French head scarf ban infringes on civil liberties

By Matt Holtzman

I don’t know where I’ve been the last couple of weeks, but someone should have notified me about France’s nosedive into third-world politics. A ban on head scarves exists in Singapore, Turkey, and Egypt in various forms, but the implementation of President Jacques Chirac’s ban on religious garb, in my mind, can only be viewed as a move to enhance the secularity or la cité that defines France, as a politically-charged diffusion of racial tensions, or as an extremist stance against Islamic militancy.

The French Cabinet approved the measures in late January and Chirac, who has fervently supported legislation for the dress code, has labeled the wearing of religious emblems, with particular emphasis on the Islamic hijab, as “signs of religious proselytism” that lead France down the “dangerous path of putting ethnic identities first.” In other words, small North African children learning multiplication tables should be viewed as agents of religious propaganda due to their observance of age-old traditions.

His gripe is a serious one, however, as many teachers and individuals in the public sector seem to feel the reins of their country slipping from their hands. In essence, the 70-percent majority in favor of the ban seems to feel as though growing “religious demands” such as these might come to dominate in the political arena, thus choking secular traditions and freedom of expression. As a hypothetical idea, the removal of divisive material of any sort sounds like a solid plan. In addition, the policy gives the appearance of across-the-board equality in that devout Christians are stripped of the right to adorn themselves with large crosses.

What is more, proponents of the legislation claim that external religious influence can go so far as to damage a student’s ability to interact with peers and interferes with critical reasoning skills that must be maintained in a secular, liberal environment. The reality of this maneuvering, however, is that it may serve to exclude further already marginalized Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish populations in France.

The argument can be made that these rules apply to every child; however, Christianity is the religion of the majority and it is easier to conform to the “rules” when the backbone of one’s country will always be ready to lend support should you falter. There is no fine print like that for Muslim, Sikh, or Jewish students, who suffer from increasingly drastic violence and discrimination. Some French Jews, in one of the most absurd reactions to the violence they face, have accepted the ban—they claim that it could limit their exposure to anti-Semitism, thereby decreasing violent acts towards them.

While France uses no pretense in declaring that majority rule will dictate politics, it is also skirting the issue by referring to the size of these religious articles. For example, should Jewish males and Muslim females be prohibited from wearing baseball caps of excessive size to cover their heads? How much cloth is too much? In my humble view, this policy is one degree of separation away from discrimination based on skin color and the curtailment of basic human rights and freedoms of speech. Does it make practical sense to limit the freedom of speech of a select group in order to preserve the very same principal nationwide? In addition, the policy seems to be directly aimed at defusing growing ethnic tensions within the country. The buzz of xenophobia issuing from such organizations as the National Front is of substantial concern, as evidenced by right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen’s recent successes. In fact, it may be Chirac’s goal to appease this faction with popularly guided laws before it removes him from his office.

Ultimately, it may be of great importance to identify those children who voluntarily partake in their traditions as opposed to the ones who are being forced to do so for the simple reason that a forced religious credo works against the ideals of French society. A determination such as this one would aid France in the preservation of a democratic society; overall, this goal cannot be reached by resorting to what are arguably fundamentalist tactics. Historically, authoritarian methods do not work well to stem the tide of other traditionalist doctrines.