As a symbol of international friendship
forged during the American Revolution, France gave the United
States the Statue of Liberty in 1886. For more than a hundred
years, we’ve looked to Lady Liberty, the “Mother of
Exiles,” to represent the democracy and freedom we so
strongly wish for (wish upon?) the world. How can she not be an
inspiration, with her whole:

Shabina Khatri

“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming
shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my
lamp beside the golden door!”

It’s fun to pretend, isn’t it? If Lady Liberty could
speak today, she would sadly tell France that it has indeed lost
its way.

On Wednesday, the French Senate voted 276 to 20 to prohibit
“signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious
affiliation of students” in its public schools. The vote
paralleled last month’s overwhelming approval by the equally
conservative-filled National Assembly (494-36). The last formality
rests with avid supporter President Jacques Chirac, who is expected
to sign the measure into law within the next two weeks.

Though the ban includes Jewish skullcaps, large crucifixes and
possibly Sikh turbans, many criticize the measure as a thinly
veiled (pardon the pun) attempt to stanch the nation’s
growing Muslim population. Still, most of the French bigwigs
contend that the ban is merely designed to preserve the sacred
secularism promised to the people by their constitution.

The bizarre part is that Article 1, which declares France
“a Republic, indivisible, secular, democratic and
social,” actually affirms freedom of religion in the very
next breath, stating that France must ensure the “equality of
citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or
religion. It shall respect all beliefs.” It looks like the
founding fathers understood that the practice of religion in
society would not prevent the application of secularism in
government. But now, government is putting its grubby old paws all
over that sacred constitution’s respect for all origins,
races and religions.

What’s going on here? We’ve got a sworn democracy
that gives out metal women to prove its commitment to liberty
— forbidding its children the freedom to express their
religious beliefs at school? How, exactly, has a student’s
headscarf/skullcap/crucifix threatened secular law or disturbed the
learning process? Don’t tell me you can’t complete a
math problem because there’s a turban in your face. In 1989,
the French Constitutional Council declared it illegal to establish
unconditional school bans on religious garb. What changed in the
last 15 years to prompt this blatant turnaround?

Well, Sept. 11, for one thing. The backlash Muslims saw here in
the U.S. was nothing compared to France, whose National
Consultative Commission on Human Rights has documented numerous
cases of harassment, adding that the number of crimes reported
“fall well under the real number” of incidences that
have occurred against French Muslims. With around five million
Muslims, or 8 percent of the population, France is home to the
largest Muslim community in Western Europe. That growth does not
sit well with many of France’s higher-ups, who see it as
trouble brewing in a “fundamentalist” sense. As Bernard
Stasi, head of the French commission on secularism, eloquently put
it in a December discussion about the merits of the ban: “We
must be lucid — there are in France some behaviors which
cannot be tolerated. There are without any doubt forces in France
which are seeking to destabilize the republic, and it is time for
the republic to act.”

By act, Stasi must have meant weeding out the droves of
extremist Muslims, Christians, Jews and Sikhs who have attempted to
sport their religious symbols at school, right? But according to
The London Times, French government statistics show that no more
than 2,000 out of 1.8 million Muslim schoolgirls wore a hijab in
2002. To the burgeoning Muslim population, the ban, then, is more a
symbolic snub than a sweeping act of oppression. But symbolism
smarts — and spreads.

I’m afraid it’s not all good in the hood anymore,
folks. According to CNN, last month’s public opinion polls
indicated about 70 percent of the French were in favor of the ban
on religious symbols. It added that even in the French Muslim
community, Muslim women favored a ban 49 percent to 43 percent,
presumably because many female students were bullied into donning
the covering by their family members. In Germany and Belgium,
similar legislation to ban hijabs is on the table, and such
restrictive measures already exist to varying degrees in Singapore
and Turkey.

With more than a billion followers, Islam is certainly not a
monolith, and the debate over hijab has always been a rich and
passionate one within the Muslim community. I say keep that debate
where it belongs — with the people — and not with
national governments, where the headscarf controversy has become an
ugly, politicized and heartbreaking display of bigotry and
intolerance. We spend so much time criticizing third-world
countries for their “backwards” ways, and it’s
hypocritical and insulting to look the other way while a country
like France pays lip-service to ideals like liberty and democracy.
Enough is enough. Lady Liberty is turning over in her grave.
Old-school journalist Dorothy Thompson had it right when she said,
“It is not the fact of liberty but the way in which liberty
is exercised that ultimately determines whether liberty itself
survives.”

 

Khatri can be reached at
“mailto:khatris@umich.edu”>khatris@umich.edu.

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