Beyond the politics of the hijab

By Joel Schalit

 

In his second of four articles on the state of multicultural Europe, Joel Schalit lifts the veil on the hysteria surrounding Islamic head coverings in France

He agreed with Chirac. “I would have made the same decision, if I were in his shoes,” said the talk show host. “After all, they want to impose Sharia law on everyone. We have to start somewhere. Where better than our classrooms?”

The issue of Islamic head coverings re-erupted in France after a report recommending the banning of headscarves from French universities was issued (Photo/Mehran Khalil/Flickr)
The issue of Islamic head coverings re-erupted in France after a report recommending the banning of headscarves from French universities was issued (Photo/Mehran Khalil/Flickr)

It would have been one thing if this discussion had been taking place in France, where the subject of hijabs in the classroom is once again in the headlines. But this was California, overheard on a Christian radio station as I was driving home from work, nearly a decade ago.

For listeners of Evangelical programming, the discussion wasn’t surprising.

The 9/11 attacks had heightened American fears of Islam.

Supporting the Bush administration’s War on Terror, fundamentalist media had made a practice out of demonising Muslims, routinely discussing topical events – such as France’s 2003 adoption of a law banning the wearing of headscarves – as though to demonstrate sympathy for its xenophobia.

Though dubbed the ‘headscarf law,’ as it was aimed at hijab-wearing Muslim students, the French legislation was worded in such a way as to avoid being charged with prejudice. Hence it’s outlawing of all forms of over religious expression at school, not just headscarves.

The excuse being, of course, that it was about preserving secularism (laïcité, as it is called in French) not discriminating against any one faith. Like many French Muslims, the American radio preacher didn’t buy the neutrality bit.

“France is a Christian nation, just like the United States. They have to keep schools safe from Muslim proselytizing,” he said, continuing to promote the theory, common in Anglo-conservative circles today, that public expression of Islam is not so much about being pious, as it is ‘evangelical’ or promoting a ‘Mohammedan’ point of view.

Taking this position, as a Protestant, whose country was fighting a war frequently construed as a cultural conflict, made sense to the talkshow host.

In the name of religious neutrality, the French were doing what the Americans, with their more limited concept of secularism, couldn’t. They were outlawing outward forms of devotionalism, not defending religious freedoms.

Though actually more secular, this aspect of French politics had its appeal.

 

Headscarf ban 2.0

Hence, the vintage flavor of a new French report, issued by the Orwellian-sounding High Council for Integration, urging the banning of headscarves from universities.

Whereas the original legislation (which this report’s authors advocate extending to higher education) is more general, the recommendations put forth by this committee are more specifically focused on the headscarf, and Islamic religious activities on campus.

Contending that the Muslim veil is fostering tensions on college campuses, the report insists that the government take action to outlaw it.

Well-known for his antipathy towards French Muslims, Interior Minister Manuel Valls would likely support its recommendations.

French educators aren’t as certain about the report’s claims. Raphael Liogier, who is Director of Religion Studies at the Sorbonne told The Local that they are more reflections of anxiety about Islam, than documentation of an actual problem on college campuses.

“We are in a period of time in France, and in other countries like Britain too, when we are suffering from an identity crisis. People are concerned things are not like they used to be and they feel the need to defend themselves against this danger, which is considered to be Islam,” he said.

“This is why we have these reports. It’s really shocking.”

Indeed, according to a 6 August survey published in Le Figaro, 78 per cent of French people polled believe that the hijab should not be worn in university classrooms.

Unsurprisingly, 86 per cent of those objecting were retirees, while persons under the age of 35 expressed more tolerance, as though to underline Liogier’s belief that the desire has less to do with university politics, than it does with French social concerns.


Ethnicity

Creating an artificial campus crisis may very well be the most opportune way to force the issue.

And yet, is it really Islam that’s the concern?

Is laïcité that much of a priority for French conservatives, who, while not exclusively religious, are also frequently Catholic?

Like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia isn’t just about conflicting cultural mores. It’s equally about ethnicity, in this case, that embodied by the traditional clothing of French women, of largely Middle Eastern descent.

As long as the issue is about headscarves, it’s easier to pretend that the crisis is about religion, not Levantine or African physiques, or skin colour.

This isn’t to say that faith doesn’t matter, because it does.

Faith remains a defining element of minority life in Europe, as well as that of the state, albeit, as in the French case, in defining its neutrality.

Yet, the reasons remain obscure, because, in matters concerning religion – or its required absence – we still forget that its ideas are reflections of who we are.

Hence the illegitimacy of debates about issues like the hijab.

If we could somehow find a way to elevate the discourse, to get at what’s behind it, the easier it will be to point out its fundamentally discriminatory concerns.

 

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