Controversy over the Head-Scarf Ban

Wow: the split-up of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez is homepage news even for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (“Jennifer Lopez Gives Ben Afflek Walking-Papers), with column titles such as Doch wieder Puffy? (“So It’s Back to Puffy?”). That’s pretty tempting to get into. But it’s not like there isn’t anything else a bit more “legitimate” to discuss – like recent setbacks for the idea of banning the wearing of religious symbolism (primarily the Muslim head-scarf for females), in both France and Germany.

France is getting ready to impose precisely such a ban nation-wide as of next September (but note: it only applies to the premises of state-run schools), following a decision last month by President Jacques Chirac in the wake of the recommendation by a national commission (the “Stasi commission”) that such a ban be imposed. Naturally, this has resulted in street demonstrations by Muslims living in France, together with condemnation of the move from other countries, primarily Muslim ones. And now even the head of the French diplomatic corps, foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, has started to worry about this, according to an article in Le Monde (The Foreign Minister Is Worried About the Consequences of the Proposed Secularism Law). This emerged at a seminar organized yesterday at the Matignon (that is, the office of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin), at which the foreign minister is said to have remarked that the proposed law puts France “on the wrong foot” (en porte-à-faux) diplomatically, and in particular into “a very delicate situation on the international scene, above all with the Arab countries and the United States, [which is] opposed to any restriction on individual liberties.” In fact, according to de Villepin the measure risks throwing away all the goodwill among Arab countries which France gained last year precisely by defying the United States over Iraq.

All this caused a minor flap, since of course it was de Villepin’s immediate boss, the President, who was directly responsible for pushing through the measure in the first place. What ensued was the usual routine that you would also expect to see when disagreements flare up within an American presidential administration: the French Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement claiming that M. de Villepin’s remarks had been distorted; and the main opposition party (here, the Socialists) denounced the government as not knowing anymore itself where it stands (in French, not knowing where it lives).


The issue is also coming to the front of public discourse in Germany, which has a similarly-large Muslim population (although these tend to be Turks in Germany, whereas they’re mainly North Africans in France), but which to this point has not passed any similar sort of ban. Still, as this article in the FAZ from last October points out (“Head-Scarf as Political Symbol”) eleven of the German federal states do want to ban the head-scarf from public schools – although, note, from the heads of teachers, not students! – and back then Baden-Württemberg was the first to actually propose such a law. That set a similar debate going in Germany about whether such a ban was necessary in defense of the supposed neutrality of the state towards religion (although that FAZ article above from October did also treat at length what is recognized to be the superior position granted to Christianity in German public schools), or whether it instead would be improper state interference in the right to personal self-expression. Note the crucial difference here made by Germany’s federal governing structure; whereas such a measure in the highly-centrally-governed state which is France has to be pretty much an all-or-nothing thing (and therefore to be weighed by no less than the President of the Republic), in Germany it can happen state-by-state, allowing for such a measure to be tried out first in what you could call an “early-adopter” state or two on an experimental basis, to see whether it truly is something that needs to be implemented nation-wide.

As of the beginning of this year, German President Johannes Rau has also stepped into the fray on this issue. Curiously, his position is the same as that taken by his French counterpart, but with a very different result, reflecting the different approaches the two countries take to the issue. Like Jacques Chirac, Rau believes in what you could call the “level playing-field”: if religious symbols are to be banned, whether among schoolchildren or teachers, then not just Muslim but all such symbols should be banned, and indeed the proposed French law, in addition to the Muslim head-scarf, bans the Jewish yarmulke, the Sikh turban (a much more central part of a Sikh’s religious practice than the head-scarf, by the way), and even “large crosses.” (But only “large crosses”; could the continuing legal permission for non-large crosses mean that the French approach is not as even-handed as it claims to be?) So that was Rau’s proposal, too: if you’re going to ban head-scarves, better be ready to ban, for example, the crucifixes that hang on the walls of many German schoolrooms (particularly in Bavaria) as well.


But, for cultural and historical reasons, Germany is not quite as secular in tradition as France, and Rau’s suggestion to ban Christian religious symbols, too, stirred up a storm of criticism in Germany (as reported by the FAZ at the turn of the year here). So far, that’s not going to happen, meaning that the continuing pressure to forbid head-scarves among schoolteachers is finding expression in laws under consideration in several Bundesland (i.e. German state) legislatures that make no pretense of observing any sort of the religious even-handedness that Rau advocates. Among those Bundesländer is Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony, the home-state of German Premier Gerhard Schröder), where according to this recent article in Die Welt (“Rau Reinforces His Criticism of the Planned Head-Scarf Ban”), a law banning the head-scarf among school-teachers is likely to pass by the end of March. And so that brought President Rau down to Wolfenbüttel, a town in Lower Saxony only 70 km away from the Bundesland capital in Hannover, to repeat his objections to such laws: that they are in conflict with what is supposed to be the State’s commitment to religious freedom, and (contradictorily?) that such a measure would further separate Church and State, eventually leading to a totally secular State, an undesirable objective in Rau’s eyes.

Of course, as Bundespräsident Rau hardly has any direct control – only what you could call “moral influence” – over the laws passed in the individual Bundesländer. Much more influential is the German Constitutional Court (“Bundesverfassungsgericht“), the equivalent of a Supreme Court, which however has already ruled in a test-case last September that the individual states are perfectly entitled to mete out differing legal treatment of this issue, according to the thinking and desires of their individual constituencies and legislators.

In the short-run, in other words, don’t expect President Rau’s opinions, even if delivered in Lower Saxony itself, to derail the expected path of that head-scarf ban to passage in the Lower Saxony legislature. And we can expect a further state-by-state treatment of this matter in the rest of Germany. Meanwhile, in France, despite apparent diplomatic damage and large protests by the Muslim population, the nation-wide ban is already in place legally and so is set to go into effect later this year.

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