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.

Which is what the French man on the street perceives it to be. At issue is the assimilability of France's Arab immigrants and their children. France is now about 10 percent Muslim. Some set the Muslim population (almost all of it Arab) at 5 million, others at 8 million. But all agree that the Muslims are disproportionately (even unconscionably) poor, clustered in housing projects surrounding France's biggest cities, victimized by discrimination, and ravaged by unemployment and increasingly crime. Young men of Arab descent (beurs, as they're called) have been responsible for a lot of that crime, including the vast majority of the hundreds of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in France over the last three years, and for much of an epidemic unruliness in France's schools. In "The Lost Territories of the Republic," the sociologist Emmanuel Brenner made an inventory of such classroom incidents--kids guffawing through lectures on the Holocaust, teachers subjected to ethnic taunts, humiliation of girls--that is reported to have shocked Jacques Chirac profoundly. So the veil is to the French imagination what graffiti were to the American imagination in the late 1970s: harmless per se, yet a marking of territory, sparking fear that those willing to do harm are in the neighborhood.

This attitude toward the veil upsets Claude Allègre, the Socialist former minister of education, who wrote recently: "Anyone who thinks that the 'atypical' presence of a couple hundred veiled girls among 7 or 8 million adolescent students is enough to bring a rather apathetic France to its boiling point is kidding himself. The veil is above all a symptom of fear--a fear that Le Pen and his retrograde and dangerous ideas can ride on." French centrist politicians don't want the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen to use anxiety over the veil--and more generally over immigration and assimilation--to score big victories in the regional elections coming this spring. That is part of the reason why the law on the veil is being rushed to the legislature. And also part of the reason why France's minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, has spent much of the past year trying to bring Islam into line with the country's laws.

France has a sharp separation of church and state that regulates religion under the rubric of laïcité, which can be translated as "secularism" but is a specifically French concept. As Paris's Cardinal Lustiger has correctly noted, laïcité--particularly the 1905 laws in which it is encoded--is "a history," more than a theory of government. It was meant to solve several concrete problems. In 1905, the church was reactionary; it possessed enormous state power through its control of the schools; and enormous power to influence elections through its assets and its authority to excommunicate and preach. These factors had come together to permit the church to play a central role--as both propagandist and backroom string-puller--in denying justice to Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish career officer framed on charges of spying for Germany and sentenced to exile.

Laïcité, in other words, is a hundred-year-old compromise between a decadent state Catholicism and a crusading rationalism, the key insistence of which is that all religions must confine their practice to the private sphere. Religion has no place in political life. A French politician who uttered an American-style platitude along the lines of "My faith sure as heck means a lot to me" would be pressured to resign. Where the American First Amendment seeks to protect the free exercise of religion from state interference, laïcité seeks to protect the country's political life from being hijacked by the church.

PERHAPS WE ASSUME too much in asserting that the open democratic republics of the West are compatible with "religion." We know empirically only that they are compatible with Protestantism, Judaism, and Catholicism. It is no insult to Islam to say that it may not be as assimilable into a regime of laïcité as Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism were--because there is little historical evidence that Islam can be effectively or sincerely practiced only in private. In recent years, French institutions have often tried to fudge the matter by offering ad hoc religious easements to Muslims that would be unthinkable for Protestants, Catholics, or Jews: Last summer in Lille, the mayoralty made one of its swimming pools women-only, and agreed to board up the windows, under pressure from Islamic groups.

The philosopher Chantal Delsol referred in a recent interview to Marsilius of Padua, who argued in the fourteenth century that the papacy had no right to interfere in the affairs of states. "The Islamic Marsilius hasn't appeared yet," she said. "And if he did, on what [Islamic] texts could he possibly base his case?" If Delsol is right, then France has a difficult choice: either scrapping the principle that has been the foundation of its social harmony for a century or banning the public expression of a religion. One of them--either the French social compact, or Islam as it is normally practiced--will have to go.

And France has a great deal of trouble admitting that this may be the choice it faces. The sociologist Michel Wieviorka answers Delsol by saying that we must distinguish between Islam (religious, good) and Islamism (political, bad), "much as one must separate Catholicism, Judaism, or Protestantism from their most radical fundamentalisms." The distinction between Islam and "extremist" Islam redefines as political any elements of the religion that the French public doesn't like. It thus offers an out to those who would retain their multiculturalist credentials--"your culture is just as good as mine"--while taking aim specifically at the veil. It is not Islam but "extremism" that is being targeted.

Such thinking has the added benefit of moving France's biggest problem out of an arena the French don't understand (religion) into an arena they understand quite well (politics). But at a steep price, for it throws the proposed legislation on the veil into a thicket of disingenuousness.

The neutrality of the law is a fraud, because France is worried about Islam, not about "religion." So the Île-de-France chapter of the French Council on the Muslim Religion (CFCM), the newly established public body that mediates between French Muslims and their government, is right to declare that the law "is aimed at Muslims, stigmatizes their religion, practices exclusion, and condemns them to turning inward to their own community." The ban on crosses and yarmulkes is meant only to disguise the singling out of Islam by distributing restrictions evenly across the religions--as if the religions themselves were different "styles" of the same thing. Clearly laïcité is not the principle that is being defended here--it is being defended, yes, but only incidentally, as a means of curbing Islam while allowing the French state to appear politically correct.

Obviously political correctness is not a presentable reason for an intrusion into the religious lives of a nation's citizens. So French authorities are flailing about for a pretext that can be mentioned in polite company. Chirac has tried to cast his actions as a defense of feminism, saying that "a society's level of civilization is measured first and foremost by the position that women occupy in it." In this he has had ample backing, from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur to the magazine Elle. The magazine, casting the veil as an "intolerable discrimination" and the "visible symbol of the submission of women in public," sponsored a petition against it that was signed by the designer Sonia Rykiel and the actresses Isabelle Adjani, Nathalie Baye, Emmanuelle Béart, and Isabelle Huppert, along with several intellectuals and politicians.

On the Monday before Christmas, 3,000 veiled women took to the streets of Paris, begging to differ. They marched against the proposed law along with a sizable male "security detail." Two young students claimed to have come up with the idea for a "spontaneous" demonstration themselves. No one believed them. There are three more demonstrations planned before the first week of February. One will be led by the Muslim Collective of France, whose best-known organizer is the telegenic fundamentalist Tariq Ramadan. Another has been organized for January 17 by Mohammed Ennacer Latrèche, founder of the Strasbourg-based French Muslims' party (PMF). The theme of the PMF march will be "No to Lay Islamophobia." ("Islamophobia" being a word coined defensively two years ago in response to the essayist Pierre-André Taguieff's book "The New Judeo-phobia," which described an anti-Semitic upsurge on the left and in Islamist circles. A good dictionary definition of Islamophobia might be "resistance to Judeophobia.")

Religious parties are a violation of French laïcité (the PMF is another of those ad hoc exceptions mentioned above), but in fact, Latrèche's is not a Muslim party--its program consists almost purely of anti-Semitism. At Latrèche rallies, lists are handed out that detail American and Jewish products to boycott; the "Jewish" ones are accompanied by a Nazi yellow star bearing the word "Jude" (German for Jew). Latrèche was the subject of a telling profile in early January by the journalists Blandine Grosjean and Olivier Vogel of Libération, in which it was noted that he has taken to referring to France's Socialist party as the Zionist party, and now associates with one of France's notorious Holocaust deniers. He coedited a work called "The Judeo-Nazi Manifesto of Ariel Sharon" and took several Parisian youths to Baghdad to serve as human shields before the invasion of Iraq. "Fear is going to have to change sides," Libération quoted Latrèche as saying. "It's going to have to pass from the side of veiled women to the side of those politicians who are going to vote for this law."

In a sense, this is exactly what France has bargained for in transforming a serious religious problem into a serious political problem. And it is a good bargain, too, making it possible to refer Latrèche-style outrages to the police, arresting the violent, and leaving in peace those who practice their religion inoffensively. But none of this is as easy as it sounds.

Jean Bauberot, one of the members of the Stasi commission, stressed that France needs a policy on religion that is "credible beyond our own borders." He is right for two reasons. One is that, however battered it may look at present, the European Union could yet evolve into a tighter confederation, with community-wide directives on religious freedom. France would like those to arise out of its own system, and not out of, say, the system of Ireland, whose constitution mentions the Holy Trinity in its preamble.

The second reason involves Islam worldwide. French politicians were apt to brag during the Iraq war of how clearly their voice was heard in the Arab world. France indeed has sway there, but at the price that it must listen attentively to the Arab world's wishes. The mufti of Egypt has darkly warned Chirac that the anti-veil law would "destroy the social peace of French society." The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has called it "an interference in the realm of Muslims' personal and religious liberty." And Hezbollah wrote that angry letter to Chirac. Interior Minister Sarkozy was thus heartened when Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, the hugely influential imam of al-Azhar theological institute in Egypt, told him that France had the right to ban the veil. While Sarkozy's visit was presented as a drop-in after a vacation, it was obviously of high diplomatic import.

But alongside any cheer that Sarkozy may feel at this triumph of diplomacy, it must be sobering to know that France needs a nihil obstat from Muslim clerics abroad before it can pass a piece of domestic legislation. More sobering still is an increasing tendency among Muslim theologians to count France as part of Dar al-Islam ("the House of Islam"). When Tantawi made similar accommodations to Sarkozy's predecessor, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, in the late 1990s, other clerics at al-Azhar repudiated them under pressure from French Muslim groups.

WHAT LESSONS has America drawn from this episode? None. It has decided to gloat instead. There are elements of laïcité in American politics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union's efforts to ban crèches from public land at Christmastime. But the broader American system does not insist on the religious evacuation of the public square. It is probably the stronger for that. Nevertheless, Americans in government have been too quick to criticize French attempts to regulate the veil. John Hanford, the State Department's roving ambassador for freedom of religion, expressed his concern that France was violating "a fundamental principle of religious freedom." Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum called the law "further evidence of the postmodern culture in Europe. When you marginalize faith, you end up marginalizing the people of faith." (In Britain, too, the measure was attacked by both the Foreign Office and Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury.)

These are cheap shots. Americans overestimate the constitutional issues involved primarily because they are ignorant of the historic ones. Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde, is right to say, "It is no longer a question of religious freedom but of public order." One can prefer the American means of dealing with religious diversity and still question the smug assumption that America's constitutional order could easily cope with the facts on the ground that exist in France--i.e., the equivalent of, in this country, some 30 million rapidly radicalizing Muslims, concentrated in a handful of pivotal cities.

Banning the veil is not about Anglo-Saxon constitutional niceties, it is about a clash of civilizations. France's Muslims bring higher rates of practice and much more passion to their religion than France's post-Christian secularists bring to the defense of the Republic. Those Frenchmen who cling to the order of laïcité have begun to fear that Islam is strong enough to overthrow it. That is a problem for people of all non-Islamic religions. Devout Catholics have at times been shabbily treated under laïcité, and many likely think the world it structures is arid and unspiritual. Yet in a country where the public square is dominated by laïcité, Catholics are able to practice their faith unmolested. What guarantee do they have that they will be able to do so in a public square dominated by Islam?

Such questions show why this law, which looks illogical and off-the-point to foreigners, is nothing of the sort. France's problem is not some short-circuiting of individual freedom due to a faulty constitutional code--in fact, looking at the problem that way is what has led France to delay acting on the veil for 15 years. The problem is finding a way to deal with Islam while it is still, as condescending editorialists put it, the second religion of France, and before it becomes, more simply, the religion of France.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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