The French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, is the first man for a long time to hold that post who has shown the courage and determination to confront France’s growing social problems. He has put policemen back on the beat; he is testing drivers of crashed cars for the presence of cannabis in their urine. But he made a rod with which to beat his own back in creating the Union of French Islamic Organizations as an intermediary between French Muslims and the French government. He hoped that moderates would control the new group, but instead it has given extremists a platform from which to voice their demands. Last weekend, he brought down the extremists’ ire by re-opening the question of the wearing of the headscarf by Muslim girls and women in a speech to the new Islamic union.

The fundamentalists booed Sarkozy, though a smattering of the women in the audience applauded when he remarked that the law required that photographs for the compulsory identity card should be taken bareheaded: that is to say, without a headscarf. He was implicitly asserting the supremacy of the law of the state over any religious custom.

The Conseil d’Etat had not long before ruled that the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls at school was legal (it had previously been banned), provided that it gave rise to no conflict. This, of course, was asking for the circle to be squared: and conflict over headscarves duly started up again in several schools almost at once. But, in a spirit completely contrary to the Conseil d’Etat’s ruling, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin announced his intention of prohibiting by law the wearing of the headscarf in the exercise of any public function. He did so in name of the difference between the public and the private sphere, and of the secularism of the state.

The wearing of the headscarf has clearly become a matter of the deepest symbolic significance in France, a matter over which it is not impossible to see hundreds or even thousands eventually being killed. What might appear to an outsider as a trivial disagreement is actually one of great philosophical importance—a fact that both parties to the disagreement instinctively understand.

Some of the women who attended the meeting of the Union of French Islamic Organizations (not, presumably, those who applauded Sarkozy) have sent a letter to the prime minister, saying that they are both fully Islamic and fully French citizens, and that they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, if he persists in his planned legislation. In other words, they intend to hoist western society by its own petard.

The Agence France Presse reports that scarf partisans are duplicitously using a double tactic and a double language to impose their views on Muslim women—their ultimate goal being the destruction of the liberal-democratic state itself. On the one hand, they appeal in public to the doctrine of universal human rights, which are observed only in states such as France; on the other, in private, they use the traditional male dominance of their culture—including the threat of violence—to impose their views on others in the name of Holy Writ. After all, in some giant housing projects surrounding Paris and other French cities, young Muslim women who dress in western clothing are deemed to be fair game, inviting—indeed, asking for—rape by gangs of Muslim youths. In such circumstances, it is impossible to know whether the adoption of Islamic dress by women in western society is ever truly voluntary, and so long as such behavior persists, the presumption must be against it being so.

In short, Islamic extremists use secularism to impose theocracy: a tactic that calls to mind that of the communists of old, who appealed to freedom of speech with the long-term aim of extinguishing it altogether. The parallel is all the more exact, because just as Moscow financed the communists, the Saudis finance many of the Muslim extremists.

France’s headscarf problem illustrates the limited ability of abstract principle to decide practical political questions. There are good abstract arguments, appealing to human rights on both sides, for allowing and disallowing the wearing of the headscarf. But the question can only be decided sensibly based on the study of social realities.

In Britain, for example, there was (for a very short time) a problem about Sikh men who wanted to join the public service and yet continue to wear their turbans. Officials solved the problem very quickly: they designed turbans that fitted in—very smartly, in the event—with various uniforms and modes of dress. No one felt, or feels, intimidated or threatened in the slightest by this concession to a religious custom.

The same cannot be said of the appearance on our streets of Muslim women so completely covered that even their eyes are hardly visible through the slit in their headdress. The reason for the difference in reaction rests not on abstract principle but on concrete social context. The women who appear in such costume are often subject to forced marriage, and no one can tell whether they wear Islamic costume from choice or through brute intimidation. Moreover, they are members of a religion with a strong aggressive, proselytizing, and imperialistic streak—a religion that ultimately recognizes nothing but itself, not even the secular state, as a source of authority.

There is clearly an urgency to the settlement of the scarf question in France: and let us hope for France’s sake that Sarkozy, Raffarin, and Luc Ferry (the Minister of Education) are familiar with those wise lines of Kipling:

And we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.


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