images of women. However, Muslim feminists argue that they chose to wear a headscarf and therefore it is their right, rather than a religious obligation. Moreover, they perceive sexual liberty only as a false victory for women, so choosing to wear a headscarf is a way of protesting against reducing women to mere sexual objects. Indeed, Muslim feminists in hijabs also took part in the march, chanting “Veiled or not veiled, together against sexism.” 

Consequences of the 2004 law on practicing Muslim women

Even though the number of veiled women is officially small (though Samir Amghar affirms it has been steadily growing since the end of the 90’s) , it is important to examine the headscarf ban from their perspective as well. When talking to veiled Muslims girls, one cannot help but have the impression that the new law has made life for them much harder. They have faced opposition from non-governmental as well as governmental organizations, women’s rights groups, and even from secularized Muslims. Nevertheless, they have continued fighting against the prejudice (unwillingness to integrate, accusations of religious fundamentalism, attempts on the principles of laïcité, non-acceptance of the universal values and democracy, etc.) and discrimination that they now face on a daily basis both as individuals and as a group. 

Asmaa, for example, was challenged by misinterpretations of the 2004 law more than once during her years at university.  In addition to the case we referred to above, she also had to face the director of the canteen who approached her and refused to serve her a meal for having entered the establishment wearing a headscarf.  The director assumed that the new ban on religious signs applied in her canteen as well. This and a number of similar cases have occurred throughout France in the years following the 2004 law. This seems to develop into a problem when unqualified staff take the law into their own hands and instill even stricter interpretations than the State itself. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the law concerns only primary and secondary schools and civil servants and that all other institutions are tolerant of religious symbols. 

As we have noticed, the ban on religious symbols has provoked a feeling of alienation among most practicing Muslim women. Samira admits: “I feel discriminated against, because I can't work for the government wearing my headscarf, I can't for instance teach or work in a public school. I am always afraid of being discriminated against in a training or job interview and not being able to prove myself. Consequently I can't really build a professional career in France being a Muslim woman wearing a scarf, so unfortunately I'm thinking about moving to the UK, Belgium or another more tolerant European country.”  

Soraya, on the other hand, summarized the general feeling after the law was passed, in the following way: “I think that no-one was really affected actually [by the law]...girls who wear the scarf don’t just wear it in schools any longer… to me the only thing that was affected by the law was France's image abroad: I was living in Northern Ireland when the law was passed and everyone was stunned that France, the country of freedom, was forbidding religious symbols at school – by the way, it was clear to every person I talked to, that the headscarf was the main target of the law.” 

The contrast we noticed in the reaction towards the headscarf ban between practising and non practising Muslim women is huge: while Samira was personally affected by the law, Soraya felt that it was rather the France’s image suffered. Not only has the headscarf alienated the relatively small percentage of practising French Muslims, but it has affected some of them to such an extent that they are seriously considering moving to another European country. It is interesting to note that many of them perceive the United Kingdom – where unlike in France there is no official separation between the Church and the State – as a very tolerant country for practising Muslims.  Here it is worth mentioning that such a desire to leave France and move to a more ‘tolerant European country’ coincides with a study by two American scholars, Joel Fetzer and Christopher Soper, who argue that state policies towards Muslims were “positive in England, negative in France and in between in Germany”.  

For some, the rejection of their faith by the State that young Muslims feel in France, can lead to their radicalization: as we have already mentioned, Samir Amghar estimates that since 2004 more and more women in France are veiled, not always for religious reasons, but rather as a gesture of protest, which can also lead to the rise of fundamentalism and an identity crisis. Another sociologist specializing in European Muslims, Hassan al-Najjar, had similar thoughts. In an interview with Aljazeerah  he was asked whether the 2004 law might actually encourage Islamist extremism: he answered positively, saying that “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 into observing 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."  

Some of us felt that a positive aspect which has arisen in the post-ban period is that French Muslim women, both religious and secularist, have become more active. Sihem Habschi, the new president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, believes that the only outlet for women in the ghettos is political activism.  On the other hand, Nadia, a veiled French Muslim woman, doesn’t feel any better represented even though there are three minority women in the Cabinet. She is one of the growing numbers of veiled French Muslim women who have taken things into her own hands and have turned to religious education and started interpreting the Quran in their own way and benefiting from the jobs that it offers, such as as spiritual counselors in hospitals and prisons. This new wave of what may be referred to as Islamic activism seems to be a direct answer to the 2004 headscarf ban, but it may also signal growing activism by religious Muslims as to counterbalance the activism of secular Muslims.    

Are Islamic schools an alternative to the rigidity of the French laïcité?

Although Muslims are France’s largest religious minority, there are only three private Islamic schools in France. One of the major arguments against the private faith schools is the development of Islamic “communautarism”. For Samir Amghar, a request made by the Muslim communities to open private Islamic schools would be a communitarian response to the anti-headscarves measures propelled by the Stasi Commission. Since one of the goals of the Stasi Commission was to fight against Islamic “communautarism” and promote integration, Islamic schools would not be an acceptable move. 

The most frequent argument of the opponents of the faith schools is that schooling in private institutions is on insufficient level and causes isolation of religious and ethnic groups. However, one of the private Islamic schools proves the first assumption wrong. La Réussite (Success) Islamic high school founded in 2001 had great results on the final exam (baccalauréat): in years 2005, 2006 and 2007, 100%, 93% and 100% respectively were gained in the exam. 

When it comes to limiting the isolation, the public schools did not seem to our interviewees to be doing particularly well in this domain either. According to Moustafa Traoré, one of the dangers of the non-recognition of religious diversity in schools could lead to a lack of tolerance or a discriminatory behavior aimed against various religious groups later in future. However, by promoting religious education, schools are trying to combat ignorance and prejudices by proper means. It is certain that an atheist child growing up in an atheist school environment is less sensitive to the religious issues than a child being exposed to a certain religious diversity. 

So how should religion be taught in schools? Far from wanting to put "God back into school", researchers and philosophers championed the idea of teaching the history of religions in schools. For the moment it is a part of the history curriculum, but Moustafa suggested that it would be appropriate to create ‘Religious studies’.   

Misconceptions still exist!

Four years after the law which banned religious signs at school, we can see that a lot of ordinary people, civil servants and even government officials take the liberty of interpreting the law into their own hands. Recently an elected official of a small village in Isères reserved the public swimming pool for the exclusive use of women for two hours a week. However, the right and left-wing politicians as well as organizations complained about this “attempt on secularism”.  The village is inhabited by a small community of Turkish immigrants. Nevertheless, all women living in the area benefited from this act. Fadela Amara, a junior minister for urban policy, judged this practice dangerous as it “replied to religious pressures”.  Some inhabitants even accused the official of trying to “sell France to Arabs”.    

Besides, we can say that the law was sometimes abused as a justification for their racist and discriminatory actions and in some cases it appears that people are not conscious of their acts and even misinformed about the law. This other case is typical of the lack of information about laws in our society: Supposedly basing himself on the law banning religious symbols at schools, the principal of the primary school in the Parisian region forbade one mother from wearing a headscarf to accompany the schoolchildren to a zoo. First reluctant to disclose the real reason for the refusal, he admitted that her headscarf “bothered” him. The national education board had to apologize officially for this incident and explained that "the law applies to schoolchildren and not to parents who accompany their children. The institution did not fulfill its obligation.”  

At last, it seems clear to us that the 2004 law has developed the feeling among Muslim communities that France does not like them. That is why it is urgent to reestablish the dialogue between the Muslim communities and the highest ranks of the French State.  According to Samir Amghar, the effort has to come from both sides: public institutions have to be more pragmatic in dealing with the Muslim communities in question (and take into account their economic and social difficulties and demands) and at the same time Muslim communities have to forsake their “victimization discourse”. 

The headscarf itself is such a small piece of cloth, yet is has made such controversy throughout the world. It has sparked debates from kebab stalls to parliaments, and until now, there are no concrete unilateral answers to it. One of the reasons is that even the Muslim communities in Europe, and in this case, in France, have not had a single voice regarding that question (the CFCM was not representative of all religious Muslims) primarily due to their cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as to their belonging to different Islamic legal schools of thought. In line with the current trends in Europe , French Muslim intellectuals, just like other European Muslim intellectuals, must work together to integrate their fellow Muslims in the best possible ways, both by economically and politically empowering them, but also by developing a concept of European Islam that is compatible with the state and society they live in.

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

France France 2008

Authors:

Related Media

Browse all content