The Muslim Headscarf : A Tale of 2 Secularisms
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi
In Charles Dickens’ novel, “A tale of two cities”, set around the time of the French revolution, the principal English character, the tragic hero Sidney Carton is portrayed as a sensitive, warm and caring to his fellow men in trouble, even to the point of self-sacrifice, whereas the principal French character, Madame Defarge, a working class woman whose family suffered much at the hands of pre-revolutionary aristocrats, is an uncompromising character whose vengefulness in the end undermined her quest for justice. In some strange way the portrayals of the novel’s characters somehow personified the political temperament of the English and the French in the encounter between religion and liberalism from the Enlightenment to the modern democratic age. With the late 20th century phenomenon of waves economic migrants from their former colonies settling in the west, we again witness the contrast in this political temperament when muslims begin to take Islamic teachings more seriously, the most visible aspect of which is muslim women’s dress code. While France saw this as an affront to its state doctrine of laïcité (French for secularism) and a threat to its conception of the Republic, Britain accommodated to this multicultural reality by trying to integrate her muslim citizens, such that in areas where muslim presence is significant, religious instructions are given in state schools and the head-scarf for girls hardly became such a vexed issue. After years of struggle, Islamic private schools are given the status of voluntary-aided school and receive state funding in the manner of established Christian and jewish schools. In some respects, modern Britain serves as a fair example of multiculturalism, religious tolerance and successful integration of second generation immigrants from her former colonies. In the 2 ½ years that I worked and trained in paediatric cardiology (the branch of medicine that concerns itself with the treatment of children with heart disease), during which time the head-scarf issue exploded in France than a decade ago, we had 2 British muslim doctors of Pakistani origin rotating through our department as part of their post graduate training in paediatrics. In the universities and the professions, the presence of second generation muslim immigrants today is very much visible. This is not to say that racism no longer exists in Britain, or prejudice and ignorance towards Islam and muslims are things of the past. Unemployment and marginalization from mainstream society still affect muslims more than other immigrant communities, but this cannot entirely be blamed on the host society. It has to be said that positive institutional measures for multiculturalism have in some way led to better integration and social mobility of muslims compared to the situation other western countries.
The liberal atmosphere has also allowed a vibrant discourse on Islam to thrive. On the one hand writers like Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali and Hanif Qureishi may have little respect for Islam and its traditions, but others like Ziauddin Sardar, Shabbir Akhtar, Parvez Manzoor and converts like Yusuf Islam and Abdal Hakim Murad actively articulate a refreshing exposition of Islam for the modern readers over a wide range of topics from politics to theology and spirituality. At the same time, it has to be admitted that freedom of expression has been abused by radical Islamic fringes to freely propagate their ideas and recruit members. The aftermath of September 11 has sobered up the mainstream muslims to recognize this problem within their midst.
In contrast, muslims in France are in a more difficult predicament. For a start, an intellectual leadership of the community is lacking. One does not see a vigorous intellectual defense of Islam or writings on the Islamic tradition for the modern French readers, with Tariq Ramadan who is based in Geneva among the exception. The kind of social mobility among second generation muslim immigrants that one sees in Britain is almost unheard of, and almost always at the cost of having to dissociate from their parents’ culture and religious traditions. Multiculturalism is not something that is consciously promoted or celebrated, such that one does not get to see programs like “mind your language” or “thin blue line” on French TV. Marginalization and exclusion is the sad plight of many young French muslims who live on the fringe of mainstream French society in the grands banlieus (suburbs) of greater Paris, hidden from the multitude of visitors who throng the museums, monuments, cafés and gardens of metropolitan Paris. This is set to become worse if the government-appointed Commission on Secularism’s recommendation that all conspicuous religious symbols (which means really the muslim headscarf) be banned from state schools becomes law.
Secularism, commonly defined as “separation of church and state” can be discussed and defined at a number of levels – theological, etymological, as political philosophy etc. In standard Islamist political discourse, secularism is seen as anti-religion because it removes Islam from any role in the public and political sphere. The forced westernization of Turkey and deliberate suppression of her Islamic heritage through the various state institutions served as the only vivid and lasting example of secularism in the muslim imagination. Turkey’s secularism is modeled on France’s concept/doctrine of laïcité. But in our present day context of living in a modern society, secularism is basically about reconciliation or compromise on the role and influence of religious tradition and values in the public/civic sphere – in legal matters, education, governance, social institutions etc. Secularism seen in this context blunts religious fanaticism or will-to-dominate while allowing freedom of conscience and promotes tolerance of cultural and religious pluralism, all within the frame work of democracy, respect for individual liberties and the primacy reason as the driving force of human civilization and scientific progress. It is the equilibrium or entente in the tension between religious tradition and values on the one hand and the humanist liberal tradition whose intellectual well-spring was the 18th century Enlightenment (Even so, religious thinkers would argue that liberalism’s ideas of human dignity, brotherhood of man, respect for individual rights properly belong to religion, which in the western context is Christianity). Good or bad, secularism in the west also means people becoming less religious as society progresses and the equilibrium seems to be always shifting towards that of less and less religion. As society modernizes it tends to loosen itself from religious strictures and traditions, and religion becomes increasingly relegated to the private sphere. But even in highly secular western europe, there are still many people, especially among those in Catholic organizations who argue that religion should have an important influence in the public sphere and civic institutions. This is evident in the debate on wether the christian heritage of europe should be mentioned in the draft of European Union’s constitution. Pope John Paul II in his speech to the European Parliament in 1988 urged the deputies not to banish christianity from public debate, “The vocation of christianity is to be present in all domains of existence… . If one day we were to question the christian foundation of their continent, if we suppress all reference to ethics, then we might as well reject our European Heritage” (Sous la pression des Églises by Christian Terras, le Monde Diplomatique, January 2004).
If what gives the west its present shape today is this equilibrium that took form as a result of conflict, realignment and compromise between religion and liberal humanism, this process was by no means uniform among european societies. The particular historical experience of each society shaped the nature of secularism, and no where is this contrast more pronounced as that between France and Britain. The conflict between the church and the liberals in France that led to the separation of church and state had no parallel in England. A columnist in the Guardian wrote, “From John Locke onwards, Britain wanted its religion reasonable. The approach of British Liberalism has been to liberalize religion over the past 200 years, and what we have today is that very English type of faith: tolerant, accommodating Anglicanism” (“Secularism gone mad” by Madeleine Bunting, the Guardian December 18, 2003). English secularism has always been leavened by this accommodation as the English monarch as Head of State is also the Head of the Church of England. In modern multicultural Britain where the muslim presence has become visible, this is taken one step further. The heir to the English throne the HRH Prince Charles, known for his very accommodating view on Islam, sometimes raises the ire of those who see the hallowed traditions of englishness being threatened by multiculturalism.
France, on the other hand has had a long history of bruising confrontation between the Church and proponents of liberalism, the outcome of which wrote its way into its conception and ideals of the Republic, where “laïcité” (secularism) became enshrined as state doctrine. France’s secularism has its roots in the struggle against the power and influence of the Catholic church which had traditionally been aligned to the monarchy. The 18th century Enlightenment philosophers led ideological attacks on two sorts of absolutism, Royal and Theological. The movement’s clamour for “freedom of thought” and “reference to reason” sought to achieve political and spiritual liberation and this formed the basis of western liberal tradition and scientific progress. While in the liberal atmosphere of Georgian Britain religious toleration and freedom of publication generally flourished, the harsher realities of repression and persecution gave the writings of the French Enlightenment a tone that is more bitter and less compromising. The French Revolution brought about a head-on clash between the Church and the new state, the French Republic. Church assets were confiscated and priests made to swear allegiance to the Republic. The fortunes of the Church waxed and waned during the successive phases of the French state, reaching its peak again during the imperial reign of Napoleon III. As the 19th century drew to a close, France was rocked by a major scandal that bitterly divided French society, the “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish officer in the French army was accused of treason for spying for the Germans. The republicans and the majority of French intellectuals, notable among whom was the writer Emile Zola defended Dreyfus, claiming a racially motivated conspiracy. On the other side were the nationalists, the Military and the Church. When Dreyfus was finally cleared, the French nation was deeply divided and traumatized, and amid renewed anti clerical militancy, the third Republic decreed the law on separation of Church and State in 1905. This has been the basis of the French state since, where there is supposed to be strict official neutrality in religious affairs. Whereas in Britain secularism means accommodation of religion and freedom conscience in an atmosphere of liberalism, in France, secularism became a sacralized state doctrine through the principle of laïcité.
With weakening of religious traditions and traditional ways of living, laïque humanism derived from the French liberal tradition, purportedly free of religious moorings, can lay claim as forming the basis of ethics, moral code and law. Anything that has its basis in religion is viewed with suspicion and disdain, and religion connotes repressive dogmas that corrupt the mind. “Laïcité aims to develop in human nature, within the framework of a permanent intellectual, moral and civic formation, a critical mind along with a feeling of solidarity and brotherhood… . It tends to institute, beyond ideological, community or national differences, a human society favourable to everyone’s enlightenment, a society from which all exploitation or conditioning of man by man, all fanatical spirit, hate and violence will be excluded” (from the “White Book of Laïcité” – source: the internet, author unknown). In the document, laïcité also makes the assumption that identification with cultural, religious and linguistic differences must necessarily lead to violent conflicts.
In the particular historical context of conflict between the catholic church and anti-clerical proponents of the French Republic, laïcité as state doctrine, in theory held great promise as a vehicle of achieving social cohesiveness and a sense of shared destiny for the French nation. But in the face of late 20th century phenomenon of immigration from her former colonies, laïcité has not quite lived up to its promise of a secular utopia. Those familiar with modern French society understands the phenomenon of exclusion, marginalization, and high rate of unemployment and criminality among the second generation immigrant Arabs and blacks, and conversely, the elitism of the French upper class.
Having said that, modern civilization owes a great deal to France’s liberal, humanist tradition, whose challenge against the excesses of the powerful church was in many ways justified, and the anti-religious strain of French secularism that emerged triumphantly from this conflict and the concept of the làique Republic is seen as perculiarly her own. With weakening of religious tradition, laïcité has not been a problem either as the French nation had remained essentially european in character, even as France had to absorb many refugees and immigrants from her neighbours who shared the same christian heritage in the interwar years.
But cracks began to appear when France, over a short period at the close of the 20th century has a sizeable non european minority with a religion that has had a long history of conflict with christianity, i.e. immigrant Arabs from her former colonies in North Africa. The encounter between laïcité and a less than welcome, sometimes troublesome minority with their peculiar religious expressions and practices was bound to be problematic. Muslims in France are constantly reminded to adapt themselves to the concept of laïcité, without which their loyalty as citizens of the Republic remains suspect. However the first obstacle for muslims to adapt themselves to this doctrine is the impreciseness of this concept and the absence of unanimity in definition. Alain Boyer, official in charge of religious affairs in the Interior Ministry during the socialist government 1980 – 1990 admitted that laïcité has a wide range of interpretations. He gave three explicit understandings of the term, “firstly, laïcité as the will to limit the role of religion and to outline the role of the individual according to an institutional framework consisting of on one side, the law (proposed by Jules Ferry) of 1881, 1884, and on the other, the separation of Church and state. Secondly, laïcité has also become synonymous with anti-clericalism, even irreligiousity. It has become a new faith, with its own militants and its own temple. Thirdly, laïcité is also a philosophy, a value that is transmitted, particularly in moral education and civic instruction in state schools that has replaced religious instruction” (Quoted in Marianne et le prophète – l’Islam dans la France laïque by Soheib Bencheikh, 1998, Grasset, Paris. “Marianne” is symbol of the French Republic. The author is mufti of Marseilles).
Although laïcité in theory means positive neutrality of the state in matters of religion, with people generally becoming less religious, this has come to be associated with disdain for anything that smells of religion, and the term laïque becomes interchangeable with not having any religious belief. With instructions in the christian religion excluded from state schools, the anti-clerical and anti-religious elements have appropriated laïcité and turned it into the new religion of the sophisticated, modern man. According to a researcher on muslims in France, “laïcité has been corrupted into militant, dogmatic philosophy dominated by positivism” (Jocelyne Cesari, from Marianne et le prophète). It is thus when some muslim girls insist on wearing the head scarf to school, this is seen as a threat to French secularity by Islamic religious militants, to be countered with the vehemence of ages past, never mind that these girls come from a powerless, marginalized and economically weak minority. Little consideration is given to the fact many muslims view the wearing the head scarf as a religious injunction, a right to which they are entitled to within the frame work of democracy in most societies, rather than an ostentatious religious symbol.
If ignorance and the monopoly of laïcité by anti-clerical republicans is one obstacle that muslims in France face in trying to adapt to the French concept of laïcité, an even bigger hurdle is prejudice towards Islam and muslims. On the vexed question of the Islamic head scarf in state schools, it makes many wonder if the doctrine of laïcité has been used by Islamophobes and racist elements of French society as a cover for their prejudice towards Islam. This prejudice has historically deeper roots in the european psyche than secularism and the liberal philosophy, stretching back to medieval times when Islam’s rapid expansion threatened european Christendom. Spain was conquered and ruled by muslims for 800 years and muslim forces advanced north as far as Tours in France. The Age of Reason ushered in by the Enlightenment has not been able to deal adequately with this deeply embedded prejudice, such that even a towering figure like Voltaire vacillated between treating Muhammad as a profound political thinker and founder of a rational religion, and an impostor who enslaved souls by resorting to religious fables. Is it against such a backdrop of prejudice that the muslim head-scarf has become such a thorny issue? President Jacques Chirac commented that there was something “aggressive” about the wearing of a head-scarf. The proponents the ban say that it threatens the social peace and national cohesion of the French Republic. And so the standard arguments followed, that it is a symbol of oppression of women by a patriarchal religion, that it is an instrument of propaganda for an intolerant version of Islam, and women who wear them are necessarily radical extremists who support terrorism.
Such prejudicial attitudes belie the hypocrisy of dogmatic, “fundamentalist” secularists when it comes to Islam and muslims. Laïcité may have its roots in secular humanism and the primacy reason, but it refuses to be reasonable nor rational in its dealing with muslims, paralysed by the millennium-old conflict between medieval Christendom and Islam. It ignores the voices of muslim women who wear the head scarf out of choice and claim to feel liberated by it. Liberalism assumes that in this post-modern, post-feminist age, everyone shares its concept of liberty. The Taliban government enforced the Burqa on Afghan women, but the issue of the head scarf must be viewed as separate from the serious and dangerous issue of religious fanaticism and terrorism among muslims. Many in europe, muslims and non muslims, have expressed the concern that the head scarf ban risks further exclusion of muslims, and out of desperation, some muslim youths may be lured to find meaning in religious extremism and terrorism (the story of French moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui, “the twentieth hijacker”, in the simple book “Zacarias, my brother – the making of a terrorist” by Abd Samad Moussaoui and Florence Bouquillat, 2003, Seven Stories Press, New York, provides a useful insight into this disturbing phenomenon). At a time when muslims in the west are finding themselves on the ropes in the aftermath of September 11, muslim leaders and intellectuals should actively participate to re-centre the debate on secularism/laïcité away from the monopoly of those who view religion with disdain and contempt. Ethnic and religious pluralism is the modern reality. The idea of racial and cultural purity of nation-states hardly apply to many societies today and secularism/laïcité sacralized as state doctrine formulated in a different historical context needs to be adapted to this modern reality.
It is interesting that a federation of Christian associations, “Reseau du Parvis” recently created l’Observatoire Chretien de la Laïcité (a think tank devoted to promoting a more modern form of laïcité relevant to the pluralism of europe today), and published its manifesto in the January issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. In its initiative to bring a fresh debate into secularism, it takes as its starting point Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights : Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observation. Muslims, forming as much a part of today’s plural world as christians, have as much a stake in this debate. Instead of making a blanket condemnation of secularism as an anti-religious ideology, we should make it work as a principle of accommodation and peaceful co-existence within the framework of Democracy and respect for Human Rights, as a compromise between the opposing poles of religious exclusivism/domination and a self-absorbed liberalism born of hubris against the gods.
Dr. Mazeni Alwi