French Secularism and Islam

July 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

Oakland–On these pages of a fortnight ago was a report that the French President Nicolas Sazkozy pronounced a speech to both houses of his “parliament” condemning the use of the Burqa.  He denied it  was not a religious symbol, but “a sign of debasement” for women.  This is a curious statement made by a head of State of a major European power, for women’s rights are constantly used as an excuse by Imperial powers while it has been only been within the last hundred years that Western jurisprudence has caught up with Islamic protection of the family and the legal rights of the female!  Sarkozy continued in his terribly Islamophobic speech that “The Burqa is not welcomed on French territory.”  Further, he used the Feminist clichés that are too often engaged to oppress Islam in a Western context, “…we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen…from all social life…all identity.”

A small percentage of French civil society has been calling for the ban on the Burqa as happened with the hijab six years back leading to a law banning Islamic woman from wearing it.  As your author said in his article on that subject at the time, a potential controversy in America on this (as the Burqa) are non-issues because of these articulations of the Islamic customs are protect by the rights to Freedom of Speech (Expression) and Freedom of Religion in the U.S. first ten Amends to the American Constitution, but ,in France, because of the power of the Church in the ancien regime, the Church (Roman Catholic) buttressed the rule of the hated oppressing aristocracy and the King.  Therefore, their post-Revolutionary Constitution (theoretically) banned all religion, and was held up by the early Nineteenth Century Code Napoleon!  That means in France, with the largest Islamic population in Europe, external Muslim symbols have become constitutionally questionable even though Muslim lobby groups within that country have urged Paris to refrain from deliberations that would damage the Islamic community there vis-à-vis the mainstream French population.  Although the Burqa is a symbol/custom of the minority Salafi faction of Islam, most of them are Wahhabi, a conservative sect of Sunnism, who, produce, incidentally, most of the Jihads, and, thus, are anathema to most of the ummah.  Still, seventy-six Franco-Parliamentarians within the French Assembly advocate banning the public display outright.  They have called for a sanctified Commission leading for a “legal” basis under France ultra-secular basis for such a prejudicial ban under the support of the President himself!  After the law against the much milder Islamic symbol, the hijab, it is doubtful that legal action can be prevented under their Constitutional rulings!

Last fall, in the neighboring city here, Berkeley, Myanthi Fernando came to talk to us about her teaching experiences in a French public school that had majority Islamic children although they had become naturalized French citizens.  She taught mainly North African-heritage students in a high school.   Since she has gone through the academic training to become an anthropologist, with this new sensitivity, she noted a pronounced conflict between the students and the teachers.  “There is a conflict between religions and the authority of the Mosque and the Republic.”

Historically, the first generation who became Muslim citizens was recruited from the Colonies to rebuild France after World War II as Germany opened their doors to the Turks to do the same.  For their children and grandchildren, a generalized system of difference developed and that dissimilarity was based on religion. Many ordinary Frenchmen believe there is a fundamental conflict between Islam and themselves as an Islamic revival has emerged on Gallic soil at the same time.

As alluded to above, the State banned the hijab in 2004.   In essence La France believed that the hijab would re-enforce Islamic patriarchy. In actually, the hijab (as the Burqa) is worn by choice (if it is not, the State should step in, but it is part of the aforementioned Islamic regeneration in the West).  Islamic women “believe they decide – not the law or the State!”  The hijab (or the Burqa) must be an individual decision, and must not come from outside (either the family or the nation).  “It is the believer who decides, but… [It]… has … [its]…textual authority,” also.  Fernando claimed that secularism and religious submission are not at odds in France,” too.  Also, political choice and religiosity do not conflict.  France’s Muslims assert religious choice and accept civic obligation.  International law enunciates religious freedom according to conscience.  Performing religious duty is a matter of choice.

In 2003 there were demonstrations against proposed bans on Islamic lifestyles.  “One person’s freedom ends where another begins…”  It is (almost) impossible for Muslim women to live in the language of the secular State.  On the contrary, the secular State argued it didn’t violate [religious] freedom because [religious] adherents could still believe.”  Paris maintained that there was a difference between internal belief and external expression while the European Commission as a whole do not recognize the hijab as right (and it most definitely will not acknowledge the Burqa as acceptable).  On the other hand, most individual Islamic women believe it may be their right and duty as the hijab while the French public considers it no more than obfuscation of civic duty.

There is no argument that Christianity has seeped into European law which is at odds with Islamic customs.  Besides, French feminism, which is a very strong force within the Republique, looks at Islamic female dress as perverse with anti-sexuality.  La Republique de France’s concept of sexuality is challenged on all sides. The hijab is only one such challenge.

Public schools only recently began to enroll new citizens, and the hijab is a particularly troublesome object amongst the traditional educational system there.

With this history of the Islamic hijjib in France, it is doubtful that the Burqa will receive any more cultural sensitivity.

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