French President Jacques Chirac wants us to believe that his government’s proposed banning of the hijab and religious attire from schools and other public institutions like hospitals, is designed to reinforce the separation of religion and state and to preserve France’s tradition of secularism. Â
Nice try, Monsieur le PrÃ©sident! Â
In reality, the uneasy intermixing of religion and politics in France has been, and still is, the rule — not the exception. The recent proposed hijab ban is just another disastrous result of it. Â
Back in 1926 when France was still a major colonial power in Muslim countries, the Mosque of Paris was built to deal with the growing Muslim minority in the country. This was an unprecedented move for Europe, but fully in keeping with 19th-century French tradition. During his reign as emperor, Napoleon had previously organized councils to oversee both Jews and Protestant Christians in his predominantly Roman Catholic state, thus establishing an official relationship between politics and religion. Â
But the French government could not control the Muslims within its borders through the Paris Mosque, which instead came increasingly under the influence of the Algerian government, which contributed to its operating costs. Â
Whenever political relations between France and Algeria were friendly, relations between the French government and its Muslim minority were also friendly. But when the French government felt that the Mosque had become too controlled by those it considered foreign "fundamentalists," all hell broke loose. Â
On many issues, the French — both government and citizens — rejected what they saw as an improper Algerian governmental intervention in their political life through their "religious embassy" (i.e. the Paris Mosque). Â
In addition, French Muslims have tended to remain deeply involved in the politics of their countries of origin. Many retain the right to vote in elections "back home" — a situation which is exploited by both the French and foreign governments involved. Â
Moreover, those French Muslims whose roots are in North African countries or Turkey, are particularly dominated by the political interests of those states. As well, various Islamic movements in the formerly colonized Muslim countries maintain a strong membership among French Muslims too. These include the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and to a lesser (but still significant) extent, the Pakistani Tablighi Jamah. Â
These associations and relationships are complex and pervasive and must be acknowledged in order that the background to the current hijab-banning crisis can be properly understood. Â
But in France the issue of wearing or not wearing hijabs is not new.
In recent history, it goes back to 1989 when three female students wearing hijabs were refused admission to their local public high school. At the time, the school principal was able to convince the girls’ parents to ask their daughters to remove the hijabs while at school. Â
But French anti-racism organizations, such as SOS-Racisme, took up the issue as a violation of the "right to be different." However, SOS-Racisme went too far, outraging the Muslim community by negativizing arguments such as: "Where will their exclusion from state schooling lead to? To their enrollment in Koranic schools?" implying the inferiority of the latter. Â
The high school later reached a revised agreement with the parents; that the girls would remove their head-covering hijabs while in class, but could wear them in the corridors and playground. Most Muslim NGOs, including the Union of Islamic Associations in France, refused to accept that compromise. Â
Ever since then, the hijab issue has fuelled strong feelings and an ongoing political-religious tension between the national government and French Muslims.
Following the unsatisfactory October 8, 1989 compromise, French Muslims raised the slogan "Our veil is our honour," while French teachers raised a confrontational one of their own, "Let’s not give in." Â
In November 1989, at the French government’s request, the Council of State published a report on the "compatibility or incompatibility of the wearing of signs of affiliation to religious community with the principle of secularism" in state schools.
However, the report still left it up to local school officials to judge whether wearing hijabs or other religious attire and symbols would, or would not, constitute "an act of pressure, proselytizing, or propaganda threatening the dignity or freedom of the pupil or of other members of the education community."
That was simply too much to ask from school administrators, who came under heavy criticism when they did not ban the hijab, and were just as heavily censured whenever they did. Only a few weeks after issuing its policy report, The Council of State overturned the decision by a secondary school administration in Montfereil (just outside Paris) to ban the hijab. Â
And just last year, the issue was further politicized when the rightwing, anti-immigration Front National (FN) party declared that "Islamic culture has arrived on French soil. Now it is taking root symbolically."
And as President Chirac saw that French voters would continue their inexorable drift to the extreme right, he clearly wanted to move in the same direction himself in order to retain his popularity.
That is why he is now so supportive of banning "conspicuous" religious symbols and attire in French state schools and other public places — including the wearing of large Christian crosses, hijabs for Muslim girls, or skullcaps for Jewish boys. Â
So much for France’s much-vaunted "secular" tradition, which in reality has proven to be an ongoing and disastrously bad mixture of politics and religion. Welcome to France.