8 May 2004

A tale of two cities ... divided by a veil

By Marguerite Finn

I wonder what Charles Dickens would have made of the great debate currently raging in Paris and London, on the ban the wearing of religious symbols in French public (state) schools.

I have no doubt he would have produced a masterpiece exposing both sides of the issue - possibly entitled Too Great Expectations?

Christians, Muslims and Francophiles in Norfolk are all disturbed at the decision of the French Government to legislate against Muslim girls wearing headscarves at school. France is a secular state, but nevertheless, a secular state should respect human rights, including the free expression of one's faith, as required under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Article 18 of which affirms that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and this includes "freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief, in teaching, practice, worship and observance".

The French proposal also bans the wearing of turbans by boys at school, crosses on necklaces or bracelets, the Star of David, or anything which denotes adherence to religion of any kind. Pursued further, it could even preclude the display of such symbols on notice boards outside any place of worship. This is a dangerous road to have set out on. So why are they doing it - and does the issue of the headscarf not veil a much deeper conflict at the heart of the State ?

The French Revolution in 1789 ushered in the immortal values of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, together with a tendency to recognise individuals rather than groups: a French citizen owes allegiance to France first and foremost and has no officially sanctioned ethnic or religious identity. In 1905 France passed a law separating Church and State, and from as far back as 1937, French schools have been periodically exorted to keep religious symbols out.

In attempting to "sell" the forthcoming legislation to a divided population, French Government spinners argued that the conflicts of the world should not be brought into the class room. They said they were not seeking to take away individual freedoms - they wanted individuals to be integrated and Muslim women to be viewed and treated as equals. Head scarves, they argued, could not be tolerated in schools because they were instruments of propaganda for an intolerant version of Islam and are symbols of the oppression of women. If a Muslim woman wishes to wear the Hijab in order to identify herself with a particular set of values and a way of life which rejects some of the wilder material excesses of today's world, is that such a bad thing?

But should Muslim women not always be 'viewed and treated as equals' according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and irrespective of whether they wear the hijab? Is there really a threat to France's traditional secularity now, from its 6 million muslims ?

And what about the United Kingdom? Is the multiculturalism of the UK a better model? Well, there are 1.8 million Muslims in Britain and Islam is one of the fastest growing religions. London has become one of the world's principal centres of Islamic publishing, as well as a major Muslim cultural and intellectual centre. There is greater political representation in the UK with at least 12 ethnic-minority members of Parliament and a reasonable presence in the world of radio and television. This compares favourably to France where there are no Muslims in the French National Assembly. Britain's more 'relaxed' attitude to ethnic minorities may have produced more social mobility but perhaps at the price of complacency about our entrenched ghettos, from whence there may be a drift towards greater extremist activity.

So, where is the evidence that either the French or British model works, when in both countries, Islamophobia is on the increase? Secularism/integration and laissez-faire multi-culturalism both appear to be failing. Is it not far, far better to celebrate the diversity of life rather than to produce a seemingly homogenous population that is seething with resentment underneath the surface.

We can ensure respect for diversity by better employment and wage prospects for all. If ethnic minorities are encouraged to attend classes in Citizenship, English and History - all of which could be taken wearing veils, turbans, crosses in mosques, temples and churches and school halls throughout the land - then surely all of us should attend classes in the dangers of violence and of unremitting competition and alienation - for citizenship depends upon inclusion and not exclusion. In a pluralistic society such as ours, we ban the wearing of veils, crosses and turbans to our cost.