Sen. Santorum Blasts France On Religious Symbol Ban

By Marc Perelman

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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A leading Republican senator is blasting the French government for its efforts to impose a ban on the wearing of religious symbols or garments in public schools.

Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, told the Forward that the French decision was “very dangerous.”

“This is further evidence of the postmodern culture in Europe,” said Santorum, a leading cultural conservative, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “When you marginalize faith, you end up marginalizing the people of faith.”

French President Jacques Chirac decided Wednesday to endorse the recommendation of a special commission to ask Parliament to pass a law banning all conspicuous religious symbols in state schools — including the Muslim veil, yarmulkes and large crosses. While Muslim and Catholic groups in France have voiced opposition to the ban, Jewish secular and religious leaders have generally supported it, arguing that the measure is essentially aimed at stifling the growing influence of radical Islam on France’s Muslim population.

Yet Santorum, a vehement critic of militant Islam who is known for his opposition to abortion and gay rights, said that approach was misguided. “Banning religion in the public square can lead to banning religious people,” said Santorum, who frequently speaks out on religious freedom abroad. “The way to fight the spread of Muslim faith symbols is to have a vibrant Jewish and Christian community. But since those religions are living in a postmodern era in Europe, only the vital faiths gain ground.”

Santorum said his views on France also applied to Iraq, where all religions must be represented in the public square.

Last month, during a keynote speech at an Orthodox Union gathering in New York, Santorum urged Jewish communal leaders in America to fight the powers of “radical secularism.”

“I consider [religious freedom] the first freedom — more important than the freedom of speech, more important than the freedom of assembly, and more important than the freedom of the press,” Santorum told the Orthodox leaders. “Why? Because it’s essentially the freedom to think.”

In his interview with the Forward this week, Santorum said that he was actively monitoring the issue of religious freedom in the Senate and had been in touch with the State Department to make sure that the matter received proper attention.

Santorum’s position would seem to put him in conflict with Roger Cukierman, the head of the Crif umbrella organization that represents the Jewish community. Cukierman told the Forward in an interview several months ago that he favored the ban on religious apparel. Yet, in a seeming reflection of the explosive nature of the issue within the Jewish community, Cukierman’s spokesperson, Edith Lenczner, this week said that the Jewish leader had only offered vague support for the proposal, and did not favor a ban on yarmulkes. She said Cukierman was in favor of a law that helps fight against discrimination between men and women and that provides school directors with clear guidelines. However, she added, he believes the yarmulke is not a conspicuous symbol and therefore should not be included in the ban.

For more than a decade, school directors have been mostly free to make their own decisions about religious symbols in school. The debate has taken on a new urgency in recent years with the growing popularity of radical Islam, a wave of antisemitism and the strong electoral showing of the far-right National Front in 2002.

In addition to saying he would ask his government to formalize the ban on religious items, Chirac rejected the commission’s recommendation to create new national holidays linked to religions other than Christianity. The commission, appointed by Chirac six months ago and headed by former government minister Bernard Stasi, proposed adding Yom Kippur and the Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

In the 67-page report that it released last week, the commission recommended barring “conspicuous signs of political or religious affiliation.” However, it deemed discreet medals — such as a small cross or Star of David — acceptable.

Francois Zimeray, a leading advocate of Israel in the European Parliament and a member of the opposition Socialist party in France, said that while most French political leaders supported the ban, he did not.

“What’s important is not so much what people have on their heads than what is inside their heads,” he told reporters Tuesday during a press briefing in New York. “So this means we are treating the symptom rather than the cause.”

Apart from the veil, the commission also investigated other issues involving the Muslim community, including women refusing treatment by male doctors, pupils challenging teachers over whether the Holocaust actually took place and a “new antisemitism” growing among disaffected Arab youths.

While acknowledging the existence of Arab antisemitism in France, Zimeray said, “The responsibility lies with a whole society that has failed to integrate the Muslim immigrants.” Zimeray argued that the best way to facilitate the integration of the Muslim population in France was to increase the emphasis in public schools on promoting pluralistic values and improving Arab relations with other groups.

Zimeray pointed to his recent discovery that a schoolbook for young children contained reading, writing and speech exercises based on a news dispatch describing the hardships of Palestinian schoolchildren living under the Israeli occupation. The book, used in a school program in classrooms with many Muslim students, was immediately withdrawn after Zimeray complained about it.






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