- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2004

PARIS — France’s latest national drama started with several thousand Muslim schoolgirls across the country demanding the right to cover their heads in public-school classrooms.

The demand was considered to be both excessive and political, and gradually mushroomed into an emotional nationwide debate — a kind of religious confrontation in this secular state. A tangle of issues is involved, including the concept and extent of secularism and the future of relations of French Christians with Muslims and Jews. There have been few clear-cut answers or suggestions acceptable to those most involved.

The crisis led to intervention by President Jacques Chirac, who announced a planned ban in state schools on what has become known as the “Islamic scarf” — the “hijab” in Arabic — as well as other “conspicuous religious symbols.” The latter was interpreted as including skullcaps worn by Jewish boys and large crosses or crucifixes worn as pins or on neck chains by Christians.

The development followed concern about the growth of France’s Muslim population and about a wave of anti-Jewish harassment in schools and at places of work, often inspired by Muslims.

With the largest Muslim population in Western Europe — estimated at 5 million — and also the largest number of Jews — 600,000 — France has found itself confronting a problem that few European countries have been able to handle with satisfactory results.

In fact, after the French president’s statement, the situation appeared to be more confused and potentially explosive, as Muslims condemned the proposed ban. Nonetheless, the French methods are being watched carefully by other countries, particularly Germany, which faces a similar problem.

To many, the hijab has virtually become “the banner of Islam” and a springboard to other demands. Several Muslim communal authorities demanded special menus in school cafeterias for their children — quickly followed by Jews asking similar treatment.

Muslim accusations of xenophobia multiplied, while France’s Jewish community, almost miraculously revived after the Holocaust, once again felt endangered.

To calm the rising tensions, Mr. Chirac promised “a pitiless battle against xenophobia, racism and, in particular anti-Semites.”

The French president’s main concern is to stop the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the resulting Jewish reaction, and to block what the government perceives as an attempt to undermine the country’s secular system of government “through provocative use of religious symbols.”

The liberal daily Le Monde wrote that the measure would make secularism “cold, closed and defensive,” and exclude large segments of the population that the government would like to integrate into public life and civic participation.

According to Marwan Bishara of the American University in Paris, Mr. Chirac’s decision “could eventually popularize those extremist elements the government wants to contain.”

Public opinion — overwhelmingly approving the French president’s stand — was stunned by a report of a special commission headed by Bernard Stasi that underlined the government’s difficulties in accommodating different races, cultures and religions and the resulting — and growing — tensions.

The 67-page report singled out insults against Jewish children in schools, refusal to attend courses on the Holocaust by Muslim students, and the forcing of Muslim girls to wear the scarf by parents or relatives.

It recommended a ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols, urged the appointment of Muslim chaplains in prisons, and suggested making Yom Kippur and Eid-al-Adha official holidays.

Suddenly, France was swamped with often-conflicting statistics.

The Interior Ministry said that during 2003, there were four times as many violent attacks on Jews as on Muslims. The anti-Jewish feeling was partly ascribed to television footage of the crisis of Palestinians in towns and villages occupied or attacked by Israel.

Also recently, France was confronted with a study in which Michele Tribalat, a demographer, challenged the figure of “5 million Muslims” most frequently used by French authorities as the number living in France.

“They have pulled the figure out of a hat,” she wrote in her extensive study, noting that since 1872, it has been forbidden in France to determine religious affiliation and ethnic origin in a census. Hence, she argued, official statistics on the problem are nonexistent, particularly because a large proportion of recent immigrants have not registered with the authorities.

Nonetheless, she claimed that, according to her findings, the number of Muslims in France did not exceed 3.7 million.

Amid the growing confusion, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of “between 5 [million] and 6 million” Muslims; the right-wing and xenophobic National Front — which wants to get rid of them — mentioned 8 million, and a document by the government Secretariat of Relations with Islam used the figure of 4.2 million.

Thus, the question of Islam and of Muslims residing in France has spilled beyond the grimy urban ghettos of immigrants from former French colonies in North and Sub-Sahara Africa — breeding grounds of crime, despair and anger nourished by poverty and unemployment.

According to recent figures, about 30 percent of men of Algerian origin between the ages of 25 and 39 are unemployed — or three to five times more than the jobless rate for men that age of native French origin.

Religion does not appear to be as important a factor in alienation as ethnic origin. About 23 percent of French citizens — 14 million — are of foreign origin, but most are Christians from Italy, Spain and Poland. Mr. Sarkozy, France’s interior minister, is the son of Hungarian parents.

France, predominantly a nation of Roman Catholics, is governed by strict separation of church and state. But religion has been losing ground. Whereas in 1950 about 40 percent of French citizens were practicing Catholics, last year the figure had fallen to 8 percent.

In this context, many French were asking: What exactly does the “Islamic scarf” mean, and why is it such a symbol? It makes women less attractive and can only mean a disruptive political message in troubled times, many say.

(Editor’s note: Before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, Roman Catholic nuns, including the sisters who taught in parochial schools around the world, wore very modest garb, including head coverings even more restrictive than the contemporary Islamic hijab and layers of robes and veils that concealed the shape of their bodies. These nuns’ “habits,” as the uniforms were called, identified the religious group to which the sisters belonged, and were apparently based on the modest attire of women seen by Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.)

Arab and Turkish women interviewed by newspapers and on French radio and television mainly spoke of their “Islamic dignity” and self-respect, denying the accusations of provocation. However, in some urban ghettoes, girls refusing to wear the hijab have been openly molested.

Among other problems are demands by some immigrant groups that Muslim women be attended only by female doctors. Such requests have caused several deaths and a number of childbirths without medical attention, prompting Mr. Chirac to say that “the basic rights of women are today scorned on a daily basis in our country.”

A number of researchers reject the idea that covering women’s heads is required by the Koran, the holy book of Islam. According to one report, “There is nothing religious in wearing a scarf or covering heads. Centuries ago in the Middle East, a scarf distinguished upper-class women from peasants, slaves and prostitutes.”

There is little doubt that the religious turmoil has created unease and concern among France’s Jewish community, with some Jewish leaders suggesting that it now lives under siege.

Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Affairs suggested that the “Jewish question” has been influenced by the collapse of peace talks in the Middle East and the “invasion” on television screens by pictures of the violence between Muslims and Jews in Israel and occupied Palestinian areas.

“What is at stake is not only the international image of France, but its ability as it moves into a new, enlarged Europe to reinvent itself positively and to transcend the dark sides of its past,” he said, referring to anti-Semitic acts of recent history, including the rounding up of Jews by Vichy French police for deportation to Nazi death camps in occupied France during World War II.

Education Minister Luc Ferry said that the Middle East conflict “has entered our schools” and that France was facing an anti-Semitism “which is no longer of the extreme right, but of Islamic origin.”

He was contradicted by Mr. Sarkozy, the interior minister, who said that linking present-day anti-Semitism to the situation in the Middle East was false. “Anti-Semitism existed long before the existence of Israel,” he noted.

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