European culture, as it exists today, is based on a democratic, secular universalism which for two centuries France has claimed to personify. That Muslim women will still wear veils despite prevailing attitudes is a visible, overt symbol that a minority group refuses the moral superiority of European liberalism.
The anticlerical tradition of the Enlightenment has made secularism into an article of Republican faith. The central philosophy was outlined during the Revolution by the Count of Clermont Tonnerre - ‘we must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.’ It is in this light that the current controversy on Islamic veils should be seen: national regulations lay down that signs of religious observance should not be displayed in state institutions like schools, either by the state – or by the students.
Other European countries find French fanaticism on this issue incomprehensible. Muslim children in Italy, Belgium, Holland, Britain and Switzerland happily go to school in headscarves. The French position meets minimal official support elsewhere in Europe – the EU’s policies recognise diversity, and the freedoms guaranteed by the ECHR seem to support the diversity agenda. What is going on in France?
For French Muslims, the sudden Republican interest in the headscarf is simple hypocrisy. For years courts have allowed Christian nuns to wear ostentatious crosses and headscarves and Jews to wear skull-caps. In colonial Algeria and the Maghreb, French laws had no problems allowing Muslim women to wear their scarves for all purposes including ID cards – so why have the French decided it is unconscionable now?
Social exclusion and growing observance?
Many discern the discomfort of the ‘wrong sort of immigration’ over the last fifty years. The Arabs the French encountered in Algeria inhabited the sophisticated, urban and Francophile world of Algiers and the coastal towns. Yet a significant proportion of the 8% immigrant population of metropolitan France comes from poor, rural and unsophisticated parts of Muslim Africa. The visibility of traditional costumes on public transport shows that true assimilation is still a long way off. The government has also badly underestimated the amount of effort this will take. French Arabs remain relatively poor, unemployed, undereducated, and socially excluded. Is it any surprise that disaffected youth, having tried and failed to engage with French culture, should fall back on their own religious identity?
This process is compounded by events across the Arab world, in particular the fall-out from September 11th. Muslims across the world are looking more and more into their faith as an escape from the dismal realities of day-to-day existence. Western imperialism in Iraq, corrupt rulers in the Middle East, lack of freedom of expression and a failure of economic development all mean that the mosque is the only place where people can maintain their dignity. European Muslims are not immune to the frustrations of the Middle East, and religious observance is increasing across the board. The hijab is merely the most obvious symbol of this resurgence in religious piety.
Ultimately, this issue is not going to go away. Muslim opinion, looking back at 1500 years of civilisation, toleration and learning, does not see the West as a perfect example, singling out tanks, McDonalds and pollution as peculiarly Western inventions. Most Muslims are proud of their spirituality and family stability, when Hollywood presents unrestrained selfishness and social breakdown as alternatives. Indeed, most Muslim women can relate to the Qu’ran's reason for covering –it specifies that ‘wives and daughters and the believing women… should cast their outer garments over their bodies... so that they should be known and not molested’ (33:59). In a context where sexual assault is frighteningly common phenomenon - one in eight American women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime (1) - many Muslim women may see the hijab as a divine protection. I have spoken with many women who told me that since they started wearing the hijab, the amount of sexual harassment they face has considerably diminished. Far from being oppressed, they said they feel liberated - no longer assessed by their looks, they are judged only by their words and actions.
The limits of secular assimilation
The hijab is, perhaps rightly, seen as a key battleground in making assimilation work. Yet beyond this, what level of assimilation has the government to insist on, especially if it has no metaphysical position to replace the ideology it wishes to destroy? The issue of the hijab has needlessly created internal conflict with no benefit to the State. Surely there is a link between the continual presence of the headscarf issue on televisions, pitting ‘France’ against the ‘Muslims’, and the high National Front vote. But is multiculturalism ultimately even more divisive, fracturing society into its constituent parts? Only time will tell.