The French government has proposed a law that will ban Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school. Such a ban will not help the cause of multicultural tolerance in the EU.
For many, banning schoolgirls from wearing Islamic headscarves will not guarantee a separation between church and state. Instead, it will threaten people's individual rights and may increase – rather than reduce – social tensions.
Pointing to laïcité, the secular tradition that demands that church and state are kept separate, the French cabinet has unveiled plans to ban headscarves and other religious symbols in state-run schools. The French National Assembly is debating the issue this week ahead of a vote next Tuesday (10 February).
Other European countries, including elgium and Germany, are currently considering whether to follow suit.
As the debate on the place of Catholicism in the EU's constitution suggests, the separation between church and state is an enlightened goal for which to strive. In this multicultural age, there is no room for religion in affairs of state. Governments and civil servants should be blind to a citizen's colour, race and ideological convictions: religious, agnostic or atheistic.
Nevertheless, some will argue that the state will lose its essential humanity if it replaces divine dogma with secular puritanism. Taking down crosses, crescents and Stars of David in state schools may symbolise even-handedness, but many citizens across the EU dispute whether such a move will have the supposedly desired effects.
Government employees are, of course, obliged to serve the public without prejudice. But imposing a dress code will not enhance their sense of justice and fair play. People will carry their beliefs with them no matter what they wear. Good public servants will tell you that they leave their personal views outside the workplace or face the weight of the law if they do not.
Not everyone with a religious conviction seeks to impose their faith on others. A prominent defender of the right of Muslim girls to don their hijabs is potential papal pretender Cardinal Godfried Daneels, archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. In contrast, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar – Islam's theological heart – Mohamed El-Tantawi insists that the wearing of headscarves in schools is a domestic issue.
Banning people from wearing symbols of their faith raises some worrying questions about where the state ends and the individual begins – this seems to be the message from the likes of Daneels. Regarding the body – and, by extension, what hangs on it – as a person's private temple is not just good Zen. Although France, and any other European country, has every right to keep the church, mosque and synagogue out of government, it cannot keep them out of a person – that would be a human rights violation.
The EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights makes this clear in no fewer than six of its 54 articles, including human dignity (Art. 1), and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 10). The right to education (Art. 14) guarantees “the right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions”. The right to non-discrimination (Art 21) also prohibits “discrimination based on…sex, race, colour… religion or belief”.
Advocates of the ban claim that it will strip away the differences between people, thereby easing religious and racial tensions. They also believe it will help emancipate Muslim women. In cases where a woman is forced by her family or community to wear a hijab, helping her shed it would certainly empower her. However, many Muslim women wear one out of a strong religious conviction. And a ban may lead them to turn their backs on state schools. Although some Muslim feminists see it as a sign of oppression and male domination, others believe a headscarf gives women power in the public arena by effectively desexing their relationship with men.
This shows that such a ban does not help the cause of multicultural tolerance, as successful coexistence involves living with and appreciating our differences. A little piece of cloth is no threat to Europe's social fabric, and there is a strong argument that the member states should lift the veil on the distrust, ignorance, frustration and fear that are the true motors of social tensions. As Beate Winkler, the head of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, has repeatedly stated, European governments need to build bridges between minorities and the mainstream, as well as take action to reduce economic and social marginalisation.
For Winkler, and this correspondent, dressing the underlying problems in different clothes is not the solution.
This article first appeared in the 5-11 February 2004 edition of The European Voice.