Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Republic Unveiled. France and the Hijab.

The Hijab in France is the subject of huge controversy. Three Monkeys Online asked Paul Silverstein PhD, and an editor of Middle East Report, about the issues involved with the anti hijab legislation.

What is the likely effect of this ban?

How the ban will be imposed is still up in the air, as

the law does not take effect until the beginning of

the new school year in September 2004. It is likely

that the immediate effect of the law will be a large

number of cases against headscarf-wearing young girls.

These cases, according to the law, will go through a

lengthy mediation procedure (during which

state-appointed mediators will essentially try to

convince the girls to remove their hijabs in the

classroom) before any expulsion procedures are

initiated. Nonetheless, the likely result will be a

number of Muslim students forced to take

correspondance classes from home, or, if their parents

can afford it, enroll in Catholic parochial schools

unaffected by the law. Such cases will receive huge

media attention, and will lead to a number of public

protests and denunciations from throughout the Islamic

world as have already been seen since December. If

the state fails to handle these issues carefully,

already-circulating conspiracy theories about a French

“war on Islam” will gain new adherents, which could

possibly push a number of young immigrants to take

strongly Islamic political positions – the very

situation the state explicitly was trying to prevent

with the law.

A number of proposals were made as part of The Stasi

committee’s report yet only the ban on the hijab was

taken into effect – why?

The ban on the hijab was by far the most publicly

awaited of all the proposals made by the Stasi

committee. Indeed, it was likely the raison d’jtre of

the committee. Others – including the inclusion of

Aid el-Kebir and Yom Kippur as public holidays – are

likely too politically sensitive for the conservative

Chirac government to touch at the moment, specifically

given the recent painful transition to the 35 hour

work week. Other proposals – including the

appointment of Muslim chaplains in prisons,

rehabilitation monies for the public housing projects,

education efforts against racism and anti-Semitism,

and the teaching of non-state languages (like Berber

and Kurdish) – are consonant with already-existing

policies and initiatives and are likely to be

implemented over time. What is surprising, though, is

that these proposals – which could be seen to balance

the hijab ban – were erased from the public

discussion. This, to my mind, was a horrible mistake

by the government.

What role has terrorism in France played in the

introduction of this measure?

As mentioned in the answer to the first question, the

current legislation should be seen as part of France’s

larger “war on terror.” The Stasi commission was

explicit in reasoning that the hijab should be banned

as it was the point of entry for Islamism into the

public schools. The sense was not only that the

schools should be a space protected from society’s

problems, but also that the public school could

possibly become a space for the spread of Islamic

fundamentalism and the breeding ground of terror.

Since the 1995 bombings in the Paris and Lyon,

attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group and in

which several young French-Algerians were accused of

participating, there has been much public attention

payed to a supposed jihad brewing among French Muslim

youth. The legislation — like the larger

militarization of and outlawing of public

congregations in housing projects under law-and-order

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – seeks to address

this concern.

You’ve spoken about efforts to “Republicanize” Islam

by the Government – is this possible, and what effect

will this legislation have on those efforts?

The legislation was proceeded by the creation of a

representative council of French Muslims, a body

elected by Muslim citizens that is designed to serve

as the intermediary between the Muslim community and

the French government. The council itself is highly

internally divided, composed of members elected from

three major Muslim associations with political

positions ranging from advocating the secularization

of Islam to the defense of a purist interpretation of

the religion associated with the Egyptian Muslim

Brotherhood. The president of the body, the

secularist Dalil Boubakeur, was not elected but rather

appointed by Sarkozy. While he has wholeheartedly

supported the legislation, other groups representing

the majority fo the council’s members have been highly

critical if not entirely opposed. Indeed, the

legislation, depending on how it’s implemented,

threatens to fracture the council to the point of

inoperability. To my mind, while secularists will

find in the legislation a space to affirm their

attachment to the “Repubic,” the vast majority of

French Muslims will find themselves further alienated

and potentially attracted by positions that

reciprocally reject the “Republic.”

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