Islam in France: A Contest Between the Wind and the Sun

November 1, 2004

An employee at a municipal swimming pool in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis was fired in late March 2004 after the local mayor objected to the man’s facial hair. “The external expression of religious beliefs cannot be tolerated where students are taking swimming courses,” the mayor said. He continued with a rhetorical question that reflects contemporary concerns about Islam’s place in French society: “Is proselytism a real problem in our country or not? Wasn’t a law just passed that reminded us all of our duty to respect neutrality in civic life?” The city pool employee, Mourad Lamsanes, insisted he was just trying to be a good Muslim and did not intend to convert any swimmers. Shortly after introducing the bill last winter, former education minister Luc Ferry had in fact stated that perhaps “certain beards” should also be included under the law’s prohibitions. They were not, ultimately, but authorities made it clear that they don’t like what they see underneath certain head and face coverings: an organized movement of religious prescription and proselytism. French shorthand for Islamic extremists is “les barbus” (the bearded), a companion term to “les femmes voilées” (veiled women). Officials reason that radical Islamic movements are “testing” the Republic, and that the state should not shrink from its responsibility to preserve a religiously neutral public sphere.

The sense of crisis surrounding public expressions of Muslim identity should not be underestimated: it had reached its pitch amidst saturated media coverage within weeks of the March 11 train bombings in next-door Spain, a series of high-profile expulsions of French Imams, and, of course, the French Senate’s definitive approval of the law banning “conspicuous” religious signs from primary and secondary schools. French authorities have been extremely eager to impose a set of ground rules for the model comportment and integration of Muslim citizens. This standoffish position came in the immediate aftermath of French opposition to the Iraq war. With its ban on headscarves for young girls in primary and secondary schools, no one could accuse the French government of trying to curry favor with the Arab world. Indeed, France may have squandered the international solidarity of some part of the Muslim world with the ban. It was designated a terrorist target from the time of the law’s passage in March 2004, when Ayman al Zawahiri called the headscarf law “proof of the crusaders’ hatred toward Muslims” and a threat was mailed to Le Parisien calling the law “a declaration of war directed at the Muslim world.”

Is this confrontation between individual religious liberties and newfound vigor of French secularism inevitable? The fact that Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, and Christian crosses are included in the French school ban has been of little comfort to many observers concerned that Muslims are unfairly stigmatized and victimized in today’s political climate. One French Muslim leader compared the government ban on the headscarf to other “unjust laws” of the past, such as yellow stars for French Jews under German occupation. In fact, there had not been strong opposition to the law among the domestic French Muslim population, whom opinion polls showed to be only slightly against it. Last February there were only a couple of anti-ban rallies that in any case never gathered more than a few thousand. After the law’s passage and the follow-up memorandum on how to apply it, Muslim leaders remained split over how strictly to interpret the law and whether to recommend civic disobedience on the first day of school.

But this past September, American news crews who had planned to stake out schools in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods in the hopes of witnessing an “uprising” were disappointed by the lack of drama. What might have been a very divisive start of the school year turned out “in the spirit of fraternity,” in the words of the education minister. Predictions of mass expulsions of Muslim girls turned out to be misplaced. Last month, only 635 girls appeared at school wearing a head covering. Of these 635, all but 100 or so agreed to remove their headscarf within the first couple of days; this was roughly the same number of so-called “conflict cases” as in previous years. By October 15th, the education ministry announced that its teachers had managed to convince all but 72 holdouts.

Two major factors helped maintain a calm situation. First of all, headscarf wearing had never been widespread. In the last year before the ban, in the fall of 2003, the interior ministry reported that out of 250,000 Muslim girls in primary and secondary schools, fewer than 1500 wore headscarves – a fraction of one percent; this was down from a high of 2000 girls in 1994. The official “headscarf mediator” at the education ministry counted only 150 “headscarf cases” in 2003, those girls who were asked to remove the scarf and refused – including twenty “difficult cases” where no compromise could be found, resulting in around a dozen expulsions. Of the 72 who have refused to budge this year, when the teachers’ wishes are backed by the force of law, the estimated number of likely expulsions is only two dozen girls nationwide (most of them in the environs of Strasbourg and Paris).

After the divisive national debate over the law on religious symbols, the law’s failure to incite widespread disobedience has reassured the French public that their Muslim compatriots are not, in fact, seeking confrontation. And some school officials have shown a willingness to compromise. Parents summoned to a school in Mantes La Jolie negotiated for their daughters’ right to wear bandannas in between courses and to remove them upon entry in the classroom.

The second major factor behind the relatively peaceful outcome in French schools was the August 19 hostage-taking of two French journalists in Iraq, whose kidnappers demanded withdrawal of the French headscarf ban in return for their freedom. At that point, even opponents of the ban who had organized demonstrations now led unanimous calls for all schoolgirls to respect the new law. Muslim leaders denounced this foreign interference in their internal affairs and proved their republican mettle by calling the kidnappers’ demands an “odious [form of] blackmail” and by proclaiming loudly the phrase “there will be no blood on my headscarf.”

Given the ire this ban has aroused around the world—from Cairo to Falluja to Washington—and given the relatively small number of girls who ever wore a headscarf to school, why did the government choose this issue? The ban is part of a larger effort to reduce the salience of certain religious traits and potentially dual loyalties of its Muslim population that the French government fears are being stoked by transnational pressures. In particular, authorities claim they receive increasing reports of “re-Islamization” among young people in high-risk neighborhoods. The susceptibility of these second- and third-generation immigrants has its roots, no doubt, in earlier government failures in political and civic integration. Recent research conducted for the Interior Ministry suggests that religion has begun to fill this vacuum in French suburbs, to the point that even banal associational activities like camping and soccer are being given religious overtones.

The heavy media coverage of any instances where some Muslims have demanded male-female segregation—in sex education or gym classes, at public pools or in hospitals, for example—has enhanced the sense of a brewing challenge. As the former leader of the parliamentary majority asked rhetorically, “what’s next – separate compartments for men and women on public transportation? This could lead to a form of apartheid, contrary to our republican ideals.” The French value of individual religious liberty has thus been superceded by the perceived threat to national sovereignty and the French way of life.

A simplified narrative has become dominant: that foreign radicals are using France as a testing ground for their broader strategy. Any instance of headscarf wearers in schools, French officials have reasoned, must therefore be explainable by external factors. Some have suggested girls wear the headscarf in response to neighborhood pressures whipped up by a freshly arrived foreign preacher who does not understand the French way of life; or perhaps because of wealthy Saudis who pay French Muslim families to send their girls to school wearing the headscarf.

The headscarf ban—and the expulsion of individual Imams—thus became useful symbols of a robust state response, aimed to relieve transnational pressures exerted on their citizens. The French state considers itself to be doing battle with transnational forces, not with individual consciences, and is using the instruments at its disposal: it demands a highly visible “sacrifice” on the part of Muslims to republican integration.

This controversy deserves to placed in historical perspective, though not just in terms of previous battles over the separation of church and state. Rather, we should think of religion’s place in the public sphere during transitions from emancipation to citizenship. In the eyes of the state, articles of clothing take on metaphorical qualities of loyalty and belonging. To religious observers and civil liberties activists, this boils down to a simple question of freedom of expression and religious rights. But to governments concerned with integrating communities, these superficial markings of difference undermine a larger effort: not just that of selling republican values to new citizens, but also, in a sense, to sell the “integrate-ability” of these new citizens to the majority population. It is interesting to note that the 1812 edict in Prussia that granted civil rights to Jews also briefly included an article requiring Jews to standardize the way they dressed as well as shave their beards. The edict also prohibited foreign Jews from being employed as rabbis in Prussia.

The headscarf law might also be seen as the French counterpart to the German citizenship law reform in 1999-2000. The reform in Germany affirmed the state’s sovereignty over the Turkish population there—effectively re-territorializing the state’s jurisdiction. There, the initial government proposal allowed for double citizenship but a petition drive led to its reversal, forcing German-Turkish youth to decide their own nationality at age 23. In the same way that many French Muslims were reluctant to part with the right to wear headscarf as a matter of principle, many Turks in Germany resented having to choose between their Turkish passport and the German one. For some German Turks, wanting to keep the passport was not a nationalist claim, just as wanting the right to wear the headscarf is not always a religiously-motivated claim. In each case, however, the state has sought to bind Muslims to the state by way of a public, cultural sacrifice.

But that which threatened to be a grave confrontation of wills has led to a major rapprochement between Muslim leaders and French politicians. Having stayed silent after several terrorist threats in response to the Headscarf ban last spring, the hostage situation and the first day of school forced Muslim leaders out of any shade of ambiguity. French Muslims refused to be used as pawns in an international terrorist battle. As one Le Monde article put it, young Muslim women have made the leap in the eyes of others from “victims” to “heroes of the republic.”

The headscarf ban has passed its first test. The course of events has turned this public debate into a speedier version of the process by which Jews of the early 19th century French empire were posed questions regarding their loyalty to the state. Muslims today, like Jews, have explicitly given priority to the laws of the Republic above their religious obligations. This has had a stronger effect on integration than any emancipatory measure. It is important to remember that although policies like the headscarf ban and expulsions of Imams stand out, the French government’s response has not been one of repression alone. This gives the government greater room for maneuver with other Muslim community demands. In the short term, the law has strengthened the French Council of the Muslim Religion and in the medium-term, the law is likely to lead to the creation of more semi-public Muslim confessional schools, governed by association contracts with the state.

Arguing on behalf of civil rights for Russian Jews in National Geographic eighty years ago, former President William Taft evoked Aesop’s fable of “the contest between the wind and the sun in removing a man’s coat from his back.” “The harder the wind blew, the closer the man held the coat to his body… Persecution and injustice merely strengthen [man’s] peculiarity in his adherence to his ancient customs, religion and its ceremonials,” Taft wrote. “It was only when the sun with its warm rays increased the temperature and created discomfort that the man removed his coat.”

In an age of legislation that sanctions conspicuous religious signs, we are still haunted by President Taft’s prediction: “If education and opportunity and freedom and equality are extended to them in the next generation, the traits in which objection is made will become less and less conspicuous.” Having avoided an obvious backfire of the ban, we may well see a further normalization of the Muslim presence in France—as individual cases are negotiated and the French government is able to adopt a less repressive way of Muslim integration, such as training native imams and paying attention to equality of education and opportunity.