Schools ban forms focus for discontent
The French government’s plan to ban Islamic veils from schools came under sustained fire yesterday when MPs, shaken by a weekend of protests and violence, began asking whether the move would inflame religious tensions rather than ease them.
Most commentators feel President Jacques Chirac has invested too much in the proposed ban to back down now. But fears that the bill may alienate Muslims more than it helps integrate them have been significantly increased by marches against the ban on Saturday in more than a dozen French and foreign cities, and by Sunday’s carbombing aimed at a top public official of Muslim origin.
So far, bound by party lines, no senior members of either the ruling UMP or the Socialist opposition have questioned the wisdom of the law, which will outlaw all religious symbols from state schools from September.
“I had my reservations, and I still have them, about a law that can only pour oil on the fires of extremism,” said François Bayrou, leader of the UMP’s main parliamentary ally, the centrist UDF party.
“In the aim of fighting extremism, we are in fact abandoning the field.”
Many observers fear that the fundamentalists’ message – that Muslims in France are being discriminated against and denied one of their fundamental rights – could find many willing converts among an already disadvantaged Islamic community.
“The headscarf question is political manipulation,” said one Muslim leader, Karim Bouzid. “The real issues for us are high unemployment in the Muslim community, violence and harassment, discrimination in jobs and housing. The strife is only just beginning, believe me.”
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. […]
Similar battles over religion and culture have been brewing across Europe, where Muslims are the fastest-growing minority group.[…]
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.”
– France struggles to integrate its Muslim minority
The daily newspaper Libération said in its editorial that it was fast becoming plain that “unless the proposed headscarf ban is accompanied by a vigorous effort on serious integration, it will be nothing but a useless annoyance”.
Within the ranks of the UMP, Edouard Balladur, head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, is the most senior figure to have spoken against “opportunistic” legislation which in his view risks “poisoning things irretrievably”.
But several junior MPs said yesterday they saw the law as “excessive”, “unnecessary” and “counter-productive”. One, Jean-Marc Nesme, told Libération the government was going “too far; it will offend the vast majority of believers”.
A UMP colleague, Alain Madelin, said the bill would “play into the hands of the National Front”.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 Muslims marched against the ban in Paris, Marseille, Lille and other French cities on Saturday. Abroad, protesters gathered in London, Berlin, Brussels, Cairo and Bethlehem.
The bomb that destroyed the car of Aissa Dermouche, the newly appointed prefect of the Jura region, was seen as a further example of the rising tensions unleashed by the veil debate.
Most French people back the veil ban on the grounds that the prized secularism of the republic, and particularly of the state education system, must be defended against the demands of an increasingly radical Islam.
The first victim of the growing row will almost certainly be the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the now divided government-sponsored umbrella group supposed to help Muslims find their place in French society. “It risks falling apart,” said the mufti of Marseille, Sohaib Bensheikh, a leading moderate member. “I’m very much in the minority and don’t feel very comfortable there.”
Commentators have warned that Islamic extremists are already dictating the terms of the public debate: the Paris protest was organised by the minuscule Party of French Muslims, which numbers only a few hundred members but whose openly anti-semitic leader, Mohamed Latrèche, has shot to media prominence.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre asked the interior ministry yesterday to take action against Mr Latrèche’s “incitement to Jew-hatred” – he has denounced Jews as “having everything, while Muslims have nothing”, and compared Zionism to apartheid – and urged mainstream Muslim leaders to disassociate themselves from him.
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