France sees headscarves as a veiled threat

The expulsion of two French schoolgirls for wearing Muslim headscarves is just one incident to have sparked debate about religion and education across Europe.

What happened in France?

Two schoolgirls… from Aubervilliers, an industrial suburb of Paris… were kicked out of school [in October] for wearing the [Muslim headscarf, the hijab]. According to a 1989 court ruling, based on the secular principle at the heart of the French state, it is not illegal to wear religious symbols in schools. But the law does forbid “ostentatious” religious signs that “constitute an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda”. The girls chose to wear a full headscarf, covering their ears, hairline and neck. The school considered this provocative and banned them.
From the Economist, October 25

Do any other European states feel the same way?

The [German] constitutional court ruled in September that while the state of Baden-Württemberg had no grounds to ban… an Afghan-born teacher from wearing a headscarf in school, it was free to enact legislation to this effect. Five states have since said they will legislate to ban Islamic headscarves while continuing to allow yarmulkes (skull caps), crucifixes and habits… Critics say the bills will probably be struck down by the constitutional court for being discriminatory. Advocates note that secular Turkey, where two-thirds of Germany’s Muslims have their roots, bans headscarves from universities, schools and the civil service.
Bertrand Benoit in the Financial Times, November 4

So it’s the same problem in France and Germany?

On both sides of the Rhine, no item of clothing gains as much press coverage as the headscarf… But [there] are important differences regarding the role… of the state, which is centralised and secular in France, and federal and tolerant in Germany. In France, the classroom is the ideal place to transmit lay, republican values. Every girl who dares to wear her headscarf in class thus risks sparking a national scandal. In Germany, little girls are left in peace. [There] the debate is about whether teachers should be allowed to show off religious symbols… In effect, the concept of standardised, national education is unheard of in Germany, where the running of schools varies regionally.
From Courrier International, France, September 29

What is behind the objections to the hijab?

The real motive behind the objections to headscarves too often appears to be a resentment at the growing population of Muslims in Europe, sometimes augmented by feminists who see the scarf as a symbol of the woman’s subjugation in Islamic society. These are not valid motives: banning religious dress on racial or ideological grounds subverts the entire purpose of separating church and state in schools, which is to liberate students from the pressures and taboos of sectarians and ideologues of all stripes.
From the International Herald Tribune, October 4

Any problems elsewhere?

The president of [an Italian] Muslim group… suggested that a symbol from the Koran should be displayed alongside the crucifix in his children’s classrooms. When this was denied, he took his complaint to the courts. The judge ruled that the crucifixes showed “the unequivocal desire by the state, when it comes to public education, to place the Catholic religion at the centre of the universe”… Italy has a rapidly growing Muslim population… [estimated at] more than 1 million… The law requiring crucifixes to be hung in schools dates back to the 1920s, when Catholicism was the state religion in Italy. Although a revised accord between the Vatican and the Italian government ended Catholicism’s position as state religion in 1984, the crucifix law has never been repealed.
From BBC News Online, October 26

What are the wider implications of the debate about religion and education?

Italy’s interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, warned his EU counterparts that marginalising immigrants could push them towards terrorism, at a conference on promoting understanding between religious faiths in Europe… While Europe, which expands to 25 states next May, “must open widely to immigrants the door of rights and duties”, [Mr Pisanu said] it had both the right to demand respect for its civil and political systems, and the duty to respect “the cultural and religious values of the newcomers”.
From www.eubusiness.com (http://www.eubusiness.com), October 30

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