Off with their headscarves, says BHL

Off with their headscarves

Sunday Times, 1 February 2004

Bernard-Henri Levy, the maverick French philosopher, says his country should vote this week to ban Muslim women’s hijabs

Next week the French parliament will vote on whether to introduce a law banning beards, veils, scarves and other “religious symbols” from state schools and institutions. The move to ban the wearing of headscarves in schools by Muslim girls has created fears among many that other governments will follow the French example, with some people even suggesting that a European Union-wide ban could be a possibility.

Despite the perverse effects, or even the risks to freedom of speech and expression that have been endlessly emphasised, I am in favour of this controversial law.

I am for it primarily because of my belief in the principle of secularity, a belief that religion should have no place in civil affairs nor in the state. This does not seem like a particularly contemporary issue. The very word sounds like a hollow notion nowadays, something outdated. But it is the basis upon which those supremely important French principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood are founded.

If you support secularity, you support liberty: that is, freedom from the disciplines and shackles of religion. It also means that you support maintaining a distance between all spiritual or community affiliations in the public arena, thus making all equal and the same in civil life. If you stand for secularity, you stand for the construction of a space for citizens where all men, and especially all women, can be united, whatever their belief or their faith. This supports the concept of brotherhood.

In other words, secularity is not just one element among others in the republican way of thinking; it is the basis on which all the others rest. The separation of religion from the state and its apparatus is not a mere consequence of the way democracy has evolved in France over the the past two centuries, it is its very bedrock. So much so that to back down over secularity would be to give in to the blackmail of people who want to impose their fanaticism on us – and this really takes the biscuit – in the name of freedom of expression or of moral standards. It would be to take aim at the very heart of the republic.

I am also in favour of this law because of what this campaign by Islamic supporters of the veil signifies in a global political context.

There is a new attitude in France, a new cultural climate that culminated recently in the streets of Paris with demonstrations. They were led by a body called the Party of Muslims of France, which was until then almost unknown.

The organisation’s leader, with his anti-semitic rhetoric, was a walking example of why this group should be broken up and banned from French public life.

So the real problem is not the veil but the desire to sow terror and discord and to emphasise the differences between Muslims and the rest of French society. What is at stake is not just a few hundred young girls, indoctrinated by the imams, who want to wear the veil and who took part in the protest. The deeper problem is what this protest exposes.

The veil issue, in other words, has become the latest skirmish in the long showdown between democratic values and fundamentalism.

So we must ask ourselves some questions. First, do we consider this fundamentalism to be one of the worst dangers facing the world this century? If the answer is yes, if we think that fascism is abroad in the land, then the law to ban the wearing of the veil is a necessary political signal.

Another reason for supporting the law is to protect Islam. This new, more fundamentalist Islam, which from Kabul to Casablanca by way of Paris advocates a path unlike that taken by any other religion, is antithetical to the real Islam.

The Koran does not advocate the wearing of the veil. Other monotheistic creeds have kept the demands of faith at a personal and subjective level, making them compatible with the values of democracy, human rights and tolerance. Islam, too, could take this path.

Who are we prepared to drive to despair? Those men and women who through Islam remind us that wearing the headscarf is not, in any way, an order from the Koran or those in favour of stoning women who demonstrated the other week in front of the French consulates in Iran and Pakistan? The whole issue is encapsulated in that question.

To pass the law will do Islam a favour by allowing it to return to its message of mercy and peace. Not to legislate, or to do so half-heartedly, is to betray these opponents of fundamentalism who are a credit to Islam.

One of the most important reasons to favour this law is for the young women themselves. These Frenchwomen of Muslim origin, even if they have not yet reached the stage of being attacked with sulphuric acid when they contravene the imams’ orders, are the hostages of this sad debate.

I know this has been said a hundred times already. But the air of confusion, the doubts of various people, the general ignorance of what the holy scriptures say, oblige one to reiterate it. The veil is not a religious symbol but a political one.

It is not a symbol of piety but of stigmatisation, of hatred. It induces a woman to cover herself and tells her – in spite, I repeat, of the truth of the texts – that wearing the hijab is a sacred commandment,has her believe that the hijab is a privilege and that her body is a source of sin, her sex a blemish.

It is why one must not be afraid of affirming this: the fight against the veil is for the liberty of women and therefore for human rights.

We must pass this law to enshrine the freedom of secularity.