Muslims and Citizens
To the Editors:
John R. Bowen’s “Muslims and Citizens
” (February/March 2004) is fascinating, and I agree with much of his perspective on France’s “obsession with suppressing public signs of difference.” I wish, though, that Bowen had compared today’s laïcité debate to pre- and post-World War II anti-Semitism. Surely France’s public secularism affected and still affects its small Jewish population. It would also be interesting to learn how France’s Jewish leaders regard the desire to stamp out Islamic expression and whether they liken it to France’s contemporary and historical treatment of its Jews.
Bowen understates the arrival of immigrant Spaniards, Italians, Poles, and Russians as doing little to change the look or feel of France. Earlier immigrants would probably have said that their transition and subsequent assimilation led to much hardship and involved little choice.
It is difficult to imagine the French interpretation of the separation between church and state taking hold in the United States, even though tolerance for Islamic expression hasn’t been what it should since September 11. Outlawing headscarves only exacerbates the divide between France and its Muslim citizens. It’s no coincidence the beur generation is becoming more religious. If I were living in a similarly intolerant society, even if it meant further isolation from the mainstream, I would also seek solace in my own community, which celebrates our shared identity.
Myah Evers Schwartz
John R. Bowen replies:
Myah Schwartz mentions an important dimension of the current debates in France: the social memory of France’s Jewish population. I also would have liked to say more about the positions of the Protestant and Catholic religious organizations. At first they voiced concern about laws that might affect their religious freedoms; in the end most backed away from opposing it. Several religious leaders said in effect that it was no longer their affair.
The Jewish situation is different of course because of the recent memory of persecution. Many Jews believe that it is laïcité that has allowed them to survive and succeed, and that publicly distinguishing people on the basis of religion was part and parcel of the Holocaust. One elementary school principal, objecting to posting lists of pupils who did not eat pork, remarked that the last time she saw lists of student singled out because of their religion it was under Vichy and it was the Jews. The recent rise of attacks on Jewish sites and hostilities between Muslim and Jewish school pupils have increased support among some Jewish citizens for the ban on religious signs in the public schools. (I must add that Muslims complain with justification that attacks on Islamic sites are less often noticed and condemned.)
One has to remember that France guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of worship rather than a diffuse “freedom of religious expression.” Is wearing a headscarf to class “worship”? No. Is it a religious obligation? Perhaps, but the dominant French response is that people must change their sense of obligation when it is based on anything less than strict gender equality.
Is the current conflict substantially different from the difficulties faced by European immigrants to France? First we should remember that Europeans continue to move to France in large numbers. The largest number of foreign workers in France come from Portugal, although Moroccans are the most numerous to apply for citizenship. The principal difference between the influx of Europeans and North Africans is that the Europeans have found it easier to assimilate with the native French. Yes, they had difficulties and encountered xenophobia, but they were largely Catholic; many spoke another Romance language; most physically resembled residents of some part of France. The arrival of the Arabic-speaking Muslim North Africans has more forcefully challenged old ideas about French citizenship and identity.