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Head scarves, yes
By Philippe Le Billon
Description: As students in France return to school today, a chapter in the war on terrorism is playing out across the country. France fears the brutal execution of two journalists in Iraq, and Muslim girls are now banned from wearing head scarves to school.
Date: 01 September 2004
Author: Philippe Le Billon, Assistant Professor
Source: The Globe and Mail, A17
As students in France return to school today, a chapter in the war on terrorism is playing out across the country. France fears the brutal execution of two journalists in Iraq, and Muslim girls are now banned from wearing head scarves to school.

The two developments are closely linked -- and suggest that Canada's approach to multiculturalism may be a better model than France's imposition of rigorous secularism.

Last March, the French government legislated against "ostentatious" signs of religious affiliation in schools. Despite its application to all religions, the law specifically targets Islamic identity. The Islamic Army in Iraq, the terrorist group that kidnapped Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot, who worked for the daily newspapers Le Figaro and Ouest France, had demanded that the French government annul the law.

How has France, the most vocal opponent of last year's U.S.-led war, become the target of terrorists in Iraq?

Part of the explanation involves the French government's domestic political opportunism. Defending Muslim interests works well as a populist anti-American strategy on the international stage, but French values and identity take precedence at home. The government has justified the ban on head scarves by referring to one of the founding principles of the French Republic -- a separation of church and state. But it is also pursuing a political agenda.

Anti-minority sentiments are rising, as reflected in far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's second-place finish in the 2002 presidential election. The law is a response to concerns that the Muslim community will withdraw from the mainstream, embrace extremism and threaten French identity.

Yet it could prove counterproductive, resulting in some Muslim girls being banned from attending school -- precisely the kind of exclusion the French government says its law is designed to prevent. It will also reinforce socially conservative, gender-based discrimination within Muslim communities.

The head-scarf law provides a false solution to France's racism problems. Presented as a defence of secularism, it is actually a rejection of multiculturalism. French governments have long followed a policy of integration for visible minorities, rather than multiculturalism.

This policy has failed: France's four million Muslims remain politically under-represented, with high rates of poverty and incarceration. By banning head scarves in schools to promote integration, the French government is, in fact, institutionalizing discrimination against Muslim identity.

Internationally, the head-scarf law has erased some of the goodwill that Muslims felt toward France after it opposed the Iraq war. As the demands of the Islamic Army demonstrate, terrorist groups are also using it as evidence that the West is waging a "war on Islam" -- at home as well as abroad.

Most Muslim organizations in France that oppose the head-scarf law quickly distanced themselves from the terrorists' demands. They know that Muslim women in France could pay a heavy price for this kidnapping, if head scarves become seen as a sign of supporting terrorism. The French, by rejecting multiculturalism and politicizing the wearing of the veil, may unwittingly have fuelled the war on terror.

These events in France and Iraq suggest that Canada's policy of protecting minority rights and celebrating diversity may be a more useful weapon in the war on terrorism than guns, missiles and bombs.

Philippe Le Billon is an assistant professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, and a research associate at the Liu Institute for Global Issues.
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