Wednesday, February 18, 2004

uncover her face
In the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding introduces some new perspectives on the French religous symbols law.

On the government's other flank stand the National Front and Bruno Mégret's Mouvement National Républicain, which still have the capacity to bruise the centre right. With regional elections next month, the veil has provided a pretext for the ruling UMP to show that it is policing proper republican standards, in ways that both the far right and the religion-mongers of immigrant descent are not - and to steal some of Le Pen's thunder. Le Pen has inadvertently flattered the government by opposing the ban - when it comes to veil-politics he hasn't much room for manoeuvre - on the grounds that by wearing the hijab, Muslim women distinguish themselves from 'les Français de souche', i.e. people of bona fide Gallic stock, and that this is fine: it will make things easier, the implication is, when it comes to throwing them out.

I think it reasonable to assume from this that the law isn't an attempt to pander to the far right. In fact, it seems to have smoked the fascists out. Inter alia, the law insists that people take their "yellow stars of david" off. Harding also points out that this isn't an example of mandarin secularism, but a response to pressure from those most immediately effected.

Teachers tell worrying stories which depict the veil as the beginning of selective opposition to the curriculum. This might, for example, include a Muslim student's refusal to do gym or discuss certain areas of natural science, or to countenance teaching on the Holocaust, and then shade off into abuse or physical violence after a classroom session on the Middle East. Teachers are also clear that the wearing of religious symbols tends to exacerbate the divisions over heated issues such as Palestine.

One comparison here is with attempts to force "intelligent design" on to the syllabus in several US states, and the support by the British government for taxpayer funded creationism. When given the chance to do so, many religions exploit a fundamentally secular conception of freedom - that religious and non-religous points of view deserve equal tolerance - to push their own agenda forward. You either indulge this in the hope that it won't go too far or you try to put a stop to it. Either is a reasonable option, though both could result in repressive consequences. Right now I'm inclined to believe that the French approach is the least worst.