France: Islam and the secular state

The burkini bans have exposed historic tensions that are dividing Muslims and threatening French unity

by: Anne-Sylvaine Chassany

In the summer of 1905, the Catholic cassock, and whether to ban wearing it in the streets, sparked a passionate debate in France. For Charles Chabert, a leftwing MP, the black ankle-length soutane was not just an affront to modernity but a reminder of the threat the monarchist Catholic Church posed to the secular republic that he, and his colleagues, sought to consolidate with a bill enforcing a strict separation of state and religion.

Some priests would find it hard to part with the garment, he conceded, but others, “the most clever, the most educated”, would welcome the ban as liberation. Conjuring up an imaginary cleric, shy and buttoned up, Chabert added: “Look at him. The garb makes him a prisoner of his own ignorance … Of this slave, let’s make a man.”

Aristide Briand, author of the separation bill, disagreed. By policing garments, the state would be perceived as “intolerant”, and, even worse, the subject of “ridicule”, he quipped.
Fast forward 111 years, France is again debating religious garb — this time, the burkini. The dispute, which erupted in August when about 30 mayors banned the full-length Islamic swimwear, has laid bare the old fracture between a hardline, uncompromising vision of secularism and a more liberal one, and once again threatens to tear apart a country still reeling from Islamist terror attacks.

Fear and paranoia have galvanised Chabert’s heirs, says Sudhir Hazareesingh, a lecturer in politics at Oxford and a specialist in French intellectual movements. “Their vision of laïcité [secularism] is one that seeks to regulate religions, it’s characterised by anticlericalism,” Mr Hazareesingh says. “They aim to shape a republican identity. They regard religious beliefs as inferior thinking and a form of alienation.”

As in 1905, when they lost the argument on the soutane, those hardline secularists have suffered a setback on the burkini. France’s highest administrative court overturned the ban issued by Villeneuve-Loubet, a small town on the Riviera, setting a precedent for the other mayors who had taken similar action. The obligation of neutrality applies to the state, not to citizens, who can express their religious beliefs, the Conseil d’Etat said.

Yet, with presidential elections next year and polls suggesting a strong showing by the far-right National Front (FN), the debate has hit a nerve in a country grappling with homegrown jihadism and a sense of economic and cultural decline. The burkini dispute has revived the animosity over the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, and brought back into focus the deprived, unemployment-stricken suburbs, or banlieues, where many of those involved in recent Islamist attacks were raised.

Islam and France’s estimated 5m Muslims — one of the largest populations in Europe — have become central to the question of French identity. “Centuries of greatness long gone has created a sense of nostalgia,” says Jean Baubérot, a historian specialising in secularism and a supporter of Mr Briand’s liberal legacy. “For some, Islam has become a scapegoat for all our troubles.”
Secularism vs religión
The backlash, however, goes beyond notions of xenophobia. It is rooted in a longstanding suspicion of religions, underpinned by the idea that faith is a private matter restricted to the home and places of worship. This sets French secularism apart from that of the US or the UK, according to Olivier Roy from the European University Institute in Florence who is a specialist on Islam.
“In America, separation was designed to free religion from state interference, whereas in France separation has evolved to exclude religion from public space and to promote the supremacy of the state over religious organisations,” Mr Roy explains.
For the French, integration means shedding one’s religious beliefs, or at least toning them down.
That’s why they have a hard time understanding that some Muslims, including a growing, well-integrated middle class, may want to express their faith for reasons other than social discrimination or religious extremism, Mr Roy adds.
France banned the hijab in state schools in 2004 and six years later prohibited the face-covering niqab in public spaces. The debate is spreading. Germany is looking at whether to issue a similar niqab ban after an influx of refugees from Syria in the past 18 months.
But in France there are calls for more radical action. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former leader vying to win the centre-right presidential nomination in November, wants to ban the veil in universities and the workplace. Islam, he says, “has not done the work to integrate”. He is tacking to a resurgent FN, whose leader Marine Le Pen wants to extend the hijab ban to all public places.

There are similar echoes on the left, rooted in entrenched anticlericalism and a blend of feminism inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s fight against Catholic tradition. Manuel Valls, the socialist prime minister, said last month that the burkini and the veil are symbols of the “enslavement of women”.

As Briand did in 1905, other politicians disagree. But in a country where atheists are expected to outnumber all other groups by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center, this is a widely shared view. Nearly two-thirds of French adults oppose the wearing of the hijab in the streets or the burkini on beaches, according to an Ifop survey.
Among them, Patrick and Claudine, a couple from Nice who declined to give their surnames, firmly believe that “religion is for the home”. They have no sympathy for the FN, which attracted more than a third of the votes in recent elections in the Nice region, but do support the centre-right mayor’s burkini ban. “Religion is not something one should display,” says Claudine, 59. “Religions have always caused trouble.”

Living a few metres from the Promenade des Anglais, the seafront where in July a Tunisian truck driver killed 86 people celebrating Bastille Day, including many Muslims, they say the massacre — for which Isis claimed responsibility — has left them with questions over the loyalty of the Muslim community.

“We didn’t feel a strong reaction on their part,” Patrick says. In nearby Villeneuve-Loubet, Elisabeth, a 56-year-old topless beachgoer, is more explicit. “They [Muslims] want to impose their way of life. If they want to settle here, then they should do as we do.”
‘The state has let us down’
Muslim groups argue the bans are a visible sign of the mounting Islamophobia in France.
Laïcité, they argue, has become the respectable excuse. More than 429 anti-Muslim acts — everything from insults to physical attacks on people and property — were reported last year, a threefold increase on 2014, according to the government.
Ndella Paye, who describes herself as a Muslim feminist and anti-racist activist, believes the burkini bans are a manifestation of the sexist and colonial attitude of the French establishment.
“We are told that to be free, we need to undress. And by whom? By white mayors and white feminists stuck in the 1970s,” says the 42-year old, who wears a hijab. Muslim women in France are ostracised, she says. “They can’t go to schools, they can’t go to work, they can’t go to the beach or the swimming pool. The French are worse than the Saudis.”

Other female Muslims disagree. Nadia Ould-Kaci and Nadia Benmissi, residents of Aubervilliers, a suburb in northern Paris, say Islamic fundamentalists are trying to impose their rule on the area. It has become difficult to walk, shop or go to restaurants for women who, like them, choose not to wear the hijab, they say.
“It’s not just teenagers or converts who wear the hijab now. There is an increasing number of young girls all covered up,” Ms Benmissi says. The 62-year old was born in Algeria, where she did not wear the hijab. Yet, in Aubervilliers, she gets daily intrusive remarks. “Last time I was shopping, a man looked into my bag and said: ‘This is not halal.’ There is always someone to remind you that you are not a good Muslim here.”
The hijab is not just a piece of cloth, she insists. “We talk a lot about freedom, but what about gender equality? Why is this not as important? The veil symbolises the unequal status of women,” Ms Benmissi says.
In Sevran, north-east of Paris, Nadia Remadna, a French-born social worker, fumes about Muslim feminists like Ms Paye. “These women think that progress is when they can pray behind the men, instead of in the basement,” she says. When she was 15, her father took her back to his home town in Algeria. For 10 years, Ms Remadna stopped going to school and was forced to stay at home — until she fled back to France.
So when she saw her son removing pictures of her from the family album because he found them “immodest”, she started fretting. Later she overheard an older boy rebuking a younger one at her son’s high school, because he “had not seen [him] at the mosque” the night before.
She was shocked to find out the older boy was not a student, but a school supervisor employed by the state.
“You entrust the state with your children, you think they are protected from religion in state schools and this happens,” she says. “Laïcité is not enforced in the banlieues.” Local politicians strike deals with local Salafists [followers of an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam] to get votes and maintain public order in the banlieues, she says. “The state has let us down.”
Rise of conservatism
The emergence over the past three decades of the hijab in the banlieues has coincided with increasing religious conservatism and gender segregation. Research by Gilles Kepel, a professor at Sciences Po, shows that the influence of Salafist movements has grown in these areas in the past 20 years, especially among second-generation immigrants. It has, says Mr Kepel, provided fertile ground for Islamist extremism.
Field work by Jennifer Selby, a Canadian scholar, in Petit Nanterre, a poor district west of Paris, underlines the growing influence of religion on daily life — the women stay at home, the men, many of whom are unemployed, spend their time monitoring the whereabouts of female residents.
Those neighbourhoods are increasingly populated by Muslim families, who grapple with high unemployment, discrimination and oppressive panoptic architecture — towers that allow someone to observe everyone without being seen themselves, says Ms Selby.

The government has poured €40bn into renovation of these districts over four decades, but unemployment is still higher than the 10 per cent national average and the estates are plagued by crime.

Mr Roy says: “Ghettoisation is a huge issue, Salafists are filling a void left by the state. But this problem is not going to be solved by policing the hijab.”

More regulation of religious signs would be counterproductive, says Mr Baubérot. “Should we consider all Muslims as enemies of the republic at the risk of stigmatising them?” he asks.

In 1905, the decision was to try and include the vast majority of Catholics and it worked: with time they embraced the republic and on the eve of the first world war, France was united, he says. “We are wrong to forget the lessons of history,” adds Mr Baubérot.
Building bridges: Secular republic seeks to create an ‘Islam of France’

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