March 14, 2004, the French legislative council voted the ban on
"religious symbols" in public schools. This uncommon law, which
mainly targets Muslim young girls, was widely supported in France.
After four years of the enactment of the law, one can hardly measure
its consequences among the French Muslims. People still observe the
case without real understanding.
In 1989, for the first time, the hijab (Islamic headscarf) appeared
to cause trouble to some school teachers in France. At that time,
the opinion of the Council of State could disregard the protest but
could not solve the problem. Fifteen years later, Muslim girls in
the French public schools were no longer coming from outside France.
They were born in France, and their hijab was neither a problem for
the other kids nor a nuisance for the majority of their teachers.
However, within the
atmosphere following 9/11, Islam invaded the public debate. In 2002,
the debate was about the Muslim representation. After a noisy
process, in April 2003, the then minister of interior Nicolas
Sarkozy called an election to establish a Muslim body and urged the
Muslim leaders to vote. For the first time in their history, the
leaders of the French Muslim community voted their representatives
at the French Council of Muslim Cult (FCMC).
This council did not make unanimity,
but openly or not, the Muslims expected that the FCMC will bring
back some dignity to the community, especially concerning the image
of Islam, which was deeply affected by a latent Islamophobia. Even
Sarkozy, as a minister of interior responsible for religious
affairs, was accused of
with the Muslim fundamentalists in
France after he urged some leaders to join the FCMC.
On April 19, six days after the FCMC
Sarkozy raised the question of hijab. Invited to speak at the
Congress of Le Bourget (France's greatest Islamic meeting), Sarkozy
boiled the Islamic debate, opposing the hijab to the national
secular system called laïcité. His speech opened the door to a
fierce political debate that continued for a year.
Every week, using
all kinds of statements from "experts," all sorts of media
disseminated a new portrayal of Muslims, Islam, Islamization, hijab,
terrorism, and Muslim women. This public rivalry generated an
atmosphere of confusion. France became suspicious and afraid of
Islam. Above all, there were no Muslim voices prestigious enough to
denounce or calm down the suppressive media campaign.
On one hand, the
new FCMC was extremely criticized by Muslims. The leaders were not
ready to work together. Their dissensions were deeper than their
projects. They showed no interest in a strategy aimed at changing
the image of Muslim citizens. In short, none of the Muslim leaders
really seemed to be prepared to speak on behalf of the whole Muslim
community, so they all kept silent.
On the other hand, Tariq Ramadan, who
appeared to be the only Muslim leader in France with enough power to
lead the debate, was being accused of anti-Semitism after he
criticized Israel. Therefore, the media waves around the issue of
hijab proceeded without authorized Muslim
Islamophobia faced no reaction from the Muslims themselves. It
definitively focused on young Muslim girls, though when the issue
was raised once again, there were no tangible problems in schools.
Out of five million French Muslim women, approximately 1,250 wore
the hijab and only 150 had problems with their schools.
On July 3, 2003,
former president Jacques Chirac created a commission that aimed at
studying the issue of hijab at schools. The Stasi Commission was
then founded. Bernard Stasi, ombudsman of the French Republic, was
known as the "friend of Islam." His nomination as head of that
commission brought some hope for an appropriate solution to a
question that very few felt concerned about. During this lull, a
small book by sociologist Vincent Geisser, entitled The New
Islamophobia, blew a cold wind on the fire of Islamophobia.
In his book,
Geisser explained the roots of French animosity toward Islam. His
book showed how these feelings started and how they spread. He
described the different ways of propagating the French phobia toward
Muslims and Islam. He also defined the categories of Islamophobia,
including Muslim Islamophobics, who are Muslims whishing to see
Muslim men without beards, Muslim women without headscarves, and
mosques without minarets.
But the break did not last for long.
In the newspaper Le Monde, the most prestigious newspaper in France,
some academic tried to belittle Geisser's work without much success.
But the Stasi Commission's report issued on December 11, 2003, was a
surprise. The FCMC,
which was supposed to be a body governing the Muslim affairs, was
not associated with the commission. Dalil Boubaker, president of the
FCMC, was auditioned by the commission as rector of the Mosque of
Paris, not as president of the FCMC. The report mentioned the
Christian cross twice, the Jewish hat five times, and the hijab more
than a hundred times. Above all, the Stasi Commission invited, out
of the hundred people auditioned, only two Muslim girls wearing the
On December 17, 2003, a week after the
commission's report was issued, Chirac made an important speech
demanding a law banning all religious symbols at schools. The ban on
hijab was clear. In his long speech, Chirac spoke of the "hand of
small Islamic pendant that offers no consolation to any Muslim girl
who wishes to cover her head. This proposal from the then head of
state in an official speech was unrealistic. The hand of Fatimah is
a badge used by Arabs and Jews in Morocco for superstitious reasons.
It has nothing to do with the Qur'an or the Sunnah of Prophet
Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
speech, no reactions came from the Muslim bodies and organizations
in France. It was the fourth day after the speech when Wassila
decided to do something. Wassila is a Muslim girl living in
Tremblay, Paris. She was then only 16 years old. With some of her
friends, she decided to protest against Chirac's speech. She loved
to wear the hijab, yet she did not want her mother to have problems
with the school over this issue. But, like most French girls,
whether Muslims or non-Muslims, she would not let anyone interfere
with the way she dresses. So, like any other French citizen, she
went to the police station to fill in the form of a permission for
received no support from any Muslim organization. She was not even a
member of any. But, as soon as she got the permission from the
police, she posted the information on the Internet, which helped her
to spread the word easily. The demonstration took place on December
21, 2003, in absolute improvisation.
following days, the press released a bunch of articles on the
protest. For some reason, the newspapers repeated that the
demonstrators were closely surrounded by an exclusively male
security service. There were both males and females in the security
service. Nobody has ever witnessed an exclusively female security
service in a demonstration in Paris.
"Attached to the
Veil and Under Tight Guard"; "Veiled, Semi-Recluse, and Rebels";
"The Organizers Remain Hidden" — these were some titles of published
articles on the demonstration. Throughout the protest, Wassila and
her friends had tens of interviews, mostly with foreign journalists,
and their pictures were everywhere.
In fact, some
journalists did not believe that 3,000 people have been
demonstrating on the street in response to the call of a teenager.
This first demonstration against the anti-hijab law was totally
different from the French media's tradition illustrating Muslim
women as dependent on, and manipulated by, their men.
Absent Muslim Strategy
On December 22,
2003, the day following the Wassila demonstration, Sawsan, a French
Muslim woman, went to her bank to get some cash. She was wearing her
hijab as usual, but that day was not usual. At the bank, a small
poster in a corner asked all customers to take off their headscarves
"for security reasons"! Accordingly, Sawsan could not enter the
bank. The security officer only allowed her to enter her head
through the gate to check if the poster was real. Eventually, she
could not get the cash and she went back home. Although the anti-hijab
law was still not voted, the ban extended from schools to other
political system is a representative, democratic one. In such a
system, when a bill is to be discussed, few major elements can
influence the debates. The first element is the degree of
mobilization of the people concerned. This is usually measurable
through the size of the crowd in a demonstration. The second element
is the number of media releases expressing the opinions of
opponents. The last one is the number and weight of politicians,
intellectuals, and artists in favor of the law. According to each
and every element, the Wassila demonstration failed.
The newly elected
members of the FCMC were still unable to build a strategy against
the ban on hijab. Individually, they claimed to be opposed to such a
law, but as an organization, they kept silent in a profound
For Sarkozy, a
mere law did not fit the situation. The reins had gone out of his
control because, at the end of the day, he was only the minister of
interior and Chirac was president. But Sarkozy was the one who gave
the first shot, so he tried to get some redemption from Egypt during
his winter vacation. At Al-Azhar University, he met Sheikh of Al-Azhar
Mosque Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, who gave him the exact fatwa he
needed. It was a fatwa that curved with the storm Sarkozy had
sparked. However, with the festivals of the new year, this fatwa had
very little effect in France.
Muslims, Feminists, a Leftists
Muslims, three groups opposing the ban on hijab appeared on the
scene. The first group was represented by the Party of Muslims of
France (PMF). The PMF is a very small political party based in
Strasbourg, which is far away from Paris. Few people knew about the
party before the debate of hijab. Mohammed Ennacer Latrech, leader
of the PMF, is known as a ferocious defender of Palestine. Some
media consider him anti-Semite, but Latrech says he is anti-Zionist.
On January 17,
2004, the PMF called for a demonstration in Paris against the ban,
but the accusations against Latrech had been confusing to many. The
demonstration was classified risky. Some sources said that about
3,000 police officers were mobilized for the event. But, the French
Muslims did not respond to the call. Most of them reproached Latrech
for his approach to Islam in France. They regarded the PMF as an
"organization for Muslims only."
leaders didn't want Latrech to speak on their behalf. Therefore,
they organized a meeting in Paris on the same day of the
demonstration. On January 17, 2004, some Muslims were demonstrating
against the anti-hijab law with the PMF and about 150 leaders were
trying to foil the demonstration.
demonstration was a success on the media level but a failure on the
level of mobilization. Less than 2,000 people were present. The
media called them fundamentalists and opponents of democracy.
Meanwhile, the 150-leader meeting was a great opportunity for those
leaders to build up something new. But their discussions did not
come up with anything concrete.
The organizers of
the 150-leader meeting wanted the non-Islamic organizations to join
them in their fight against the anti-hijab law. Some feminists and
leftists joined the meeting, but the Muslim organizers became soon
incapable of reaching a common ground. The majority of them refused
the anti-hijab law but failed to agree on their reasons behind the
refusal. The feminists refused the law because the victims were
girls, but they still did not want the girls to wear hijab.
According to some of them, education is the best solution against
hijab. "To deprive Muslim girls from school is to condemn them to
ignorance, which drives them to wearing the hijab," some feminists
The leftists were
opposed to the law and also to the hijab! They drew the debate into
the field of individual freedom of expression. They described the
anti-hijab law as a political law aimed at a religious matter. But
the leftists were not ready at all to "demonstrate with women
wearing Islamic symbols."
positions were unmatchable, and the inharmonious "allies" were only
able to arrange for a few symbolic, yet insufficient, actions. Thus,
on February 4, 2004, when the discussions on the bill were
initiated, they gathered in front of the Parliament. The
spokespersons were not Muslim, and their speeches were perfect for
the media. The same day, Sofia Rahim and Hadjar Ajimi started a
hunger strike. The two French Muslim ladies were completely ignored
by the French media. Only foreign media reported their news.
"No" to Islamophobia
The law was to be
voted on February 14, 2004. A collection of organizations then
announced a demonstration to be organized on February 7. The
Movement for Justice and Dignity (MJD) was the third group of French
Muslims fighting against the ban on hijab. It included ten local
organizations led by Muslims. Two months later, the MJD had a more
concrete shape for its actions. The watchword of its demo was
"Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity; 'No' to Islamophobia." By
planning a demonstration a week before the vote, the MJD thought it
could change things with such a good degree of mobilization.
On one hand, the
150 leaders called for boycotting this demonstration and called for
other two demonstrations. They urged the MJD to focus on Muslim
issues. On the other hand, the MJD campaign suffered some media
blackout. Some members of the MJD were professional journalists, but
their articles were never published on time. Only foreign media and
a couple of Internet sites announced the MJD campaign.
The day before
the demonstration, the Le Monde published an article blowing clouds
of suspicion around some leaders of the MJD. The intoxication
worked. In a rainy afternoon, the demonstration of February 7, 2004,
became another failure of mobilization. Many reporters were present
to report the event, but the MJD had blacklisted a number of "Islamophobic
French journalists and media." The leaders of the movement refused
to be interviewed by the blacklisted media "for the sake of their
Religion and State
On March 14,
2004, the law on religious symbols at schools was voted while a
dozen of demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament. Since
then, many French Muslim girls take off their hijab before they
arrive at school. In Strasbourg, Cennet Doganay, who was 15 at the
time, shaved her hair to find a middle ground between the Islamic
law and French law. Some Islamic secondary schools were established
after the law was voted, but not all Muslim families could afford
the fees. Some students chose to study at home, and others migrated
with their families.
A year after the
anti-hijab bill was approved, two French journalists, Georges
Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, were kidnapped in Iraq. The
kidnappers demanded an abrogation of the anti-hijab law by the
French government. As a consequence of this situation, nobody could
take the responsibility of organizing a protest in France.
On the fourth
anniversary of the crisis in March 2008, 45 French ladies explained
their views on the issue of hijab in France. It was evident that the
French Islamophobia had resulted in the anti-hijab law. The
atmosphere following 9/11 helped to prepare the ground for the ban.
Also, some ambitious politicians managed to start the debate, and
the media played its role and inflamed the situation. But,
unfortunately, the French Muslims were not able to find a bucket of
water to pull the fire down.
Law is the same
for all, but here, Islam was the target. Indeed, France needs to
change its approach to Islam. This religion is by no means a "new"
phenomenon. It is also not a faith coming from abroad. Democracy
cannot and should not ignore the demographic changes in a country.
The chance is
that the so-called French Islam has a real political will. But the
history of France shows how religion and state have been fighting
over centuries. The battle is at an intellectual level and a
political one. The long struggle of French Christians and French
Jews witnessed no relief without methodical strategies, media
expressing and defending the religious opinions, and knowledgeable
leaders who are skilful in debating.
Muslims failed to build a unanimous strategy toward the crisis of
hijab. They failed to make their voices heard through the media. The
normal outcome was that their management of the crisis proved to be
ineffective. Now, after four years of the enactment of the anti-hijab
law, the situation appears to be the same.