PARIS — Proponents of a controversial law banning the conspicuous display of religious symbols in French public schools are rejecting charges that the measure is aimed at discriminating against Muslim girls who wear headscarves.
Rather, said Patrick Weil, one of the 20 members of a presidential commission that proposed the law in December, the goal is to protect unveiled Muslim girls from the influence of radical groups. A key proponent of the law, Weil told the Forward that the presidential panel had heard testimony from numerous secular Muslim girls who called for the banning of religious symbols in schools as a way to relieve the pressure that they were feeling from fundamentalist groups who have gained influence in the poor suburbs in which most Muslims in France live.
“We realized that the phenomenon had become much more serious and that it came along with violent attitudes — refusal to attend history classes on the Holocaust or World War II,” said Weil, a professor at the Sorbonne. “There are groups — boys essentially — who watch the girls and heavily pressure the ones not wearing the veil. They are submitted to unacceptable pressures and neither the police nor judicial complaints are going to solve this.”
Several Muslim groups and human rights organizations have condemned the proposal, which would ban headscarves, yarmulkes and large crosses, arguing that it simply represents a politically correct way of targeting Islam. Several prominent Muslim clerics around the world have weighed in against the measure, and some 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Paris last weekend to protest it.
Weil said the opposition was emanating from religious groups and pointed to polls showing the majority of France’s 5 to 6 million Muslims backed the proposal, which has been endorsed by President Jacques Chirac and is to be introduced to Parliament in February.
Weil added that he was baffled by American criticism of the measure. Both John Hanford, the State Department’s top official for international religious freedom, and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, warned France that the law would endanger religious freedom.
“I am surprised that in America, where the fight for sexual equality has been fought so early on, no one says anything,” said Weil, who taught one semester at New York University last year. “This is frankly surprising. The veil carries a symbol of inequality and domination, right?”
He explained that while the French model ensures that the state protects the individual from any intrusion or pressure from a religious group, the American model is primarily aimed at protecting the religious group. Weil attributed the difference of approaches to the fact the France’s secularism was borne out of a hard-fought battle against the all-powerful Catholic Church a century ago. He insisted the proposal is not meant to sanction religion as much as to guarantee the strict separation of church and state.
The logical consequence of such a ban, in Weil’s view, is that Muslim — or for that matter Jewish and Catholic — children who want a religious education should be able to do so by attending private religious schools.
Those schools are partly financed by the state provided they sign an agreement with the Education Ministry ensuring that they will respect certain standards.
The problem is that while there are numerous Catholic schools and several Jewish schools, there is only one government-funded Muslim school and it is located on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. While three Muslim schools were set up in metropolitan areas of France in recent years, they do not stand to benefit from government agreements.
“This is woefully insufficient,” said a French official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that the French authorities would like to see such schools rather then madrasa-like establishments funded from abroad.
The impetus for the ban stems from several events and trends, including the September 11 attacks, the growth in France of radical Islam and the far-right National Front, and a wave of antisemitic acts perpetrated by young Muslims.
Weil said the proposal is meant to provide guidance to schoolmasters who have been struggling to apply ambiguous guidelines promulgated in 1989. That year, the highest French administrative court ruled that the decision on whether to ban veils at school lay with the school directors, insisting they should emphasize the need to protect religious freedom.
“The problem is that schoolmasters were so afraid of violating the 1989 ruling and impinging on religious freedom that they did not do anything,” Weil said. “As a result, the public school system had become a privileged field for the propaganda and pressure of religious groups.”
The proposal comes as law enforcement and intelligence services have intensified their decade-old monitoring of Islamic groups and sympathizers and have become especially concerned about indoctrination of young marginalized Muslims by satellite TV broadcasters and religious preachers.
The Forward has learned that France has discreetly established a policy of rejecting visa requests made by so-called roving imams, especially those coming from Saudi Arabia, who tour Europe during major religious celebrations such as Ramadan.
Two government officials said the measure was put in place last year out of concern about the radical brand of Islam advocated by Wahabi imams.
Jean-Louis Guerin, an Interior Ministry official, denied that such a policy was in practice. He added, however, that the authorities had delayed granting visas during religious celebrations, in effect leading to a sharp drop in requests. He said the decisions were discretionary and did not target Saudis in particular.
“It is obvious that we are paying attention,” he said.
Weil, who has denounced racial and religious inequalities for years and called for a high-level national commission to deal with them, nevertheless refuses to link them to the rise of fundamental Islam.
“One shouldn’t claim everything is just the result of the marginalization and unemployment,” he said. “This is not true. Radicalism can flourish in sophisticated circles, among people who have no integration problem. Bin Laden is not a poor Saudi … Those issues have to be addressed in parallel, but one should not establish a causality link.”