December 19, 2003,
France's state-owned television channels reached their highest viewer ratings Wednesday when the nation was invited to witness what one commentator described as "an historic moment."
This consisted of a 4,000-word address by President Jacques Chirac, live from the Elysee Palace. With a tricolor in the background to emphasise the solemnity of the occasion, Chirac read his text as if it were a declaration of war. A crowd of 400 "leading citizens," including the prime minister, the entire cabinet, speakers of the two houses of parliament, and heads of the various religious communities, were present in the gilded hall to provide the cued applause.
But what was all the fuss about?
From the way the French media have covered the occasion, one would think that Chirac had raised the banner of national resistance against a foreign invader: something like Vercingetorix standing up to Roman conquerors in Gaul, or Charles Martel stopping the Saracens at Poitier.
All that Chirac did, however, was "instruct" the parliament to pass a law under which girls wearing the Islamist foulard (head scarf) would not be allowed to attend state-owned schools. Anxious that the move should not appear anti-Islamic, the president also announced that the wearing of "big crosses", and Jewish skullcaps, would also be banned. Chirac said that the Hand of Fatma be banned too, though apparently he didn't even know what it was: He pronounced it Fatima's Hand, and appeared to regard it as an Islamic symbol.
Chirac presented the foulard as the greatest challenge faced by the French republic since it formulated its secular principles in 1905. Using the traditional devices of French grandiloquence, the president recalled the heritage of the Great Revolution and its rallying cry: freedom, fraternity, and equality.
The truth, however, is that Chirac has decided upon or been misled into making a mountain out of a molehill. By doing so, he risks casting himself in the role of a modern Don Quixote, off to fight the windmills instead of the real giants.
First, it is wrong to see the foulard as a symbol of conflict between Islam and the West: The foulard in question is a political, not a religious, symbol. Designed in Lebanon in 1975 and imposed by force in Iran in the 1980s, it has never been sanctioned by any Islamic religious authority in France or anywhere else; it has, however, been adopted as a symbol by many radical Islamist groups.
Thus Chirac is wrong to present the foulard as a means by which mainstream Islam is trying to extend religion into the public space. And even then, the foulard concerns very few Muslims in France, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.
The French government's own statistics show that no more than 2,000 out of 1.8 million Muslim girls wore it in 2002. Several studies conducted in various Muslim-inhabited French suburbs show that more than two-thirds of girls wearing the foulard do so because of intimidation by organized Islamist gangs. But Chirac isn't passing laws to protect those girls from intimidation: He is suggesting legislation to punish them at the school gates instead.
France does have a problem with its Arab population, most of which comes from North Africa. The North African minority, known as beurs, bears deep resentment about France's colonial past. It also regards itself as a victim of racial discrimination, much as do African Americans in the United States.
The problem of the beurs, therefore, is social, cultural, and economic not religious. Even if all beurs converted to Christianity or became atheists, they would still feel like victims, because they cannot get good jobs and are confined to the shanty towns built by French Stalinists in the 1950s and 1960s.
There's even more to refute about the "subversiveness" of France's six million Muslims. Of these, for example, more than half have taken up French nationality and thus, one must presume, respect the principles on which the French republic is based. Another 1.5 million, mostly from Algeria and Morocco, are believed to have dual nationality. But there is no reason to believe that they wish to undermine the principles of French statehood. Nor is the Muslim community isolated, or self-segregating: Some 40 percent of French Muslims marry non-Muslims. (
To treat France's Muslims as a single community is to mistakenly believe that Islam, like Christianity, has church-like structures. Islam, however, is the religion of the individual: Its chief feature is the direct line it establishes between the believer and the Creator, thus eliminating priests, intercessors, and other religious functionaries.
Since there is no baptism or confirmation in Islam, and certainly no excommunication either, the only way to know who is a Muslim and who is not is an individual's self-identification as one. The Chirac administration's attempt at inventing a single "authority" for Islam is already proving counterproductive. This was made abundantly clear last year when the interior ministry decided to create a "French authority" for Islam.
The ministry gathered a few beards from around the country and put them up for election as founders of the French "church" of Islam. Despite months of publicity, and some $50 million in public funds (illegal under French secular rules), the election that the ministry organized for the "church of Islam" attracted around 40,000 voters, less than one percent of Muslims eligible for the franchise. Not surprisingly, those who voted were mostly political militants who want to transform Islam into an ideology and use it as an instrument of achieving power, or at least a share in it.
Thus the battle Chirac needs to fight is not with Muslims in France, but instead with the militant Islamists that his own government has helped and financed.
French Muslims have scores of non-religious organizations and associations. But the authorities never talk to them. French governments, on both the left and the right, cannot understand a simple fact: It is possible to be a believing and practicing Muslim without subscribing to communitarian politics.
Despite Chirac's typically monarchic "instructions" to the legislature, the French parliament should not rush into hasty lawmaking on this sensitive issue. What France needs instead is a proper study of the Islamic presence on her soil.
Such a study would show that France has no problem with its Muslim citizens as such. The problem it has is with fascists using religion not only against the French republic, but also, and often primarily, against Muslims. The overwhelming majority of the girls who wear the foulard is forced to do so by verbal threats or even physical violence. The small numbers that might wear it for political and ideological reasons must be allowed to do so for as long as they do not try to impose it on others through psychological terror or physical violence.
Chirac's intervention may well be connected with the declining popularity of his government. His loose center-right coalition of half a dozen parties is facing local elections next May, and feels threatened by the rising tide of extremism from both left and right. The extreme Right, especially the National Front, which won over 18 percent of the votes in the presidential election almost two years ago, is trying to portray Islam as a religious threat to "Christian" France. The extreme Left, led by Trotskyites, claims that Islam is now the only religion that can endanger France's secular traditions.
By trying to make his own Islamic pitch, Chirac may well be trying to chip at the support base of both extreme-right and extreme-left parties. This may be a clever tactic in electoral terms. But it leaves the real issue untouched: France is threatened by a number of extremist groups of which the Islamists are but one that have to be challenged and defeated in the political arena.