PARIS, July 1 (Reuters) – France’s Muslim activists are considering court cases, school boycotts and advice hotlines as they prepare for a showdown when a controversial ban on Islamic headscarves comes into effect in state schools this September.
Ignoring a European court ruling this week that backed a veil ban in Turkey, one large Muslim group pledges advice, legal aid and private tutoring to any girls turned away from school for wearing a headscarf despite the ban on overt signs of faith.
A leading defender of headscarves, a convert named Thomas Abdallah Milcent, is urging pupils and parents to stage week-long strikes protesting against schools barring pious girls who cover their hair as a religious duty.
The simmering tension over headscarves, which secularists see as signals of Islamist radicalism, shows the law passed last March may have too many loopholes to be enforced clearly.
“The UOIF urges pupils and their families to start thinking now about how they will adapt to this law,” the Union of French Islamic Organisations, an influential group in Europe’s largest Muslim minority, said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“We are ready to provide them moral support, help for dialogue, information about their rights, advice from local activists and legal assistance,” it said.
A European Court of Human Rights ruling on Tuesday backing a headscarf ban at Turkish universities appeared to bolster the French position, but Muslim activists in France argue it cannot be applied as a legal precedent there.
BANDANAS AND PHRYGIAN BONNETS
Moderates in the Muslim community of five million, or eight percent of France’s population, expect the reopening of school in September to go smoothly except for some highly visible cases that fundamentalist groups could use to attract media attention.
Paris signalled its concern about this prospect last week when it urged Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), to lobby Islamic groups to stay calm.
“I count on your spirit of dialogue to see that the start of the school year goes well,” Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin told the moderate leader on Friday, after President Jacques Chirac decorated Boubakeur with the Legion of Honour.
“This is something we should work on now,” Villepin said at the Grand Mosque of Paris, which heads a national group of moderate Muslims smaller than its more conservative rival UOIF.
UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze told Reuters his group would go to court to defend schoolgirls who wear a bandana covering their hair and tied at the back.
“The law bans conspicuous signs of religion, but not all signs. We won’t insist on the hijab,” he said, referring to the head-and-shoulders covering pious Muslim schoolgirls wear.
Milcent, an Alsatian physician known in Islamic circles as “Doctor Abdallah”, also advised schoolgirls to wear a bandana but went a step further by calling for the strikes.
His Muslim Defence Fund will open a hotline in August to advise girls who face expulsion from school, he said.
Among his suggestions was for girls to wear a phrygian bonnet, the French Revolution’s trademark red hat with earflaps that would cover their hair but also show “their attachment to the values of the Republic”.