“Islam,” as Samuel Huntington wrote, “has bloody borders.” True enough, but in an age of mass immigration where are those borders? Precise numbers are hard to come by, but there are now thought to be at least 12 million Muslims within the EU, territories where, no more than half a century ago, Islam was little more than exotica, a religion of far-off desert places, its presence a distant, if troubling, memory; the faith of the Ottoman empire that, at its peak, reached the gates of Vienna; the faith of the Moors, who swept through Spain, advanced deep into France, and ruled Andalusia for hundreds of years; the faith of the Barbary pirates, slavers and scourge.
And then, when a booming postwar Europe started looking south and east for sources of new labor, history went into reverse. Muslims returned, but as immigrants this time, not invaders. Their stories vary from individual to individual and from country to country, but almost everyone can agree on one point: In France, where there are five million Muslims (about 7.5 percent of the population; other estimates are significantly higher), something has gone terribly wrong.
Even by the low standards of Western Europe, the integration of France’s Muslim minority (which is predominantly of Arab/North African ancestry) has been patchy, to put it kindly. Isolated in the desolation of the cites, high-rise, dole queue suburbs generally located a discreet distance from the principal urban centers, many Muslims are cut off from the French mainstream physically, economically, and psychologically. It’s no surprise that the primitive–and reassuring–certainties of Islamic fundamentalism have found an audience. How great an audience is a matter of dispute, and, inevitably in the country of Le Pen’s National Front, racist mythologizing. Pick an anecdote or a statistic for yourself, but whether it’s rising anti-Semitism, or the horrifyingly routine gang rape of Muslim girls who step out of line, or increasingly politicized violence, they all suggest that a catastrophe is in the making.
And successive French governments have not had a clue what to do. The unspoken, and ludicrous, hope was that most immigrants–including, presumably, their French-born children–would return “home,” allowing the problem to subside. They haven’t and it didn’t.
Affirmative action might (or might not) have helped, but it ran contrary to the founding notion of a republic where all citizens were simply French regardless of race or religion, and was never really tried. Equally, France’s prickly sense of its own identity left less room for the sloppy sense of diversity that arguably bought (until recently) a broad measure of social peace on the other side of the English Channel. Meanwhile, high rates of ethnic-minority unemployment (25 percent or more in some areas) meant that the workplace was no longer the effective engine of assimilation that it had once been.
Prompted partly by post-9/11 panic, the government has at least acknowledged that all is not well, but its attempts to help have often made things worse. Last year the then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, no bleeding heart, set up a “Muslim Council” (Sarkozy has also been flirting with support for affirmative action) as an equivalent to similar, and long-established, bodies for Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. A suitably safe moderate was selected as chairman, but when the process moved from selection to election, disaster ensued. Depending on how you count them, fundamentalists won at least one third of the seats. Designed to enshrine a moderate “French” Islam, the new council may in fact have helped legitimate extremists as an authentic representative voice of France’s Muslims.
The position taken by the French government over the Iraq war only added to the problem. To the extent that Chirac’s motive was to appease the country’s Muslims, he failed. By radicalizing the debate, and bringing paranoia about America, “the West,” and, quelle surprise, Israel onto center stage, France’s president succeeded in inflaming the very hatreds his policy was designed to damp down. To be sure, there were signs, as the tanks rolled into Iraq, that even Chirac was becoming alarmed at the tone that the rhetoric, and worse, was taking. His emollient prime minister was dispatched to make a few emollient remarks: anti-Semitism was, Jean-Pierre Raffarin soothed, a bad, bad thing. But by then, it was too late.
When their policies are failing, politicians like to create a diversion. Jacques Chirac is no exception. A commission he set up last July to look at the treatment of religion in an explicitly secular republic came up with 25 recommendations, including, for example, the suggestion that Yom Kippur and Eid al-Kabir should be school holidays, but the French government has chosen to act on only one, that “conspicuous signs of religious adherence” should be banned from public schools. These include yarmulkes and “large” crucifixes but, given that neither Orthodox Jews nor Assyrian-Chaldean Christians (tiny community, large crosses) pose much of a threat to France’s established order, adding these items is just so much multiculturalist window dressing. The real target of this legislation is Islamic head covering. In France that’s usually a headscarf (“foulard“). Chirac’s frequent references to the veil (“voile“) are just demagoguery: The burka, I suspect, is rarely seen in Bordeaux. With opinion polls showing 70-percent approval, the new law swept through the national assembly by 494-36 in February, and then, a month later, was approved 276-20 in the senate. The new rules will come into force from the beginning of the school year in September.
Criticism has come from some very predictable sources. Bin Laden’s number two, the nutcase doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri (or a mimic pretending to be al-Zawahiri) denounced the ban as “new evidence of the Crusaders’ hatred for Muslims.” Those comments, of course, should be treated with contempt, as should complaints from those Muslim countries that have themselves proved very hostile to public displays of any religion other than Islam. France, of course, has seen a significant number of protests, almost always featuring women in headscarves, lambs voting for Ramadan. Other critics have included, Human Rights Watch, senior United Nations officials, the United States, and even, obliquely, the pope.
There are indeed obvious–and compelling–libertarian objections to the new law as a restriction of religious freedom, but to characterize it as a simple expression of bigotry is to do it an injustice. In theory at least, the law is merely a principled application of laïcité, the state secularism that is roughly analogous to the separation of church and state in the United States. Seen in those terms the law is certainly no more oppressive than some of the more rigid First Amendment rulings seen in this country in recent years. What’s more, if freedom is the issue, what about the freedom of those Muslim girls who choose not to wear the headscarf, a freedom increasingly under threat from fundamentalist bullying.
In a recent article, one member of the presidential commission recalled how, after initial doubts, he was convinced to support a ban. “Since 1989…and especially in the last two to three years, it has become clear that in schools where some Muslim girls do wear the headscarf and others do not, there is strong pressure on the latter to “conform.” This daily pressure takes different forms, from insults to violence…We received testimonies of Muslim fathers who had to transfer their daughters from public to (Catholic) private schools where they were free of pressure to wear the headscarf…. In the increasing number of schools where girls wear the hijab, a clear majority of Muslim girls who do not wear the headscarf…asked the commission to ban all public displays of religious belief. A large majority of Muslim girls do not want to wear the scarf; they too have the right of freedom of conscience. Principals and teachers have tried their best to bring back some order in an impossible situation where pressure, insults, or violence sets pupils against one another, yet where to protest against this treatment is seen as treason to the community.”
To read those words is to understand that the post-Enlightenment West, where the principle of religious freedom has carried little cost in societies where religion was either in retreat, or at the very least accepted boundaries set by the state, is ill-equipped to deal with the challenge posed by an aggressive, growing, fundamentalist faith steeped in a very different tradition. In this conflict, Western notions of what is “political” and what is “religious” are next to meaningless. Seen one way, the hijab is nothing more than a simple expression of piety, seen another it is a political statement, no less threatening than the brown shirts and red stars of previous eras.
That said, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, even where it does not topple over into absurdity (under certain circumstances, beards too, and even bandanas, can be banned), the new law will make a bad situation worse, radicalizing the previously indifferent, creating flashpoint after flashpoint, confrontation after confrontation and, ironically, turning the hijab, a symbol of repression if ever there was one, into a token of rebellion guaranteed to appeal to the very adolescents the law is designed to govern. Worse still, this move is highly likely to spur the creation of separate Muslim schools (which under French law would be eligible for generous government subsidy) where the headscarf ban would not apply, something that would deepen still further the intellectual isolation of their pupils from the French mainstream. To add to France’s predicament, if there’s one thing potentially more disastrous than the enforcement of this law, it would be its repeal. Repeal would be seen as an acknowledgement of French weakness in the face of the fundamentalists, empowering them still further, and would add to the mounting unease of the native French, the Français de souche, about the Muslims in their midst. Jean-Marie le Pen could not ask for more.
Yes, it’s a mess, but that’s the danger of trying to solve a deep-seated, difficult, and sensitive problem with a quick, politically expedient, fix. Halting the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in France is going to take time, determination, generosity, and, just as importantly, a willingness to fight the battle of ideas in a way that won’t be easy in a country held in thrall to the PC bogeyman of “Islamophobia.”
Don’t hold your breath.