Secular dilemmas

Print edition : November 19, 2004

Three Sikh students in France take their school to court even as the debate on the ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools continues.

in Paris

The students of Louise Michel school in Bobigny, near Paris, who have filed a court case against the school authorities.-MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP

RECENTLY, three Sikh students attending the Louise Michel school in the Paris suburb of Bobigny took their school authorities to court. Since classes re-convened last September, the three boys, guilty of contravening the new law banning the wearing of conspicuous or "ostensible" religious symbols in state-run schools, had been confined to the dining hall and kept out of the classrooms and the playground.

One of the boys, Bikramjit, in his final year of the science stream, said they had made concessions to the school's demands by dropping their seven-metre-long turban for the much lighter and more discreet keski or 1.5-metre-long under-turban. They said the law gave head teachers enough flexibility to make exceptions within their establishments and that some head teachers had permitted Sikh children to wear the keski, so why not them? In any case, their lawyers said, the school should either reintegrate them or expel them so that they could look at alternatives, instead of keeping them in limbo.

The court gave the school two weeks to hold a disciplinary hearing, where the students would be asked to explain themselves and the educational authorities would decide upon their fate. It chided the school for the delay.

The Sikh boys' case is just the tip of the iceberg, and the authorities often look upon their cases sympathetically. It is generally agreed that the Sikh community is caught in the crossfire of the French state's opposition to militant Islam. The real battle is against the wearing of the Islamic headscarf or hijab by Muslim schoolgirls. The French regard this with anathema, considering any form of veil as an infringement of women's rights and freedoms.

IT all began in 1989 in the small suburb of Creil near Paris, when three girls of North African descent were expelled for wearing the Muslim headscarf to school. They were thrown out for flaunting their religious beliefs and for violating the principle of laicity, the strict separation of the church and the state, which is the bedrock of French republican values.

The expulsion gave rise to a lively debate about the place of Islam in France and, more generally, the issue of the integration of immigrant communities, and their religious beliefs and lifestyles in a society that has kept religion out of the public arena for over a century.

With more schoolgirls defying the ban on the Islamic headscarf in state schools, the debate came to a head with a full-fledged law - as opposed to Education Ministry rules - that came into effect this September, banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools. These include Jewish skullcaps, Muslim headscarves, visible Christian crosses, and the Sikh turban.

The government drafted the law on recommendations made by a special commission headed by Bernard Stasi, former Conservative Minister and close adviser to President Jacques Chirac, who held consultations with people from all walks of life and more specifically with religious leaders of every hue (except Sikhs, who were "overlooked"). Many feel, however, that the law is specifically directed towards girls wearing the hijab.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, close to five million according to official estimates. Unofficial sources say they may be closer to seven million. Unemployment in the Muslim areas, peopled mainly by North Africans, is as high as 40 per cent against the national average of 12 per cent.

In a post-September 11 world traumatised by terrorist attacks and haunted by fundamentalist Islam, the decision by a handful of schoolgirls to defy the laws of the Republic has been widely interpreted as symptomatic of a rise in sectarianism and communalism.

Many Muslims in France feel they are ill-integrated into French society. Young French Muslims are often people with an attitude, born as they are in the country's sordid suburban localities that are rife with delinquency, gang warfare, despair and drug abuse.

ARTICLE 1 of the Constitution promulgated on October 4, 1958, says: "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs."

But this consensus around secularism was reached after tremendous upheaval and turmoil, which included wars, persecution and bitter quarrels. The source of French secularism lies in the 1789 Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man followed by the Concordat of 1801, which recognised the equality of all religions. Right up until the early 20th century, however, France was divided into two camps, one pro- and the other anti-clerical. The former argued that France should once again become the "elder daughter of the Catholic Church".

The latter held that France was the "daughter of the Revolution" and thus could not conceive of herself in religious terms. These quarrels ceased with a broad consensus emerging in favour of secularism and the debate appeared to have ended. Until 1989, that is, when it was suddenly jerked back to life.

Opponents of the Islamic headscarf say it is a symbol of women's subservience and inferiority and as such intolerable in a republic that claims to uphold and defend the equality of the sexes. They stress the need for a distinction between belief and knowledge. Allowing the headscarf in a public space that must remain neutral would be tantamount to undermining republican values, they say.

Those who favour a more tolerant approach say that the transmission of knowledge need not necessarily take place in a void, that the Republic is strong enough to admit and tolerate individual quirks of dress and manner. Banning the headscarf, they say, would be an infringement of the freedom to practise one's religion. It will tend to push the Islamic community into the hands of extremists who favour a more fundamentalist, hardline approach, they argue.

Social workers, especially in the difficult suburbs around France's big cities where North African Muslim populations are generally concentrated, have warned about the risks of further marginalising a community that already feels rejected by the country's white mainstream.

The question is, will the new law resolve the problem? Critics of the law say it is a hurriedly introduced, badly drafted instrument that reeks of intolerance and leaves several zones unclear. School principals will have to decide what they are or are not willing to allow within their establishments. "They can choose to apply the law intelligently or stupidly, and some, as in the case of the Lycee Louise Michel in Bobigny, have chosen the stupid path," says Danielle Renard, a schoolteacher. Some establishments have allowed younger Sikh children to wear handkerchiefs to cover their topknots. "A compromise can always be reached," said Renard.

Moderate Muslims tend to favour what they call "Islam de France", French-style Islam with maximum integration into the host community, rather than "Islam en France" (Islam in France), a transplant from purely Muslim societies. "Islam de France" would incorporate the principle of laicity.

Human rights organisations say that France is violating a fundamental principle, the freedom of free religious practice. Others who fear a backlash say the government is making a mountain out of a molehill and that this approach will surely lead France to grief, alienating the five-million-strong Muslim community and further hampering its smooth integration into the national fabric. That this will only encourage "Islam en France" and scotch any chances of developing an "Islam de France".

As things stand today, over 70 schoolgirls are flouting the ban on wearing headscarves and six of them have already been expelled. In general, however, the application of the law has been remarkably smooth. "We have a dialogue with the families and many of the girls agree to take off their scarves before entering the establishment. This is not a discriminatory law, or a law against the practice of religion. Quite the contrary.

It is a law that protects children within state schools by placing them in a neutral space where religious affiliations and differences have no place," explains Francois Klein, a Jewish schoolteacher.

The ban has made France unpopular among Muslim societies. The country was confident that its refusal to participate in the war on Iraq had given it some immunity against terrorist attacks. That illusion was shattered when two French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq over two months ago, the main demand of their captors being the scrapping of the controversial law banning the headscarf in public schools.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor