The Magazine

Veiled Threat

From the January 19, 2004 issue: Can French secularism survive Islam?

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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IN LATE DECEMBER, Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese radical organization Hezbollah, released to the Western media a letter in which he complained of a "stripping of liberties from Muslims, even when they have not disobeyed the law," and warned of an emerging climate "hostile to religion and to Muslim citizens." The tone was not unusual for a Hezbollah letter. What was unusual was the addressee. For the broadside was launched neither at George Bush nor at John Ashcroft but at French president Jacques Chirac, who until recently was hailed as a hero among Arab radicals for his opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. Last March, Chirac was mobbed by hundreds of thousands of Algerian well-wishers in the streets of Oran. Even Fadlallah in his letter (which is reproduced on the French Middle East website professed himself "mindful of France's political role--under your administration--in Lebanese, Arab, and French matters, and the convergence of our positions, along with our interests, despite differences on certain points."

Fadlallah's gripe is a law now being rushed to the French National Assembly that by February will, in many settings, forbid women and girls to wear Muslim headscarves. On December 11, a Chirac-appointed blue-ribbon commission under the direction of the centrist politician Bernard Stasi recommended a ban on "conspicuous" religious symbols--including headscarves, yarmulkes, and "large crosses"--in schools, hospitals, and other public buildings. There were other things in the report, including the proposal to add two new national holidays--Yom Kippur and Id al-Adha, the Islamic feast of Abraham. The new holidays were approved by 98 percent of Muslims, according to mid-December polling done by daily Le Parisien, but were overwhelmingly rejected by the public at large. The commission also broached the establishment of a School of Islamic Studies and the teaching of le fait religieux ("religion as a subject") in secondary schools. This last measure would seem particularly pressing in a country that has grown thoroughly alienated from religion. According to an article published in Le Figaro two days after Christmas, 45 percent of those who describe themselves as Catholics are unable to say what Easter celebrates.

But the commission's proposals on the veil dwarfed everything else. The French are obsessed with Muslim headwear, with an intensity that can mystify foreigners. There are a dozen books on the veil selling briskly in French bookstores now, and to rattle off some of their titles puts one in mind of a Monty Python routine: "One Veiled, the Other Not"; "The Veil That Is Tearing France Apart"; "A Veil Over the Republic"; "Drop the Veil!" (by the Iranian feminist Chahdortt Djavann), and "What the Veil Veils" (by the leftist gadfly and Stasi commission member Régis Debray). The controversy dates from 1989, when the first cases of girls' refusing to uncover themselves cropped up. Over 15 years, the issue has been settled and reopened through a series of bans, rules, waivers, overturnings, and decrees.

It is true that more women are wearing coverings lately (at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Asnières, a third of the female students are covered, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) and that there has been a spike in confrontations between public-school girls and authorities (some of them related to political issues in the Middle East and in Iraq). But the most recent statistics--1,200 cases of veiled girls in state schools, with four expulsions--would seem to indicate little more than a dress-code problem of limited extent. Yet the French are debating it as Americans would debate a declaration of war.