Headscarves and the secularism of fools

Under the guise of defending secularism in education, the French establishment is launching a cynical attack on muslims, young muslim women in particular, which, not accidentally, also strikes at the basic freedom of all.

President Jacques Chirac announced on December 17 that legislation would be introduced to implement the recommendations of a commission on secularism that reported back a week earlier. Its main thrust is to ban “ostensible” religious and political symbols in all state schools - most notably the muslim headscarf, or hijab. According to the unfortunately named Bernard Stasi, the French ombudsman who headed the commission, “there is some behaviour which cannot be tolerated. There are forces in France seeking to destabilise the republic and it is time for the republic to act.”

Surely “the republic” is not so fragile that the wearing of the hijab by a few thousand school students would put it at risk? Of course not. Stasi is referring to the rise of an assertive, political islam that has been making some ground amongst the five million or so muslims in France - a reaction to intensifying stigmatisation and discrimination, felt especially by youth. The proscription is supposedly designed to reduce the impact of islamic fundamentalism. But its real purpose is to rally patriotic France - from the liberal left to the far right - to the increasingly monarchical president and his UMP government by further demonising the country’s muslim minority.

In an attempt to demonstrate that the ban is in no way discriminatory, the commission is simultaneously proposing to outlaw not only all outward signs of religious belief - including the jewish skullcap and the crucifix - but everything of a political nature too. In order to sweeten the pill, a raft of politically correct measures are going to be introduced: a compulsory annual day for studying secularism and sexual equality; the incorporation into the curriculum of the study of slavery, colonialism, immigration and religion; and making it easier for the children of migrants to learn their parents’ language at school.

Another corollary - one which does not sit easily with legislation that claims to promote secularism - is the proposal to introduce two additional public holidays: for the muslim Eid-al-Fitr and jewish Yom Kippur. Ironically the government has just abolished the (christian) Whit Monday public holiday - as a cost-cutting measure, allegedly to help finance better pensions.

It is the latter proposals that have provoked the fury of the chauvinist right - although they felt more comfortable venting their spleen against islam than judaism. Hervé Mariton of Chirac’s own UMP party said the people wanted “islam to be more French, not France more islamic. We don’t want French society to be deformed.” Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right Front National, deplored “the promotion of islam in our country, with its long christian tradition”.

However, it is an indication of the strength and depth of secularism in France that not even Le Pen wishes to challenge the separation of church and state, enacted in 1905. For him secularism means “philosophical, political and religious neutrality - of both pupils and their teachers”. Presumably both should be uninformed by any ideology, while of course the kind of chauvinist curriculum he would wish to enforce would also be completely ‘neutral’.

It is this misunderstanding (wilful or otherwise) of the meaning of secularism that has caused such confusion - and not only on the right. Secularism does not mean that individuals must somehow detach themselves from their own individual religious (or political) ideas in a given environment, but that state institutions should not promote religion (although those institutions can be no more non-political than they can be divorced from the world in which they exist).

Thus the ‘official’ Jeunes Communistes (Young Communists of the Parti Communiste Français) seem to believe that state bans on the expression of individual beliefs are quite legitimate - provided they outlaw only religious ideas, that is. The JC considers it “intolerable to equate a political badge with a religious symbol: to equate the public exercise of citizenship rights, including at school, with religious beliefs, which are a private matter” (statement, December 12).

Thankfully the PCF itself took up an official position that was at odds with the JC’s secularism of fools. General secretary Marie-George Buffet, in her submission to Stasi, declared that secularism ought not to consist of an “artificial, if not schizophrenic, separation between public and private space, restricting freedom of opinion to where it cannot be seen”. That would be the equivalent of asking people to “suppress what is basic to their own identity, showing to society only what unites them with the rest of the nation” (September 19). And why not generalise this “imposed uniformity” throughout society?

The PCF declared the proposals to be not only guided by short-term opportunism, but of “dubious workability”. Indeed. When you consider that French schools do not demand that their students wear a uniform, staff will be forced to distinguish between a headscarf deemed to be “proselytising” and one worn for reasons of fashion; between a necklace that is religious and one that is merely an item of jewellery; between a logo on a tee-shirt that might be read as political and one that is not.

But other leftwing and radical elements were as short-sighted as the JC. For example, the feminist Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Sub-missives) thought the proposals did not go far enough. However, its president, Fadela Amara, said the ban on the hijab would “protect girls who refuse to wear the veil, helping them to resist pressures”. That is true, but what about those who actually wear it willingly?

The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire adopted a more balanced approach:

“Beyond the different meanings it can have for individuals, the veil expresses the oppression and inferiority of women, their submission to the authority of father, brother, husband.” However, while the LCR is opposed to the wearing of the veil, “the problem is knowing how to help girls free themselves”. A ban would only serve to reinforce “negative and discriminatory messages” against muslims (statement, December 11).

That did not stop most leading members of the Parti Socialiste actually welcoming the proposals. Meanwhile, the ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvrière, partners of the LCR in next year’s European and regional elections, had nothing official to say on the question for a week after the publication of the Stasi report.

A mish-mash of confusion, one-sidedness and inconsistency. The PS stresses secularism at the expense of freedom of expression. The PCF emphasises the rights of the individual, but neglects the essential role of the working class. Its Jeunes Communistes underline political expression, but do not defend it as part of a universal right, including that of religious and religio-political expression. Feminists support girls’ right to discard the hijab, but connive at denying those who still wish to wear it.

It is essential that communists make a clear stand on all of these interlocking issues. Yes, secularism in France is far in advance of what pertains this side of the Channel and must be defended. The official promotion or practice of religion can have no place in educational establishments. But that does not mean that students or staff should not have the right to openly display their individual religious affiliation.

Yes, the Stasi proposals are first and foremost an attack on individual political rights. People must have the right to publicly acclaim their political beliefs - especially in schools and colleges, which are supposed to promote the exchange and elaboration of all kinds of ideas. The politics of individual teachers will inevitably tend to influence the way they present those ideas, but these will be a reflection of the politics expressed in society as a whole. The stronger the working class, the more working class politics will hold their own in schools.

Yes, the headscarf is not just religious, but a symbol of women’s oppression. But women and girls must be won to willingly embrace their own emancipation - which of course means the right to wear or not wear items of dress that have repressive origins.

And, yes, the defence and promotion of all these rights must be championed collectively by the working class, whose own emancipation is inextricably bound up with the ending of all oppression and the winning of the battle of democracy.