As the European Union moves closer to the integration of the laws, institutions and policies of its constituent members, the fate of its ethnic and religious minorities assumes greater prominence. Ever since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the near-unanimous adoption of the euro as the EU’s coin of the realm, prospects for the creation of a new and united Europe have been strengthened. But all these forces are no more than a mere process that may or may not lead to the desired objective. For even Europeans, who are among the first to confront forces of globalization by creating a regional economic bloc of their own, appreciate the enormity of this task. Not only do the groups opposing this union represent the forces of nineteenth-century nation-states, they also include the new ethnic and religious sub-nations representing Europe’s latest demographic challenges. The task of integration is further complicated by the ethnic mosaic that dominates the European space, demanding specific and different treatment from the host countries of their residence. In some instances, the desired relationship is said to be based on assimilation, in others on separation, and in some cases, as in France, on a recognition of the specificity of the sub-nation’s ethnic or religious affiliation. This paper addresses specifically Britain’s and France’s response to the prospect of integrating their Islamic minorities, demonstrating not only differences between the policies of these two countries but also their mixed approach to groups within their borders.
It should be recognized that these minorities are not restricted to migrations from the peripheral areas of the continent, such as Eastern Europe, Portugal and Eastern Germany. The uncomfortable reality is that the task at hand involves, in the main, non-European and non-Christian communities distinguishable by their cultural distance from the center, the core culture. Furthermore, this ongoing process of homogenization, differentiation and emerging identities promises to be a complicated process because of several factors. First is the absence of any EU-specific guidelines addressing the human rights of the new immigrant groups or recognizing their cultural specificity, except in the most general terms. There is also the mystification surrounding certain cultures, religions and historic misconceptions that have maligned their contacts with the European continent in the past. Lack of certainty as to the immigrants’ own desired position in their new places of settlement adds another complication. Finally, the inability or unwillingness of the host governments to recognize divisions within the immigrant communities based largely on generational differences, links to transnational communities, and even sectarian and sub-ethnic differences inevitably slows down the integrating process.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to finding a resolution to this ongoing and pervasive conflict is the debate among European anthropologists over the most suitable paradigm for understanding race relations today. Should this be based on racial categories, as has been the case all along, or is there an alternate paradigm based on class, gender or generational difference?
In Britain, for instance, the paradigm of race or blackness has recently broken down, resulting in the sudden prominence of other criteria of difference to explain minority/majority conflict. The new emphasis seems to be on ethno-cultural traits that attached undue weight in the case of Muslims to their religious affiliation. An Arab scholar at a British university, Aziz al-Azmeh, lamented this development, calling it the “over-Islamization of Muslims.” This has grave consequences for the mutually exclusive cultural perceptions of Muslims and Europeans, particularly where gender issues predominate.1
Thus, it came as no surprise that when recent crises in race relations erupted – particularly in Britain and France – they revolved around issues pertaining mostly to gender and the education of girls. Gender issues were the polarizing factor that deepened preexisting cultural chasms based on the historical legacy of misunderstanding, exaggerated fear, prejudice and the absence of civilizational dialogue. Women’s issues not only heightened preexisting prejudices regarding the immigrants’ parent culture; they also revealed misconceptions regarding the entire Islamic faith, its dominant ideologies and particularly its lack of secularization and modernity. Such was the gender issue that it tapped into and exposed a plethora of entrenched ideas that completely misdiagnosed the mental framework of the “other.” Observers of the breakdown in communal conversation between the “dominant” and “subordinate” cultures, to borrow the late Edward Said’s terms, had to resort to an extensive reexamination of the historic contacts of these groups and the legacy of alienation and fear that joined Europe to the Middle East in the past.
Part of the problem can be traced to the historic relationship of Europe and Islam and the role of religion in shaping the European identity. Religion has always been a powerful cohesive force that contributed to the emergence of a unified identity involving a segment of the Eurasian territorial expanse. It was the necessity of blocking the advance of an outside religion, namely Islam, that gave the Europeans the cohesion to resist Muslim Tartars and Mongols and, later, Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Thus, opposition to the Muslim religion led to the consolidation of the European entity, a slowly developing bloc of countries that joined together in fighting Muslims from the Crusades of the eleventh century to the defense of the Hapsburg Empire in the seventeenth.
Europe emerged as a distinct civilization even when it proved willing to embrace a variety of diverse but related cultures. François Guizot made this point when he described, in his 1828 History of Civilization in Europe, how European civilization distinguished itself from others precisely by its tolerance of diversity, combining at one time such political systems as monarchies, theocracies and republics. This diversity, however, was covered with a Christian patina. Islam remains to this day external to Europe, although it has always existed within this cultural entity. Thus, it would be possible to argue that Europe emerged as a single entity despite its dissimilar nationalities and political ideologies and in response to the ever-present Muslim danger along its borders.2
Europe’s oppositional identity and its constant hostility to Islam can also be backed by history. In ancient Greek mythology, Europe appears as a Phoenician princess with whom Zeus was enchanted and whom he brought to the Mediterranean island of Crete – signifying the Mediterranean foundation of European civilization. But in the Middle Ages, and again because of conflict with Islam, Europe became identified as the core of the Christian world, its center shifting to the north. Later, as a result of the Enlightenment, Europe distinguished itself from others by its embrace of secularism, which further separated it from the southern shores of the Mediterranean.3
As Europe modernized, it imposed its definition on the non-European world to the east and south, branding a variety of native cultures and political systems as “Muslim” or “Islamic”, while reserving the term “Europe” or “the West” to itself. The Algerian scholar of Islam, Mohammed Arkoun, took offense at this phenomenon, pointing out that the name of a religion was attached to a number of different societies and cultures, obliterating their dissimilar histories, institutions and ideologies. At the same time, the term “West” was applied to a certain historical territory shaped by the secularizing and modernizing influences of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.4
Attaching this religious label to the non-Christian communities inhabiting the Middle East and South Asia created another obstacle to better understanding between the communities of the northern and southern Mediterranean worlds. As the modern definition of religion evolved into “a system of personal belief,” the notion that Islam was a different religion in that it applied to society’s comprehensive issues, defining politics and social and economic relations, negated it utterly in the eyes of Europe ans. Islam acquired a reputation for irrationality, fanaticism and extremism.
The modern definition of religion, traceable to the period after the European Enlightenment, which also delimited Europe as the West, became the yardstick by which all other religions were measured. Similarly, just as the notion of religion became defined in the experience of the West as a personal system, in contradistinction not only to Islam but Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept of the separation of church and state emerged as exclusively Western and of new vintage. The view of Islam as a faith that made no separation between religion and politics deepened its image as fundamentalist, dangerous and backward.5
The Islamic menace was viewed early on as military in nature due to the battle of Poitiers, which in 732 CE put an end to any future Islamo-Arab penetration of southern Europe. The anonymous clerical author of Continuatio Hispanica, written in Toledo in the middle of the eighth century (the continuation of the Historiae by Isidore of Seville), hailed the battle as a victory for the Austrasians, who were defined as Europeans, or Europenses. It was not clear, however, whether the author of that tome was projecting his own sense of being a Europensis, or his belief that the Iberian Peninsula was considered part of Europe by Roman geographers. Or, did his Christian religion influence him to identify the victors as Europeans? No matter; historians have long debated whether Muslim armies seriously intended to push throughout Europe or whether they fell victim to their own battle weariness, rather than the zealotry of Christians. It is enough to relate that the majority of modern historians do not view this battle as an attempted invasion, considering the inability of the Arabs at the time to raise the requisite number of troops for invading a territory stretching from the Pillars of Hercules to the northern and eastern reaches of Europe.
The symbolism and mythology of the battle of Poitiers, nevertheless, persisted through the ages, thanks to the efforts of the historian Edward Gibbon in his 1788 six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There he sketched the history of past European centuries as a series of battles against Islam and claimed that only the heroism of Charles Martel at Poitiers prevented the muezzin from chanting Allah’s name from the tall spires of Oxford, and His holy book, the Quran, from being taught at its university. It was also the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne in his celebrated Mohammad and Charlemagne (1935) who blamed the collapse of Western civilization on the diffusion of Islam throughout Europe. This, according to him, led to the destruction of cities and the retreat to rural areas, leading to the beginning of the feudal age. According to his assertion, the Middle Ages did not begin at the collapse of the Roman Empire but after the second half of the seventh century. Historians today dispute this thesis of decline at the hands of the Arab navy, arguing that the Roman Empire unraveled slowly during the centuries preceding the feudal age.6
Most of the arguments about and perceptions of Islam today invariably affect women, first by demonizing the civilization and culture with which they are associated, and then by disparaging the status of women within Islam. When compared to the European’s conception of their civilization as secular, democratic and individualist, the image of Islam becomes further distorted. The European yardstick is defined as the epitome of the human, liberal and progressive experience. Theories stressing differences abound, such as those by American scholars Daniel Pipes, Patricia Crone and John Hall, who attempt to prove that Islam is extraordinarily predisposed to the legitimization of authoritarian regimes.7 Gema Martin Munoz, a Spanish professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Madrid, makes the following comments regarding these ideas and those of Bernard Lewis:
In all these theories, as well as others that stress there is no distinction between politics and religion – God and Caesar – the absence of the principle of freedom replaced by that of justice in Islam, the lack of a clear definition of “citizen” and the primacy of the community over the individual are all elements in their own right that would explain attempts to argue that Islam and democracy are alien.8
This image not only essentializes Islam, ascribing uniform and mostly fundamentalist traits to a religion of one and a quarter billion people stretching all over the globe, but it distorts Islam’s emphasis on women’s role in society. The image also leaves out changes and developments within the fundamentalist camp and presents resurgent Islam as an immutable and pervasive phenomenon, particularly in its approach to gender issues. In reality, the Sharia, itself the most orthodox expression of women’s legal status in Muslim society, has faced numerous critiques long before the current Islamic resurgence of the 1970s. The Tunisian reformer and thinker Tahir al-Haddad, for instance, in his imraatuna fi al-sharia wa al-mujtama (Our Woman in Religious Law and in Society, 1930), called for separating the sharia’s divine and permanent commandments from its socially relevant rulings. This interpretation provided the necessary ammunition to later reformers such as President al-Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia, enabling him to draw a distinction between laws pertaining to divine matters and laws governing societal affairs. Similar calls were echoed in Egypt by Hussein Ahmad Amin on the pages of the widely read weekly, al-Mussawar, who went a step further by emphasizing the human extraction of much of the sharia laws. An Islamic writer in 1981, the Egyptian Fahmi Huwaydi, wrote a book titled, al-Quran wa al-sultan: humum islamiyya mu’assira (the Quran and power: contemporary Islamic concerns), questioning whether the Islamization of society could result only from the application of sharia laws.
Several Islamic states, beginning with Egypt, legitimized reference to customary law alongside the sharia in its Civil Code of 1948, for the purpose of amplifying points not directly addressed by religious law. At the same time, the Islamic Council of Europe has submitted to UNESCO various opinions embodied in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights in Islam, beginning in 1981, which called for establishing the sharia as the basic legitimate framework of laws that should not be exceeded. Similar views were expressed by the conservative Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1981 and 1990. Clearly, then, the civilizational and cultural dialogue is no longer between Christian Europe and the Muslim cultures of the Arab world, but among Muslims themselves. To the latter group, the debate was the natural outcome of the challenge of modernity as it expressed itself in the present varieties of systems based on liberal or collectivist economies, secularism and modern technology.9
There are also divisions within the Islamist movement, separating traditionalists with their early responses to the collapse of secularist ideologies in the Muslim world from later voices calling for a reevaluation of the Islamist project itself. Total rejection of modernity, innovation and secularization is exemplified by the thought of Sayyid Qutb, Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, alImam al Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiya. The calls for accommodating modernity to a certain degree have already been heard by such Islamist figures as Hassan al-Turabi of Sudan and Tunisia’s foremost Islamist thinker, Rashid al-Ghanouchi. Although calling for a newly-defined Muslim identity in response not to Westernization but to modernity, they are, nevertheless, calling for the rejection of what became in essence popular Islamism.10 However, the steady pressure for change, emanating from Western experts and always contrasting Western modernity with Islamic mutability, has not been very convincing. It seems that the idea that the abandonment of religious values will lead automatically to the acceptance of the values of modernity is not tenable, especially when one considers the hazards of secularization without an accompanying reform of religious thought.11 The danger in the rush to secularize and Westernize, as has been pointed out by European scholars, is the tenuous nature of the emerging European identity itself. Since “Western” often equates with “European,” it should be stressed that European countries have yet to settle issues of
. . . community, identity, citizenship, and nationalism within their borders. . . . As Europe adjusts to global change, the growing Muslim presence there has spawned an increasing amount of conflict. One reason is that Muslim integration into national societies is no longer a simple question of assimilation into a stable national identity.12
The European Union itself is examining its identity, a difficult task considering that the underlying premise is the exclusion of religion, language or a well-defined geographic territoriality. Neither can this identity be based on a common adherence to capitalism alone. Rather, what is emerging is a multicultural identity based on Western definitions of democracy, human rights and peaceful coexistence. Islam’s position within this emerging consensus seems problematic, suffering exclusion because of its religious base and being the heir to the Christian-Muslim antagonism that defined Europe’s boundaries in the first place.13
Misperceptions of Muslim society and its political movements, ideologies and values are greatly dominated by an emphasis on the status of women. Incapable of overcoming their deep-seated suspicion of Islamic movements, Europeans and Westerners tend to ignore changes in the role of women resulting from changing economic realities. In the opinion of Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist scholar, even though Islam emphasizes the normalcy of men’s economic support for women and leadership over them, the majority of women have always worked, at least in the agricultural sector. However, expanding urbanization; the rising cost of living, which makes women’s employment a necessity; the increasing educational opportunities available to women; and the impact of local and international feminist movements have all made women’s employment a prevalent and expanding trend. Moreover, the general receptivity to the employment of second-generation Muslim female immigrants, such as those in Britain, has resulted mainly from their having gone through Western educational systems and having experienced selective adjustment to the values of their European environment. Neither are the children of Muslim immigrants immune to a certain degree of secularization, which, though transforming, may not result in a total breaking away from the family.14
Thus, the prominence of family life in the Muslim world may be deceptive, leading to a misplacement of emphasis on the nature of immigrant family life in the European context.15 One of the contentious issues that has inflamed relations between Muslim immigrants and Europeans has been the question of women’s dress. It has been pointed out that the issue of the veil is often relevant to the historical suspicion of Muslims and their alien culture. The simple religiosity expressed by the veil as a form of headdress is often denied, while the implied meaning of a similar headdress on a Christian nun or a devout Jewish male is accepted. In the case of a Muslim woman, the veil is most likely to be seen as a sign of female oppression and allegiance to a militant ideology. More important, adopting the veil is commonly regarded as a matter of first reaction as signifying the rejection of acceptable social standards. She may even be viewed as flaunting the symbols of a dangerous faith, since religion is regarded in most European countries as a matter of private and personal choice. A veiled woman, thus, is an open advertisement of a belief system that is still regarded as alien to the prevailing religions of the land.16
Female circumcision is another issue that occasionally taints the image of Islam, although its location within the Islamic religious culture is neither proven nor prevalent. Recognized as a divisive but crucial practice at the U.N. Mid-decade Conference for Women in Copenhagen in 1980, it has continued to be an explosive issue among Western feminists, human rights advocates and international organizations. The practice, known otherwise as female genital mutilation, received international attention again during the 1994 Habitat Conference at Cairo and the subsequent death of two Egyptian girls, supposedly as a result of this procedure.
This provoked an inter-Islamic debate on the subject, eliciting opposing responses from Egypt’s government, as well as the grand mufti himself. Some European countries, like Sweden, have actually discovered the effectiveness of native voices within the country’s Somali immigrant minority, which, including those of medical doctors and psychologists, spoke out against this custom. Although female circumcision occurs much more widely among non-Muslim and non-Arab populations, somehow it attached a visible stigma to Arab and Muslim cultures. The conclusion among most Islamic scholars seems to indicate that the practice has cultural, rather than religious, roots. Yet its association with Islam continues to foster the general impression that women are not treated humanely in Muslim countries.17
Despite these negative impressions, it should be pointed out that women do play a role in Islamist movements and organizations, although their leadership qualifications are generally questioned. Women cluster in separate branches of these organizations in the Muslim world but are often elected to mixed student councils, as in Jordan. Islamist women, with the exception of those in Iran, have never been elected to parliaments. Some officials of the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Fathi Yakan, specifically sanction the notion of male supremacy within the Muslim family. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt issued a report in 1994 titled, “The Role of Muslim Women in Islamic Society according to the Muslim Brotherhood,” which specifically acknowledged women’s voting rights and their qualification for public office. All European branches of the organization accept these reports, which, as usual, are generally buttressed with Quranic and other religious citations.18
Feminism has also reared its head in France’s Muslim community. An organization by the name of Nana Beurs (Nana is slang for women, and Beur stands for second-generation Arab women), struggles for racial equality. The group also demonstrates against the sharia. During a recent march, the women highlighted their dependence on their husbands’ residence cards and were able subsequently to receive a ten-year visa on their own. The visa was a symbol of great empowerment and worked towards achieving autonomy from their male relatives. In Turkey, which has been denied membership in the EU partly because of its Islamic roots, the leading Muslim party, the former Refah, has long considered women its most effective recruiters of female membership. Targeting new Anatolian female arrivals in Istanbul, Refah’s female contingency has long showered attention, support and access to new services on the rural recruits. Members of Refah’s female brigade, nevertheless, have been denied top positions even though their organizational skills are greatly appreciated. The female membership of Refah, recently estimated to be 60,000, is demanding the slating of women for public office.19
Human-rights issues, it is argued, do not provoke outrage unnecessarily, but are often manipulated in the ideological battle to win hearts and minds. In the view of a former CIA expert on the Middle East, Graham Fuller, the future will see not a “clash of civilizations” à la Huntington, but a battle for Western domination using the ideas and strategies of capitalism, human rights, secularism and liberal nation-states. These same principles are already destabilizing the Third World and empowering nations of the First World.20 A case like Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the furor it raised among Western defenders of the right of free speech was another case at hand. Not only did this incident reflect negatively on the standards of human rights in the Muslim world, it was also a cause of extreme tension between the immigrant Muslim communities and their host countries. European criticism of Iran’s judgment against Rushdie unwittingly exposed the powerlessness of the migrant communities, particularly in Britain. Although this community was made up of foreign-born and British-born citizens, it failed to press its view of this transgression against their sacred texts.21
Indeed, the publicity surrounding the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie came at a time when race riots among Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in Britain prompted local authorities to co-opt the Asian groups through the creation of the Bradford Council of Mosques in Yorkshire. The youths of Bradford, as well as those of the Tower Hamlets, who were mainly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, have previously considered themselves black, using race to express anger at their uneven integration into British life. Both the Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths belonged to the Mirpur and Sylheti castes, respectively, and were distinguished mainly by their low status. During the 1970s, both groups occupied the semi-skilled and unskilled positions in heavy engineering, textiles, and the garment and catering industries. Both groups, though placed in different geographic locations, were relegated to the decayed sector of the postindustrial economy. This sector was particularly vulnerable to economic upheavals and restructuring, causing long stretches of unemployment. As such, they both occupied the least favorable rung of the social hierarchy, especially as compared to other Asian groups of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu loyalties.
Neither of the above groups were known for their religiosity or for an increased mosque attendance as a result of the Rushdie affair. But the Tower Hamlets at London’s East End had experienced the death of two Bangladeshi garment workers in 1978, allegedly at the hands of the National Front, leading to the involvement of community leaders. Several of the Asian youth organizations that led this struggle were leftist. The Rushdie affair added insult to injury and forced the youths to pressure the Council of Mosques to take action. In the process, the Muslim identity was born, although pride was more involved here than religion. The Muslim identity also papered over the multiplicity of castes, classes and sects that dominate the Asian community in Britain. Some observers commented that Islamic discussions were often held at the pub, while mosques held the front lines in communicating with the authorities.22 British Muslims also perceived in the Rushdie affair a lack of respect for their own religious sensibilities and what they hold sacred. Seen in the context of Britain’s reluctance to extend its public funding to Islamic schools, the Rushdie affair only emphasized the legal protection enjoyed by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and Jewish groups through the anti-blasphemy laws.23
Following the Iranian revolution and other instances of the Islamic resurgence, Europe’s expanding Muslim population has increasingly regarded Islam as the most appropriate avenue for the expression of grievances. At the same time, European communities began to experience mistrust and suspicion of the Islamic immigrant communities due to events taking place on their soil, such as the Rushdie affair, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and instances of Islamic violence within the United States. Greater concern is expressed over the integration or isolation of the latest wave of Muslim immigrants in the countries of the EU, today numbering in the millions. They arrived in response to the Common Market’s increasing labor needs, coming on the heels of an earlier wave resulting from the process of decolonization in several Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries. The origins and location of these immigrant communities are also worthy of note since they betray diverse nationalities. France hosts a population of North African origin who are mostly Algerian, with an increasing number from West Africa. In Britain, the Muslim immigrants are mostly from the former British colonies in South Asia, but they also include Arabs and Somalis. Germany hosts a population that is largely Turkish, with some Yugoslavs. The Netherlands boasts a mixed Muslim population of Indonesians, North Africans and Turks. Until the early 1970s, the majority of that immigration was made up of males, a fact that was related to the uncertainty of their employment and the prospect of their returning home.
This trend was reversed with the arrival of their families in the 1970s, which increased the number of women and children within these communities as the immigrants gave up all hope of returning to their deteriorating native economies. It was established that the ratio of males to females for Turks in Germany in 1974 was 180:100, but the ratio for Germany’s total Muslim population narrowed to 139 males to every 100 females in 1981, and in 1987, it became 128 males to each 100 females. The same transformation occurred in Britain. The male:female ratio in 1981 among the Bangladeshi-born population was 201 to every 100, for the older Pakistani population it was 131 to every 100. By 1991, the ratio for Bangladeshis narrowed to 113 males to every 100 females, and 104 males to every 100 Pakistanis. In France, the figures for Algerians in 1985 was 143 males to every 100 females. The influx of families was accompanied by an expansion in the number of mosques built to accommodate their spiritual needs. Thus, whereas there were only six officially registered mosques in Britain in 1960, the number has increased to 395 mosques in 1988. Germany which had no mosques in the 1960s, saw the rise of 1,000 mosques in the early 1990s.24
Although each of Europe’s different communities experienced a distinct alienating experience of its own, the education of women was the most frequent common denominator. The issue of men’s education or enrollment in public schools was rarely controversial. At the same time, the enrollment of Muslim women exposed the wide chasm separating the ideology of the Muslim family from that of the state. Muslims rejected the idea that public education was value-free, often alluding to direct contradiction between the civic educational theory underlying public education and the teachings of their own faith. Despite all claims to secularization and similar presuppositions, the educational system of many a European country during the last two centuries was not developed in a vacuum. The medieval church developed Europe’s first system of organized education and infused it with Christian values that remained as its foundation, whether run by secular groups or religious orders.
In Britain’s case, reforming the educational system in order to complete the centralization of the state was predicated on community consensus, including the approval of various Christian and secular elements. This process was started with the 1944 Education Act, which made religious education subject to the endorsement of all the above constituencies. The overwhelming secularizing trend and Britain’s changing ethnic and demographic picture forced British authorities to pursue another line of reform that added a multicultural dimension to the educational content. The West Riding authorities of Yorkshire began in 1966 to demand the inclusion of the main world religions in a curriculum that was still heavily Christian. Finally, in 1975, Birmingham introduced a new law calling for the representation of all major religious traditions in the school curriculum on an equal footing, recommending in the process that schools focus on Christianity, as well as two other religious systems. All religious representatives were consulted about the adoption of textbooks and the formulation of the syllabus. Birmingham proved to be the pioneer leading to similar steps within the following ten years throughout the country. This system proved inspirational for the educational systems of the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries in the 1980s, as they began to grapple with the demands of their multi-ethnic immigrant communities.25
The reformed British system, however, began to experience financial cuts and loss of interest in religious education. The reforms of 1944 had actually permitted the development of voluntary (private) schools, which began to appear as the result of the creation of new suburbs. Jewish schools became part of this new phenomenon and were perfectly acceptable to the authorities. The Muslim communities in various parts of the country began to seek similar accommodation as they became increasingly visible in local politics. The Islamic school in the London Borough of Brent was the first to attempt to secure official acceptance and was soon followed by others. While similar requests by church and Jewish schools within the same districts were granted recognition, Islamic schools were rejected. This development came in the context of increasing parental rejection of the objectives of multiculturalism, highlighted in the government document of 1985 known as the Swann Report or “Education for All.” Parents were objecting to their children being enrolled in schools with a heavy South Asian student population. Muslim organizations, such as the Bradford Council of Mosques, had also succeeded in gaining the dismissal of a teacher who published anti-Muslim views in a local journal. The Muslims by that time were increasingly convinced that the secularized school curriculum was leading to the devaluation of their beliefs. The Rushdie affair added fuel to the smoldering fire of Islamic discontent. Meantime, Muslim schools continued to be denied public funding. Thirty small Muslim schools supported by private funding were maintained without official support.26
By 1990, the headscarf proved to be another hurdle on the way to complete Muslim integration into the British school system. In Cheshire, two students wearing headscarves at the Altrincham Grammar School for Girls were prevented from attendance, though media response forced the overturning of this decision in a week’s time. The school’s action came as a shock to those who described the spirit of British politics as pluralistic and supportive of cultural diversity, especially since the Cheshire incident followed within a year of similar incidents in France. The French response to female Islamic headdress in the schools has been seen as another instance of rejection of ethnic and religious differences in the interest of maintaining a homogeneous republican image. As in all other cases, most debates over questions of ethnic diversity in Europe centered around the questions of assimilation and cultural pluralism. It should be noted here that claims made in both countries regarding the obstructionist effect of the scarves were inaccurate since these veils came down to the shoulder and did not conceal the face.
At the time, due to the publication in 1976 of the Race Relations Act, Muslims assumed that the desire of girls to wear headscarves to British schools was legally protected. The incident at Altrincham, it was slowly realized, was the result of Britain’s failure to incorporate into British law Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees religious freedom. But despite the legal precedent of Mandla v. Dowell Lee, in which the House of Lords ruled in favor of a Sikh boy’s right to wear a turban to school according to the 1976 act banning racial discrimination, the same act was judged inapplicable to cases of religious discrimination. The idea of racial discrimination under this act was defined as discrimination against ethnicity, race or national origin. Sikhs’ rights were granted due to their acceptance as a specific ethnic group, not because they were suffering religious discrimination. Ethnicity was defined in terms of culture or race, and the Sikh deemed to constitute a race or a nation, rather than a religious sect. Under the same act, Jews and Gypsies were also recognized as separate ethnic communities, while Muslims could not be brought under its legal protection. Repeatedly in such cases brought before industrial judiciaries, as well as the Employment Appeal Tribunal, Muslims were denied the status of an ethnic or unified religious group such as what the Muslims refer to as al-ummah. To add to the woes of Britain’s Muslim community, the banning of headscarves from public schools was rationalized by the claim that the veil (hijab) emphasizes women’s inferior status in Islam and is antithetical to the idea of gender equality.27
Discrimination against the Islamic female headdress in France was dealt with according to the country’s ideological legacy and its centralized educational policies. This case was subjected to polemics expressed in terms of the revolutionary Jacobin tradition and the immigrant communities’ entitlement to religious freedom. Complicating all this was the French claim to national homogeneity and the Jacobin ideal expressed as “la République une et indivisible.” Thus, secularization (laicité) is pursued passionately as the only way in which to ensure the survival of a modern definition of citizenship embodying the revolutionary ideals of equality and fraternity. The public arena was made free of the expression of any ethnic, religious or cultural identities, which have been banished to the private realm. To express a Muslim or Arab identity in France was considered a regressive tendency and inimical to the continuing process of national integration. However, the concept of secularity was not defined in terms of its spirit, and it remained at times a passive force, and at others, an active one dedicated to purging the state of any religious authority. Secularism was also understood to mean defending l’ordre publique by curbing the power of religious organizations.
A slight shift toward cultural pluralism (le droit à la différence) occurred under the presidency of Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) but soon faded. When François Mitterrand assumed the presidency (1981-1995), the rise of the Front National under Jean-Marie le Pen brought to an end the burgeoning debate on issues of immigration and the national identity. The government became more reluctant to broach these sensitive topics and became enmeshed in the far right’s call for ending North African immigration. To ameliorate these conditions, the government established the Conseil de Réflexion sur l’Islam en France in 1990 as a means of granting some state recognition for Islam as a religion, rather than Islam as an ethnic identity. Muslims received the message that Islam cannot operate here as a monolithic way of life. The government was also hoping that the Conseil would identify and encourage a liberal reading of Islam. The body became inoperative and was succeeded in 1995 by the Conseil Représentatif des Mussulmans de France, which was dominated by Algerian followers of the Grande Mosque in Paris and was chosen to facilitate linkages between the government and the Muslim community. Muslims began to trust the French government, knowing full well that French laws were positively inclined to accept freedom of religion despite the prevailing practice of the separation of church and state.28
Conflict with the Muslim, largely Algerian, population in France emerged in 1989 when three Muslim girls were expelled from secondary school in Creil allegedly for defying efforts of headmaster Ernest Cheniere to enforce laws against displaying religious preferences in school. The girls’ crime was to wear foulards islamiques (Islamic headdress) to school. Although Cheniere was equally as concerned at the time with Jewish students boycotting classes on the Sabbath, reports in the French media led to a loud cry against Islamic integrisme (fundamentalism). The outcry was made by the right and the left, the latter being particularly vocal against what it perceived to be efforts by religious groups to subvert the secular school system. However, Lionel Jospin, at the time the minister of education in Michel Rocard’s government, affirmed the rights of students in this case, although he hoped that they would desist from resorting to Islamic dress. The Conseil d’Etat weighed in by reaffirming the secular nature of the French state as being neutral towards the role of religion in the public sphere, but at the same time declared that religious discrimination was unconstitutional. It added that the expression of student religious preferences in public schools was within their right as long as it did not diminish the rights of others or impede the teaching activities of the schools.
Freedom of religion in the schools, the Conseil continued, cannot interfere with the objectives of state education, among the most significant being promotion of gender equality. The Conseil, in issuing this opinion, cited France’s obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights, the two International Covenants and the Convention against Discrimination in Education, which require all signatories, including France, to offer educational opportunities to all students irrespective of their religious persuasion.
The Conseil also emphasized that the state under international human-rights law did not enjoy an absolute right to guarantee freedom of religion. Legal restrictions could be imposed for the sake of protecting the rights of adherents of other religions in order to guarantee public order in the schools. Thus, it was concluded that the display of religious symbols in the schools could not be used for religious propaganda or expose others to health hazards. In the 1992 Kherouaa case, the Conseil d’Etat struck down a ruling by a Parisian administrative court that validated a general law banning any religious or political symbols from a school in Montfermeil.
Again, in 1994, the Conseil overturned a college regulation in Angers, involving the case of Yilmaz, who was forbidden to attend class wearing an Islamic headdress. The French public in general, however, was convinced that state limitations on the display of ostentatious religious symbols exempted the wearing of a Catholic crucifix or a Jewish yarmulka (skull cap). The banning of females wearing foulards from schools continued and was the cause of several lawsuits.
Public pressure against such dress continued, especially in light of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria and exaggerated press reports in France putting the number of students attending public schools in Islamic headdress from 500 to 2,000, five years after the number in 1989 was reported to be a mere 20 cases. At the time, the Muslim female population attending French secondary schools was about 125,000, many of them secularists fleeing the civil war in Algeria. The French prime minister himself in 1994 had assured the Jewish community that their religious headdress for males did not fall within the category of ostentatious religious symbols. The Conseil refused to engage in a public assessment of whether or not the Muslim headdress constituted an assault on the equality of Muslim women. The definition of what constituted religious proselytizing through the display of religious symbols remained, thus, decentralized, leading in 1995 to the banning of 155 students from schools and colleges. In some cases, the Conseil upheld the banning of some students, as in the case of two at Nantua who resisted the removal of their head coverings in the interest of safety during physical-education class.29
Much of the controversy swirling around Muslim females in French public schools can be traced to a complete misreading of the new religious resurgence among Europe’s Muslim communities. According to one view, it is not that the public sphere in France is disintegrating under the blows from a resurgent religion; it is merely the use of religious vocabulary to express grievances that cannot be addressed by adherence to traditional identities. The fact that young Muslims are resorting to visibility should not be interpreted as religious renewal. Islam has been conveniently used by the young to express preference for a new collective identity. Living in a community that is torn between the powerful forces of assimilation and traditional culture left no hope for a dignified future in France. The Islamic ideology here offered them a new frame of reference for the future. Islam also offered new avenues for social action, particularly in the struggle against racism and marginalization. Lack of employment, blatant acts of discrimination and humiliation as result of the public’s and media’s negative representation of Islam constantly fuel the Muslims’ anger. There are also memories of recent colonial humiliation in their native countries and the failure of communism and Third World ideologies, all of which have propelled young Muslims on a new course: the discovery of Islam.30
As an example of the intensity of the French polemic against Muslim immigrants, one must examine Gilles Kepel’s A l’ouest d’Allah (To the West of God, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1994). Although it covers the affairs of the Muslim communities of the United States, Britain and France, it is dedicated to a discussion of French concerns. He develops the term communautarisme (communitarianism) to explain the manner in which certain communities isolate themselves from the mainstream by rejecting total immersion into French society and utilize their own ethnic or religious roots to voice discontent with governmental policies. The communal label used here reflects negatively on the Muslims because for the French, it is interpreted as an assault on the Jacobin state. Kepel goes further by turning his lens towards the Muslim banlieues (suburbs) of major French cities, where the greatest resistance to French assimilationist policies occurs. Kepel goes out of his way to recommend that the French state resist the spread of headscarves in the schools and force the Muslims to behave in accordance with the pattern of other religious communities. Christians and Jews have long accepted the relegation of their faiths to the private realm, why not the Muslims? Kepel apparently rejects the ideological nature of l’affair foulard, which emphasizes the students’ motivation for donning the Islamic headdress. The girls are caught between the traditional culture of their immigrant parents and an inhospitable French culture. Their only escape is the school, which offers hope of gaining acceptance by the French mainstream. The foulard neutralizes potential parental disapproval. The expulsion of girls from school would only force their return to the parental conservative environment. Furthermore, it has been proven that girls often discard the headdress at the end of their school experience as a culmination of the secularizing school process.31
French and British policies towards their Muslim communities need also to be analyzed in the context of a commitment to human rights. Both have accepted the major international instruments on human rights, such as the European Convention, the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention Against Discrimination in Education. All of these have already become part of French municipal law, but the English legal system has yet to transform them into British domestic law. This reality, however, did not stop British courts from referring to the European Convention, which is often used in order to amplify statutory ambiguities in common law. It is important to point out that all of the four international bodies of law specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, while the European Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically uphold the freedom of religion. Article 27 of the latter calls for the protection of minorities and emphasizes their right to the enjoyment of their own culture, religion and language.32
In order to resolve these outstanding issues, some European Muslim scholars, such as the Syrian-German Bassam Tibi, have recommended the adoption of a new concept, called Euro-Islam. His thesis is that the Muslim communities themselves must take some of the responsibility for their actions by developing the only religious identity acceptable to Europeans, namely liberal Islam. It is a new approach that calls for adjusting to the forces of modernity and adopting a broader tolerance than Islam has traditionally invoked. Euro-Islam could thus emerge as well-suited to liberal democracy, to the Western concept of individual human rights and to all the prerequisites of civil society. He concluded that this Euro-Islam would be capable of challenging the forces of globalization as well as ghettoization.33
The confrontation between state and mosque in France was finally settled with the passage of a new law forbidding the veil in public schools in February of 2004. President Jacques Chirac, citing the need to preserve the French tradition of laicité (secularism), pushed through the new law, which also took away women’s privilege to choose female physicians in hospitals. Amazingly, the Parti Socialiste went along with his parliamentary bill, but the Communists, the Greens and the ultra-right Front National opposed.34
The European perception of Islam has always been colored by the historic confrontation of medieval Europe and the Muslim powers to the south and east. Europe defined itself as distinct from the Eurasian land mass through centuries of confrontation between the Cross and the Crescent. Even colonial economic and strategic expansion into Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries during the last two centuries was often dressed in the terminology of Christian conquest. The arrival of two waves of immigrants beginning in the 1950s from these same former colonies, one as a consequence of gaining independence, the other in response to the labor needs of the EU and the deepening economic crisis at home, presented both communities with new challenges. Muslim women became the defining element of this confrontation as soon as Islamic fundamentalism reared its head in the Middle East and racial prejudice was manifested in the host countries. The issue of Islamic dress gained unnecessary attention as young Muslim women paid the price for latent prejudices of school administrators and politicians. In the case of Britain, policy makers espoused a limited form of cultural pluralism while favoring followers of Christian denominations. In France, Islamic dress in public schools was regarded as a form of cultural invasion of the republicanist and Jacobin public space. These two countries, France more strongly than Britain, adhere to the corpus of international public law on human rights but fail to protect the rights of Muslim women to education and religious freedom.
1 Terence Ranger, “Introduction,” Culture, Identity and Politics, eds. Terence Ranger, Yunas Samad and Ossie Stuart (London: Avebury, 1996), p. 1.
2 Krishna Kumar, “The Nation State, the European Union, and Transnational Identities,” Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam, eds. Nezar Al Sayyad and Manuel Castells (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002),
3 “Foreword,” Islam, Modernism and the West, ed. Gema Martin Munoz (London:I.B.Tauris Publishers, 1999), p. xi.
4 Muhammad Arkoun, “History as Ideology of Legitimation: A Comparative Approach in Islamic and European Contacts,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 25-6.
5 John L. Esposito, “‘Clash of Civilizations’ Contemporary Images of Islam in the West,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 103-4.
6 Franco Cardini (Caroline Beamish, translator), Europe and Islam (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), pp. 3-4, 18.
7 Gema Martin Munoz, “Islam and the West, an Intentional Duality,” Islam, Modernism and the West, p. 15.
9 Maurice Borrmans, “Cultural Dialogue and ‘Islamic Specificity’,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 87-9.
10 Mohammed Tozy, “Islamism and Some of Its Perceptions of the West,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 156-7.
11 Abdou Filali-Ansari, “Islam and Secularism,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 133-4.
12 Paul Lubeck, “The Challenge of Islamic Networks and Citizenship Claims: Europe’s Painful Adjustment to Globalization,” Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam, p. 69.
13 Murad Wilfrid Hofmann, book review of Religious Freedom and the Neutrality of the State: The Position of Islam in the European Union by W.A.R. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld, The Muslim World Book Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, April-June, 2003, p. 43.
14 Anne Sofie Roald, Women in Islam: The Western Experience (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 86-87.
15 Ibid., xi.
16 Ibid., p. 254.
17 Ibid., pp. 237-240, 252.
18 Ibid., pp. 41-43.
19 Adam LeBor, A Heart Turned East: Among the Muslims of Europe and America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 183, 233-235, 244.
20 Mohammed Abd al-Jabri, “‘Clash of Civilizaations’: The Relations of The Future,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 69-70.
21 Jorgen S.Nielsen, “Muslims and European Education Systems,” Islam, Modernism and the West, p. 231.
22 Yunas Samad, “The Politics of Islamic Identity among Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in Britain,” Culture, Identity and Politics, pp. 90-98.
23 Ceri Peach and Gunther Glebe, “Muslim Minorities in Western Europe,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1995, p. 41.
24 Ibid., pp. 26-31, 38-39.
25 Nielsen, pp. 224-225, 227-228.
26 Ibid., pp. 228-233.
27 Sebastian Poulter, “Muslim Headscarves in School: Contrasting Legal Approaches in England and France,”
Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1997, pp. 43-45, 62-69.
28 Ibid., pp. 49-52.
29 Ibid., pp. 57-62.
30 Jocelyne Cesari, “ The Re-Islamization of Muslim Immigration in Europe,” Islam, Modernism and the West, pp. 215-20.
31 Arun Kapil, “On Islam in the West and Muslims in France: Views from the Hexagon,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1997, pp. 377-389.
32 Poulter, pp. 52-53.
33 Bassam Tibi, “Muslim Migrants in Europe: Between Euro-Islam and Globalization,” Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam, pp. 37-38.
34 John King, “Hats Off to Chirac,” Middle East International, January 9, 2004, p. 23.