Islam in Europe

The Headscarf Debate à la Française

In France as well as Germany, an argument has been raging in recent months on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. The French government now plans to bite the bullet and pass a new law by Christmas to ensure the "preservation of secularism".

photo: AP
Alma and Lila Levy

​​The most important consequence of the new law would probably be the setting of clear guidelines determining the circumstances under which the wearing of the headscarf might be prohibited. These guidelines would apply in particular to Muslim immigrant children at state schools and other state-run educational institutions. This would be something quite new in France, although it’s now been 14 years since the Muslim headscarf in schools first became a bone of contention and a source of political controversy within France.

"L'affaire du voile" – the roots of the conflict

It all began in 1989, with the so-called "affaire du voile". At a secondary school in the provincial town of Creil, eleven schoolgirls of North African origin were suspended for wearing the Muslim headscarf. At the time, this led to a vehement and sometimes highly tendentious debate on the "clash of cultures". In November 1989, the Conseil d'Etat, the supreme court for administrative justice, ruled against a general ban on the wearing of the headscarf. This ruling led to vigorous protests from the various social groupings that had demanded, "in the name of secularism", a clear separation of religion and schooling.

The court, however, had ruled that state schools would have to test each case on its own merits; a ban on religious symbols, such as the headscarf, the crucifix or the Jewish skullcap, would only be permissible under two circumstances: if the wearing of these symbols were associated with missionary activities; or if it should become apparent that other members of the same religious community were feeling morally pressurised to conform. In each particular case, the decision was to be left in the hands of the school authorities in question. The court’s guidelines, however, have always been open to a wide range of interpretations.

A fragile compromise

This legal compromise formed the basis for a fragile peace in French domestic politics, which lasted until 2003. Agreement began to crumble last April, when the conservative Home Secretary Nicolas Sarkozy made his appearance at the congress of the UOIF ("Union des organisations islamiques de France"). This organisation is based in the Parisian satellite town of La Courneuve, and is a French offshoot of the international Muslim Brotherhood movement.

A few months previously, the UOIF, in its capacity as a religious organisation, had become an important strategic partner to the French government. Since 2002, the government had been trying to contain "French Islam" within clear organisational structures, for the politicians had long wished to have a reliable contact partner within the Islamic community. This had been impossible to achieve up to then, as Sunni Islam has no clerical class comparable to the priests in the Catholic church.

In a newly formed and elected "French Islamic Council" ("Conseil francais du culte musulman"), the UOIF became the strongest grouping, alongside a faction oriented towards Morocco.

Plain talk amongst friends

Having been thus recognised and apparently appreciated by the French government, the UOIF initially gave a warm welcome to Home Secretary Sarkozy when he attended their annual congress in the Parisian suburb of Le Bourget. At several points, Sarkozy’s speech was greeted with thunderous applause. Then – under the motto "plain talk amongst friends" – he made a statement designed to underline the authority of the state: Muslim women, said the Minister, would be required to pose for their passport photographs without a headscarf and with their hair open and visible.

The audience reacted with a spontaneous chorus of boos and whistles. The hall was in uproar, although UOIF functionaries attempted to placate the audience and to save what could be saved. Eventually, the pictures of Sarkozy’s reception did the rounds of the French media. Once again, France had a scandal on its hands; a new debate on Muslims in France and the role of the headscarf was already in full spate.
One consequence of the newly erupted dispute was the establishment of the so-called "Stasi Commission" in July 2003.

This had nothing to with the former East German state security service, but was named after the man who headed the commission: Bernard Stasi, a prominent politician and former close adviser to President Chirac. The Commission heard the views of a wide range of people from French politics and society, including the social-democratic opposition politician Francois Hollande, the rector of Paris’s Central Mosque, Dalil Boubekeur, several French bishops, and even the General Secretary of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, Bruno Gollnisch. The Jewish Grand Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, was also consulted. In mid-November, the Commission concluded its hearings. Since then, it has been preparing its final report.

The Aubervilliers case

The work of the Stasi Commission has been given even greater prominence as a result of the "Affaire Aubervilliers", a case that caused a big stir in the media. In the first week of October, two sisters who wear the headscarf were suspended from their school in the Parisian satellite town of Aubervilliers. What makes this case so unusual is that the girls come from a family of atheists. Their father’s origins are Jewish, while their mother’s family were Algerian Christians, but both parents say they have no religious beliefs. It’s clear that the girls have personal motives for their action – a mixture of a youthful search for identity and a desire to protest, plus an admixture of Islamic influences.

In contrast to the affaire du voile of 1989, when the suspension was initiated by conservative school authorities, in this case it was mainly left-leaning schoolteachers who favoured suspending the girls. These teachers have stated that they are increasing worried by "the growth of communitarianism".

The "headscarf debate" became even more heated after statements made by Jean-Claude Imbert, editor-in-chief of the conservative weekly magazine, “Le Point“ and a member of the Stasi Commission: he described himself as “Islamophobic“, a remark that provoked a storm of public outrage.

Unrestrained polemics

There is, however, one particularly urgent reason why the government of President Jacques Chirac is pressing for a new law sometime this autumn: Chirac fears that the parties of the extreme right will gain influence once more at the elections to the regional parliaments next spring - and he would like to foil their plans by "proving his toughness" before then. Should the Stasi Commission succumb to such pressure, an end to the current polemics is nowhere in sight.

And there has already been more than enough demagoguery in the course of the headscarf debate, particularly from the right – even if Jean-Marie Le Pen has surprised a lot of people with his latest statements. At the end of the 80s, he was still in favour of repressive measures; now, however, he has spoken out against a ban on headscarves at schools. The ageing fascist feels that headscarves make it possible to recognise that "these people are not like us, and don’t want to be like us." And this, he believes, will make it easier at some point in the future to segregate the population – by deporting all immigrants.

Bernhard Schmid

© 2003

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Further Qantara articles on the headscarf debate:
"The Islamist Identity" by Nilüfer Göle
"Getting Cross with 'Der Spiegel'" by Katajun Amirpur

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