Book Review: The Conservatism of Radicals

Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space

by John R. Bowen (Princeton, 2006)
Reviewed by Abby Scher

A few years ago, my friend Kumru told me the shocking story of her mother and grandmother running through the streets of Istanbul, threatening to tear the headscarves off of women in the name of Atatürk and the Turkish republic he founded. Even coming from a family of skeptics, I could not fathom why anyone would so passionately deplore a woman displaying her faith by covering her head.

John R. Bowen's new book about French republicanism illuminates the roots of the Turkish women's passion, and helps readers move beyond the simple minded question of whether or not the scarf oppresses women. And while delving only into a single divided country in Europe, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space stimulates your curiosity about America's own, apparently odd, version of republicanism which did not develop as a counterforce to a single religious heavyweight, be it Pope or imams, and is not so intertwined with a loathing of religion.

As both a stranger to France, and as a parochial American, I found reading this book was a welcome plunge through the looking glass.

The United States and France are both republics, meaning their governments' legitimacy rest not on monarchs or the divine backing of rulers (be they kings or Caliphs) but on rule by "the people," however that is defined. As republics, our governments ideally serve some common good rather than the interests of a few. But French republicans strongly distrust pluralism, viewing it as a challenge to shared republican values. This distrust has huge consequences for the country's five million Muslims - half of them French citizens. Affirmative action on behalf of a group oppressed for its religion (or ethnic identity) falls to the side, for instance; the French Left was furious when Nicholas Sarkozy, while Interior Minister, announced he would appoint a Muslim prefect. The prefect's religion should be irrelevant, said the French republican idealists, and religious distinctions invisible in the public realm.

In the spirit of laïcité - a kind of French version of secularism - public servants are to be entirely neutral in their expression of religion. In the name of shared Frenchness, they are meant to keep their religious observance hidden as an individual act of choice in the private sphere. Those embracing laïcité assume that you can't be publicly a Muslim (or a Jew or a Catholic) and also a good citizen, seeing these two identities as being mutually exclusive. This notion extends throughout government institutions, including schools. In the name of laïcité, French public schools aim to move young people beyond their regional or religious divisions so that they become citizens - a mission that emerged out of a century of struggle with the Roman Catholic Church, which had controlled both schools, and to a large extent public life, even after the Revolution. Blandine Kriegel, a philosopher and advisor to former President Jacques Chirac explained:

We hold strongly to the principle of laïcité. We have to place ourselves in the public space by abstracting from our individual characteristics, from where we came from, our roots. This is the idea of the social contract …We move from pluralism to unity through consent.

In public discourse, you will hear such high-minded statements as the French finding freedom through the state (in the tradition of Rousseau) as opposed to freedom from the state (following Locke). It is the state that unifies France, not its language, constitution, or culture. Liberty is only possible, in this view, because of the activities of the state.

You hear the echo of these philosophers among the activists. After 9/11, when 80 percent of Lyon teachers struck to demand banning headscarves in schools, a teacher explained why they were taking a more extreme position than the government at that time:

The school is a place where we share universal values of freedom, equality, and fraternity. The school's mission has a liberating ambition: to give citizens-in-the making the means to free themselves from social, cultural, ethnic or gendered determinism. [p. 96]

To my American ear, this sounds like rank hypocrisy because the French government in fact meddles an awful lot in religious affairs - but it is in the name of laïcité and its goal historically of restraining the power of the Roman Catholic Church. Laïcité is not simply secularism, nor do its champions support a clear separation of church and state as would American liberals. France's Office of Organized Religion helps monitor and define the scope of religious activities in the name of avoiding the religious wars of the past. The former chief of the Organized Religion office explained to Bowen that religion is an individual's private relationship with God - making religious observances that jump into public displays, such as wearing headscarves or praying five times a day in the workplace, unintelligible and even a threat.

Far from keeping its fingers off of religion, the government reserves the right to ban ones it finds abhorent - "Racist religions would not be able to practice because they would contravene the public order." Laïcité even legitimizes outright discrimination: The French government turns down one third of applicants for naturalization, often based on how the person dresses or their religious observance; officials asked a Tunisian why he went to Mecca twice.

As an anthropologist, Bowen looks beyond the ideology to notice the cleavages and contradictions running through France's expression of laïcité. He shows how it becomes a cover for ethnocentrism and a demand for assimilation. While a nun's habit escapes notice, "Islam's public ritual practices, which include sacrifice, scarf-wearing, and prostrations in exotic buildings, are felt by some to threaten the public order." The government subsidizes Catholic and Jewish schools (in the name of controlling their curriculum?), but not yet Muslim ones, though Muslims are 8.5 percent of the population. No one had objected to Sikhs wearing turbans and Jews wearing yarmulkes in public until the headscarf controversy forced people to face the hypocrisy. And Catholicism retains a public role. This eclecticism dissolves any solid basis for challenging the growing visibility of Muslims in France, leading, Bowen says, to unease and even desperation among some of the non-Muslim French as they grasp for certainties.

Far from being an eternal problem stemming from its violation of laïcité, the September 2004 ban on "religious displays in public schools" - including headscarves - looked unlikely to pass only a few months before. Some identified the scarf as a symbol and even a cause of social problems suffered by Muslims - their high rate of unemployment, racism, etc. Many opponents argued it represents "communalism," a group identity that interferes with a citizen's direct relationship with the state and the state's authority - and more specifically, with a girl's emancipation that supposedly occurs when she immerses herself in the state's values. French sociologist Alain Touraine warned that the rise of "communalism" leads to terrorism. The visibility of headscarves, in turn, supposedly heightens the power of Islamic organizations - and even reactionary Muslim organizations abroad.

But this opportunistic revival of Jacobin philosophy and the politicization of the headscarf might not have gained strength if the French government's strategy of controlling Islam in other ways hadn't encountered obstacles, inspiring politicians to show they were taking action, says Bowen.

The French government at first sought to control Islam based on how it controls other religions - and how it operated in the former colonies where most French Muslims have roots. It elevates "moderates" as official Muslim partners. It formed a Muslim council after consulting with consulates of predominantly Muslim countries; in April 2003, 995 out of 1316 mosques helped elect the new council's members. Then, "their ambassadors approved a government-supported 'moderate' as head of the council," in a colonial manner of operating. But the council's function is obscure, particularly in its role in representing the mostly secular Muslim population.

The French banned the veil in 2004 as part of their habit of turning to the law to "teach French moral lessons." Only Islam is portrayed as unified and in a march to overturn secular French values. Here, Bowen's description of France reminded me of the pre-World War II Poland described by Eva Hoffman in her masterwork Shtetl, when Jews were 13 percent of the population. The Jewish question raised fundamental quandaries about the nature of citizenship: "Were Jewish obligations only formal - taxes, obedience to the law, military service - or were they a matter of deeper affinities or common interests?" [p. 177]

Jews were becoming…an entity unto themselves, which was experienced as somehow foreign, and which could be mentally detached or expelled from the symbolic universe of a self-contained Polish state. [p. 169]

While we may have to wait for Joan Scott's upcoming book on the headscarf debate for the definitive analysis of its gender dynamics, Bowen does explore splits among French feminists about headscarves, pointing out that some of the new (we would call them lipstick) feminists who embrace an outspoken display of feminine sexuality have a tough time with women who choose to cover their heads. They cry vive la difference, but champion only a sexualized kind of difference, not a modest one. Many support the banning of scarf-wearing girls from public schools, ending their chance of an education - a feminist publicly resigned from SOS Racisme after it defended the girls' right to remain. Meanwhile, the media and government rarely allow the voices of scarf-wearing French girls to be heard, instead giving the platform to secularists and those who, like a handful of left-wing recent immigrants from North Africa, wholeheartedly linked the scarf to a range of oppressions in their home countries.

Two girls who did manage to penetrate the media were the Levy sisters of Aubervilliers, Alma and Lila, who were thrown out of school for taking on the scarf. The daughters of a Jewish father (from a Tunisian immigrant family) and a nonpracticing mother, they chronicle their decision in the book Girls Just Like Others. Since they chose to wear headscarves independent of any pressure from their family, they should have been models, but the impasse remained. "Calls for newcomers to integrate are not accompanied by calls for long-term residents to broaden their notions of what is acceptably French." Girls are thrown out of school. And initiatives that would broaden representation of those disenfranchised remain impossible in part because of a divided Left. Through the looking glass indeed.

Fall 2007
Vol. 22, No. 3 :

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