France struggles to integrate its Muslim minority

PARIS – Aicha Souldi’s Moroccan mother lived in France for 20 years without ever putting on a Muslim head scarf.

But French-born Souldi not only wears one, she also sells them – in the Islamic clothing store she runs in the center of Paris. Business is brisk.

“This is a personal decision, a matter of faith. In no way do I feel inferior because I’m wearing the veil. It is a piece of material, and it shouldn’t bother anyone,” she said.

As many as two-thirds of French citizens don’t see it that way, however. That’s how many tell pollsters they favor a proposed law to ban the wearing of Muslim scarves and other religious symbols by public school children and government employees.

The head-scarf ban, recently endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, has drawn international criticism as an infringement on religious expression, and many French Muslims see it as the latest in a series of hostile acts directed at them since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The reality, though, seems more complex. The scarf ban is France’s latest attempt, however clumsy, to grapple with a problem unparalleled in the United States or any other country: How to integrate a large Muslim minority, some of whom are fundamentalist and anti-democratic, into the world’s most aggressively secular liberal democracy.

The French census does not sort residents by ethnicity or religion, but the estimated number of French Muslims is as high as seven million, or 11 percent of the population, nearly the same proportion as blacks in the United States.

Similar battles over religion and culture have been brewing across Europe, where Muslims are the fastest-growing minority group. Italians were shocked recently when a Muslim plaintiff won a court ruling, later overturned, banning crosses from being displayed in the public schools. Last month, Spain passed a law mandating Roman Catholic instruction in its classrooms. There is a heated argument over whether to mention Christianity in the new European constitution.

But nowhere is the issue more pressing than France, because of the size of the Muslim minority and the nature of the French republic. France, in stark contrast to Italy and Spain, adopted a kind of radical secularism in 1905 as a way of curbing the political power of the Catholic Church.

Going further even than the U.S. Constitution, France explicitly bans religion from the public sector, including schools. That notion conflicts with Islam, which in its purest form does not recognize a separation between church and state. That makes it all the more difficult for secular France to integrate Europe’s largest Muslim population.

“What does it mean, secular?” asked Nagil Mejri, 38, an interior decorator who came to Paris from Tunisia in the 1980s. “It means you don’t believe in God. That is a problem. We don’t agree.”

On one level, French Muslims are engaged in a civil rights struggle familiar to Americans. North African immigrants came in droves from France’s former colonies in the 1960s and 1970s, recruited to work as temporary resident laborers. They were later granted permanent residency, and now their French-born children are asserting themselves in the face of poverty, segregation and bigotry.

And the beurs, which is the term used to refer to Arabs and Muslims from North Africa, have much to complain about. Overrepresented on the prison and unemployment rolls, many live in soulless housing projects that loom on the outskirts of cities. There is not a single beur in the 577-member French National Assembly, no beur among France’s 36,000 mayors, and few in leadership posts in industry, entertainment or the news media.

But there are facets of the struggle that are different from the American experience. The French are far more troubled than Americans by multiculturalism, ethnic pride and affirmative action. Immigrants are expected to embrace the French language, culture and history.

North Africans in the original wave of immigrants were prepared to do that, or perhaps had little choice. But some of their children, steeped in the values of free speech and democracy, are less willing to subsume their ethnic and religious identities.

To many Americans, that is neither surprising nor troublesome. But French observers, including some beurs, complain that many French Muslims are asserting their identities by turning to a brand of religious and political extremism that is incompatible with liberal democracy.

A rise in attacks against Jews, the challenging of female public school teachers, and an epidemic of gang rapes in Muslim neighborhoods are among the symptoms of that problem, experts say. Particularly disturbing are reports that classes on the Holocaust have been disrupted and that Muslim men have demanded that only female doctors treat their wives. There is also evidence that alienated and violent young Muslim men have been coercing women into wearing a head covering.

“I support this law, because we have a problem between French Muslims and the French republic,” said Zair Kedadouche, a Muslim and a former professional soccer player who wrote a book, France and the Beurs. “There really is a risk of fanaticism. When you have young women who are 7 years old wearing the veil, you cannot say it’s for freedom.”

The law was recommended by a 20-member commission that spent six months examining where to draw the line on secularism. It found the secular state under “guerrilla assault” by Muslims who don’t accept such values as equal rights for women.

“There are without any doubt forces in France that are trying to destabilize the republic, and it’s time for the republic to react,” Bernard Stasi, a former education minister who chaired the commission, told reporters.

“Fanaticism is gaining ground,” Chirac warned in a nationally televised address a few weeks later when he announced his support for the head scarf ban. “Nothing can justify a patient’s refusing on principle to be treated by a doctor of the other sex.”

The law would prohibit the wearing of all “conspicuous” religious symbols – including Jewish yarmulkes, large crosses, and Muslim head scarves – in public institutions such as schools and government offices. But it is largely seen as targeting Muslims.

As expected, Muslim groups inside and outside France condemned the proposal. But so did the Vatican, the Anglican Church, and the Bush administration’s ambassador for religious freedom, who called the wearing of head scarves “a basic right that should be protected.”

Just a few Metro stops from some of Paris’ main tourist attractions is the Rue Morand Mosque, which serves a neighborhood that includes a large Muslim population alongside Jews and Christians. This is not the typical segregated beur outpost one would find on the outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, pedestrians include both men and women wearing traditional Islamic garb. A travel agent advertises pilgrimages to Mecca. Bookstores sell Islamic tracts in French and Arabic.

The majority of Muslims interviewed in the neighborhood said they felt deeply wounded by the head-scarf proposal. Some predicted that Muslims would begin attending Catholic schools, which allow the head scarf, or would set up their own private schools.

The reaction is strong enough – and uniform enough – that it raises the question of whether the law will undermine its intended purpose.

“When you analyze the whole thing, you just realize that it’s racism,” said Narim Mohammed, 48, a business executive who had stopped into Aicha Souldi’s Muslim clothing store.

Down the block, Morocco-born Abdel Hakim Sefrioui echoed that sentiment in his Muslim bookshop. He pointed out that such a ban would not be possible in the United States, with its guarantees of free expression. He said France needed to move toward the American model of multicultural tolerance.

“This law is against the interest of France because it goes against national cohesion,” he said. “This will push people apart.”

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