A Veiled Threat
against Israelis began 40 months ago.
• f a Muslim girl wanted to enroll in my neighborhood
Put bluntly, the French government should be concerned
public school wearing a jihab, the traditional Islam
more about violent anti-Semitism than Muslim headscarves.
headscarf, I would welcome her, not seek her suspen-
Chirac has chastised young French Muslims for attacking Jews
sion for imposing her values on non-Muslim kids.
and has directed public funds to a French foundation preserv-
I don't see what the big deal is in France, where secular tra-
ing the Shoah's memory. But he must affirm his vow to
dition has collided with a Muslim population of 5 million —
France's chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, that Jew-baiting is a state
9 percent of the nation's 59 million residents and the densest
problem, not a Jewish problem.
Muslim community in Western Europe. France is home to
Roger Cukierman of the CRIF umbrella group for French
Jews says, "While some are already second- or even third-gen-
A pending French ban on wearing religious symbols in pub-
eration French, many Muslims still live in poor suburbs and in
lic schools encompasses veils and headscarves worn by Muslim
difficult conditions. There is a lack of jobs, and some are in a
girls as well as large Christian crosses, kippot
revolutionary mood. They blame many people but especially
and other conspicuous or highly noticeable
the Jews — and maybe there is jealousy, too, that Jews have
symbols of a person's religion.
been able to integrate successfully."
The ban is billed as an assurance of a strict
Religious intrusion typically applies when government
separation between government and religion.
imposes religious values on constituents, not when a student
The secular democratic government frowns
wears a modesty scarf to class.
on even the hint of religious identification or
The French obsession with keeping religion out of govern-
expression in public.
ment goes back to 1905, when the first ruling requiring public
But who's kidding whom?
schools to be free from religious influence or control became
President Jacques Chirac, whose Stasi
law. If a headscarf, kippah or "noticeable" Christian cross is
Commission makes rec-
that menacing, why shouldn't small crosses or Stars of David
ommendations on state
worn "conspicuously" cause the masses to quake, too?
secularism, believes that
In the U.S., the free exercise of reli-
letting Muslim girls wear headscarves in
is part of our national bedrock.
class recharges the undercurrent of
I like the clarity of J. Brent Walker,
Islamic fundamentalism. Islam is the sec-
who heads the Baptist Joint Committee
ond most popular religion in France,
on Public Affairs, a Washington reli:
after Christianity, thanks to an influx of
gious advocacy group. Speaking to the
immigrants from Islamic lands.
Associated Baptist Press the day after
France's chutzpah in targeting a minor-
the French National Assembly voted, he
ity religion should send smoke signals
cut to the core of stripping a nation of
across the Atlantic. Here in America, we
need to stay vigilant against the singling
"In the United States," he said, "stu-
out of a religion for tenuous reasons.
dents are allowed, and should be
Over the last 15 years, French schools
J. Brent Walker
allowed, to wear religious symbols and
have adopted a Big Brother ideology and expelled Muslim
express themselves and their religious
girls who refuse to remove religious coverings in class. Some
expressions are not disruptive. If the far
French people see the Muslim scarf and veil as badges of
righ t wants to see a truly secular, naked public square, look at
Islamic extremism, not as protectors of modesty and symbols
the French situation."
of a cultural identity.
Somehow, France believes it will better maintain public
The ban on religious insignia is what is extreme.
order and speed up immigrant assimilation by putting state
Unwittingly, in the rush to neutralize religion in the class-
limits on freedom of thought, belief and identity. Yet it signed
room, France has infused state-enforced secularism with
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
almost a religious fervor.
calls for limits only when public's safety or others' rights
The ban easily passed the lower chamber of French govern-
are threatened. These limits were a factor in Florida winning a
ment, the National Assembly, last week. It will breeze through
2003 civil suit brought by a woman who refused to remove a
the Senate in March. It is set to take effect with the next aca-
full face veil for her driver's license picture.
demic year in September.
Why should Jews oppose a French law really aimed at
Upwards of 4,000 Muslims and supporters marched in Paris
and Lyon to protest the ban. Most non-Muslims approve it,
Rabbi Lauren Berkun, Midwest rabbinic fellow at the Jewish
French opinion polls show.
Theological Seminary of America, puts it well: "Any threat to
The likelihood is that Muslim girls will leave the public
the religious liberties of one group in a democracy is a threat
schools that their families had chosen for them and will dis-
to people of all faiths. The freedom to wear religious symbols
cover their integration into French society impeded.
as an expression of one's beliefs should not be regulated by a
I'm trying to grasp the logic of a law designed to address
unfounded fears. Some Muslims are terrorists, as Israel and the
Barring the jihab from public school to resist fundamentalist
U.S. know all too well. Some are urban hate-mongers, as
— and barring larger crosses and kippot just to
France has witnessed. Still, a modesty covering, as basic to
fair — is self-defeating.
Islam as a kippah is to Judaism, doesn't make a Muslim girl an
As Rabbi Berkun put it: "The best way to temper religious
extremist. The ideology she holds is what defines her. .
fundamentalism and extremism is a liberal education and a
Banning kippot from state schools is almost a moot point.
free exchange of ideas in an open and pluralistic environ-
Kids who wear a kippah typically attend Jewish day schools.
Jewish kids in public schools and other public settings, howev-
That's the essence of democracy. ❑
er, have been harassed and assaulted since Palestinian terror
Off sosetkate good.
•Join JARCs Young Adult
• Fulfill Teen Community Service
•Answer JARC Telephones
• Share Shabbat Dinner at a
• Catalog JARC Archives and
• Develop a Personal Friendship
with Someone Served by JARC
...and much more!
For 35 years helping people with
disabilities be fully included
in community life.
:•, ..,-, •