> Today’s Review From
> The New Republic Online
Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and
Public Space
> by John Richard Bowen

> Veil of Tears
> A review by David A. Bell
> What do we call the following French person? She is born in France,
> and a citizen, but many of her compatriots treat her as an alien,
> threatening presence. She is easily recognizable, above all by
> her distinctive head covering, which proclaims her religious allegiance.
> No one questions her right to wear this garment at home or in
> her neighborhood’s streets, but many of the French have a different
> opinion when it comes to official “public spaces” — above all,
> public schools. For many fervent defenders of the secular Republic,
> letting her into the schools would pose a threat to the Republic’s
> very existence.
> So what do we call this person? Until quite recently, we would
> have called her a nun. After all, hostility between the Catholic
> Church and the secular Republic marks broad swaths of French history.
> But of course it is not nuns who have been targeted by the recent
> law banning “ostentatious signs of religion” from French public
> schools, which John R. Bowen has put at the center of his lucid
> and thought-provoking book. The controversial French women at
> issue are headscarf-wearing Muslim schoolgirls.
> The controversy around them continues to simmer in France, while
> also spilling across European borders. The Netherlands is considering
> an even broader ban, while Jack Straw, the leader of Britain’s
> House of Commons, recently attacked the wearing of veils as a
> “visible statement of separation and of difference,” and requested
> that women remove them when visiting him. This is one of the strangest,
> and most philosophically rattling, controversies in recent European
> memory, and in order to comprehend it we have to start with France,
> and consider the things that the odd shift from nuns to schoolgirls
> tells us about the relationship between religion and society there.
> I have in mind three things in particular.
> The first is the utter centrality of conflicts with organized
> religion to the identity of the French Republic, dating back to
> the French Revolution. During the critical years of the Third
> Republic (1871-1940), Republican officials fought their greatest
> battles to establish an entirely secular public sphere, while
> Catholic opponents disputed the regime’s very legitimacy. The
> Republicans won, banning Catholicism from the public schools and
> ending the church’s official relationship to the French state.
> Today the legacy of this struggle literally soars above the Paris
> skyline. On the heights of Montmartre looms the great white bulk
> of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, which the church built to expiate
> the sins of the anti-clerical Paris Commune of 1870, while across
> the Seine stands the structure that the Republic built in part
> as a response, the Eiffel Tower. Today, of course, the advocates
> of assertive public secularism, or laïcité, do not trouble themselves
> much with Rome. They have found plenty to worry about in the direction
> of Mecca.
> Second, there is the fact that in the French Republican imagination,
> when it comes to religion, women hold a critical and distinct
> place. As early as 1845, the great Republican historian Jules
> Michelet famously wrote that “our wives, our daughters, are raised
> and ruled by our enemies” — that is, by priests. He and many
> Republicans fretted that women — those superstitious and ignorant
> creatures — would be lured into fanaticism by the black arts
> of the priesthood, and then draw their menfolk in after them.
> Today, advocates of laïcité again focus on females, ostensibly
> because they consider Islamic women and girls particularly vulnerable
> to forced religious conformity (not an unfounded view). At the
> same time, though, just as nuns featured with remarkable frequency
> in early French pornography, so the current controversy also has
> an undeniable sexual undertone. A garment designed to desexualize
> the wearer instead turns her into a forbidden, exotic object of
> desire. (The role of veils in Western fantasies about “the Orient”
> scarcely needs mentioning.)
> And third, we need to remember just how sudden and jarring the
> shift from nuns to Muslim schoolgirls has been. As recently as
> the 1950s, despite the victories of the Republic, France remained
> in many ways a conventionally observant Catholic country. Then
> the 1960s and 1970s brought a vertiginous decline in observance.
> Today, according to an amazing recent survey, only 51 percent
> of the French population identify themselves as Catholic, and
> only half of those Catholics believe in God. The implications
> for French society have been significant. Consider that the current
> Socialist candidate for president, Ségolène Royal, has had four
> children out of wedlock, and this fact seems to matter not at
> all to the non-observant electorate.
> Those same decades, the 1960s and 1970s, also saw massive Muslim
> immigration into France, principally from former French colonies
> in North Africa. Yet for a long time French observers paid little
> attention to the religious consequences of this new wave of immigration.
> (Earlier immigrants were predominantly Catholic.) They considered
> the newcomers “guest workers,” and assumed that they would eventually
> return to their countries of origin, even as the supposed “guests”
> were bringing over families and raising French-born children.
> Decolonization, and particularly the brutal shock of Algerian
> independence, had left the widespread impression that France’s
> engagement with Islam belonged to its lost imperial past; it took
> time to register that France might also have an Islamic future.
> Only toward the end of the 1980s, Bowen notes, did the presence
> of the large, growing Islamic population on French soil become
> a matter of widespread concern — and quickly enough, of panic.
> How many Muslims live in France today? We cannot say with precision,
> because the French state, true to its secularist principles, refuses
> to gather such statistics. Bowen, drawing on the best recent estimates,
> suggests four to five million, or around 7 to 8 percent of the
> population. But owing to differential birth rates, the percentage
> of those under age twenty is much higher: as much as 20 to 25
> percent. The predictions of a France that is one-quarter Muslim
> by 2050 are not unreasonable.
> By the late 1980s, this demographic shift was becoming impossible
> to overlook, and at the same time the radical potential of Islamism
> was exploding into French public view. This period brought the
> infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie, when, to the horror of
> liberal Europeans, many of their Muslim fellow citizens hailed
> Ayatollah Khomeini and publicly burned copies of The Satanic Verses
> rather than defending its author’s freedom of speech. Meanwhile,
> in Algeria — which before 1962 had formed an integral part of
> France — a radical Islamist movement took shape and tried to
> overthrow the secular government, horrifying French observers.
> Not coincidentally, it was in 1989 that the first headscarf controversy
> erupted, with three Muslim girls threatened with expulsion from
> their school in the Paris suburbs if they did not uncover their
> heads. Over the next fourteen years, it bubbled up at regular
> intervals, until finally President Chirac appointed the so-called
> “Stasi Commission” (after its chairman, Bernard Stasi) to study
> the issue. After it and another committee recommended the headscarf
> ban, parliament passed it in March 2004.
> The ongoing controversy has had more than a touch of the absurd
> to it. As left-wing critics of the ban have pointed out, it is
> curious indeed to expel girls from public schools in the name
> of “integrating” them more fully into French society. The wording
> of the ban also left comically unclear just what constitutes an
> “ostentatious” sign of religion. Does a small cross or star of
> David on a necklace count? What about a small crucifix? After
> the law passed, some Muslim girls substituted colorful bandannas
> for the traditional black scarves, while journalists asked mischievously
> if schools would ban elegant silk carrés from Hermès. School officials
> found to their consternation that the most blatant infringement
> of the law came not from Muslim girls but from turban-wearing
> Sikh boys, although no one had ever previously detected a threat
> to laïcité from France’s small Sikh minority. In a ham-handed
> attempt to cover up this particular embarrassment, Education Ministry
> officials allegedly offered to pay full tuition for the Sikhs
> at Catholic private schools! In the oddest twist of all, two of
> the Muslim girls who became famous for defying the ban — after
> their expulsion they wrote a book about it and appeared frequently
> on television — had a Jewish father and were named Lévy.
> This last absurdity reveals something important. Casual observers
> have usually assumed that the controversy pits “modern” secular
> Republicans against “traditional” pious Muslims wrenched out of
> their North African villages into metropolitan France. Yet as
> Bowen demonstrates, the girls who took part most actively in the
> controversy do not fit this mold. Most were French-born, and many
> came from relatively nonobservant Muslim families. Far from succumbing
> to family pressure to cover their heads, they made their own independent
> decisions to do so, often as part of individual quests to find
> a more meaningful form of religion than they knew at home. Bowen
> cites the case of a girl in Grenoble named Schérazade, who read
> the Koran in her final year of high school — in French, since
> she did not speak Arabic — and only then decided to risk expulsion
> by donning the headscarf. Once expelled, she staged a twenty-two-day
> hunger strike in an RV parked in front of the school, and gave
> numerous interviews to the French and foreign press. Those are
> not exactly the actions of a “traditional” Muslim schoolgirl.
> In other words, many of these girls are classic figures of what
> used to be called alienation. They are torn between cramped and
> unsatisfying lives at home and a larger French world that speaks
> loudly of “integration” but in practice also doles out large measures
> of racism, condescension, and neglect. For the time when French
> public schools and local authorities made serious efforts to assimilate
> immigrant populations is long past. The schoolteachers who once
> saw themselves as the Republic’s missionaries to supposedly benighted
> populations now usually treat their stints in majority Muslim
> schools as sentences in purgatory to be served and forgotten.
> The police view large swaths of the poor Muslim suburbs as no-go
> areas. Opportunities for young Muslims remain restricted, and
> the Muslim presence in France’s elite educational institutions
> and governing cadres languishes far below the Muslim proportion
> of the population. And yet defenders of the “Republican model”
> decry any moves toward affirmative action as a betrayal of egalitarian
> Republican ideals.
> There is an extraordinary irony in all of this. What these girls
> sometimes call a search for “true Islam” is in some obvious ways
> a deeply Western phenomenon, owing as much to Romantic notions
> of authenticity as to North African Muslim tradition. In this
> sense, the girls have already “integrated” to a greater extent
> than either they or their critics realize. While the Republic
> waves the banner of anti-clericalism in the manner of Voltaire,
> they respond by praising Mohammed in the accents of Rousseau.
> And this fact suggests that they are not rejecting secular French
> society entirely so much as trying to negotiate some sort of modus
> vivendi with it.
> Unfortunately, French Republicans and much of the French media
> miss this point, and all too often seem to regard headscarves
> as just a step removed from suicide bombs. As early as October
> 1989, at the start of the controversy, the aggressively laïc weekly
> Le Nouvel Observateur published a cover story showing a woman
> wearing a black chador under the headline “Fanaticism: The Religious
> Menace.” Many more sensational headlines about “la France islamique”
> have followed, especially after September 11 and the terrorist
> attacks in Madrid and London. The threat of violent Islamism certainly
> exists in France, but it is hard to see how the headscarf ban
> will do anything to reduce the danger.
> In fact, even the proponents of the ban have generally recognized
> the absurdities of targeting teenage girls, and few of them thought
> that the 2004 law would have anything but a symbolic effect. Bowen
> suggests that they often believed their own inflated rhetoric,
> and hoped that the law would eliminate significant causes of Muslim
> disaffection, but this is doubtful. The members of the Stasi Commission,
> to judge from later interviews, at best saw the law as sending
> two messages to the Muslim French community: first, to respect
> the norms of laïcité, and second, to desist from pressuring young
> women into religious conformism. Criticized for singling out girls,
> they fell back on the justification that the law would protect
> those Muslim girls who themselves wanted to go bare-headed. They
> also argued that once the controversy had arisen, they had no
> choice but to follow it through to its logical conclusion.
> But why does this conclusion have to be a rigid piece of national
> legislation? Bowen remarks in passing that the French place inordinate
> faith in legislation as a remedy for social ills, and this is
> certainly true. Indeed, such faith is central to French Republicanism,
> which differs from the American variety not only in its emphasis
> on civil equality and secularism, but also (in keeping with its
> French Revolutionary origins) in the importance it attaches to
> the expression of the popular will in law. The many constitutions
> of France’s five republics have tended to evince a distrust for
> American-style checks and balances as impediments to the popular
> will, while elevating the legislative branch above the others.
> Even in the quasi-monarchical Fifth Republic, the powers of the
> executive branch shrink dramatically if the president’s party
> loses its parliamentary majority.
> A more important reason, which Bowen also discusses, involves
> the complex and even deceptive nature of laïcité itself. Advocates
> of the concept tend to define it in terms of the separation of
> church and state, but in practice it has as much to do with control
> as with strict severance. The state may insist on keeping religion
> out of the public sector, but it also supports religion to an
> extent that Americans would find unimaginable, under the justification
> that religious belief in general contributes to the health of
> civil society. The state or municipal governments subsidize and
> maintain most churches and cathedrals. The state pays the salaries
> of teachers in religious schools, so long as they teach the national
> curriculum. It encourages the formation of voluntary organizations
> such as the Jewish Consistory and the Protestant Federation of
> France, which act as quasi-official representatives for particular
> religions. It also tolerates a glaring exception to the principles
> of laïcité in the eastern province of Alsace, which enjoys an
> exemption from the secularist legislation of the early twentieth
> century (it belonged to the German empire at the time). There,
> Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism all enjoy official status,
> with priests, ministers, and rabbis receiving salaries out of
> the public purse.
> French authorities have long tried to pursue the same pattern
> of accommodation and control with Islam. They have helped to build
> mosques, and set aside sections of public cemeteries for Muslim
> burial. Dominique de Villepin, now the prime minister, even proposed
> in 2005 that the state pay for imams to receive instruction in
> secular history, law, and the French language. During the same
> years that the headscarf controversy was bubbling away, leading
> French politicians — especially Nicolas Sarkozy, the neo-Gaullist
> candidate in this year’s presidential election — strove to establish
> a Muslim representative body that could help to shape a moderate
> “French” Islam. These efforts finally resulted in the creation,
> in 2003, of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, which
> has yet to acquire full legitimacy in the eyes of most French
> Muslims. It often seems that what matters most to these officials
> is not an Islam separate from the Republic, but an Islam subordinate
> to it.
> This context suggests an alternate explanation for what drove
> the headscarf controversy forward. The crucial factor may not
> be that Muslim schoolgirls were “bringing religion” into the schools,
> but that they were actively defying school officials. The secular
> state can accommodate certain “public” forms of religion, but
> it will not tolerate blatant religious opposition to state authority,
> however minor the gesture, however young the opponent. How else
> to understand Chirac’s extraordinary statement, on December 5,
> 2003, that the headscarf is “a kind of aggression difficult for
> [the French] to accept,” or the demand by a neo-Gaullist deputy
> that a veiled woman be expelled from the visitor’s gallery in
> the National Assembly? (Chirac’s comment also implies, insultingly,
> that headscarf-wearers are not really French). In his interviews,
> Bowen found that French people frequently used the word “aggression”
> to describe the wearing of headscarves. They perceive it as defiance.
> This alternate explanation is not one that Bowen himself provides.
> An anthropologist who has previously written mostly about Indonesia,
> he tends to take French statements about headscarves at face value,
> as in his assumption that the proponents of the ban really thought
> of it as a cure-all. He relies heavily on interviews for his evidence,
> and the approach serves him very well when elucidating the attitudes
> of Muslims and of local officials. But it is much less effective
> in dealing with French academics and high-level politicians, who
> usually have sophisticated rhetorical skills of the sort that
> their American counterparts can only dream of, and who consciously
> formulate even apparently off-the-cuff comments with enormous
> care, in order to produce particular effects. These men and women
> can speak with great eloquence and enormous conviction about the
> abstract principle and historical antecedents of laïcité. But
> they are also deliberately casting as a question of principle
> something that is, in critical ways, a question of power.
> Since he misses this element of the story, Bowen concludes his
> otherwise instructive and useful book on an exasperatingly irenic
> note, by suggesting that the French Republic could resolve the
> current controversy and ease the integration of Muslims if it
> adopted a looser, more inclusive form of Republicanism. Perhaps,
> he implies, the French should “broaden their notions of what is
> acceptably French.” The Republic, he preaches, “is based not on
> a shared faith, but on a faith in the possibilities of sharing
> a life together, despite vast differences in appearance, history,
> and religious ideas.” Well, yes, in one sense; but the Republic
> is not just a gentle ideal. It is also a power structure in which
> certain elite groups wield a tremendous degree of cultural, political,
> and economic authority. And this authority derives in part precisely
> from defining what is “acceptably French,” and from prescribing
> cultural and political norms for the rest of the population.
> Meanwhile, on the other side, Bowen does not pay sufficient attention
> to the fact that French Muslim hostility to the Republic often
> goes far beyond defending the right to wear headscarves. The same
> sort of alienation that drove some Muslim girls to search for
> a “true Islam” is also driving more dangerous and destructive
> forms of behavior, as became clear in the massive riots in the
> fall of 2005, and the continuing high levels of nihilistic violence
> in the miserable suburbs that surround major French cities. It
> is a particularly virulent form of alienation that elsewhere in
> Europe — notably the Hamburg of Mohammed Atta and the Leeds of
> the British bombers — has bred terrorism. In these circumstances,
> it is doubtful that a well-meaning embrace of multiculturalism
> by the Republican elites would do much to help. Extraordinarily
> generous multicultural policies were long pursued in the Netherlands,
> but the degree of mutual hostility and incomprehension there is
> today, if anything, even greater than in France, as demonstrated
> by the murder of Theo van Gogh and its aftermath.
> So while it is easy enough, especially from an American perspective,
> to ridicule the proponents of the headscarf ban, it is much harder
> to say what they should be doing differently. Yes, it is absurd
> to expel girls from school over this marginal issue, and yes,
> the controversy has probably harmed the cause of Muslim integration
> far more than it has helped. Headscarf-wearing Muslim girls are
> not signs of a “Muslim plot,” as some of the more hysterical French
> headlines have alleged. But they certainly are signs of a great
> social transformation whose outcome is unclear but whose dangerous
> potential is all too visible. And frighteningly, despite the desire
> of many reasonable people in France to find a peaceful and reasonable
> accommodation, no one seems to know how to stop the worst case
> from developing. No wonder so many people in France are nostalgic
> for the days when Republicans saw nuns as their enemies.

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