It's somewhat odd that France, a country where a fashionable scarf is almost mandatory, is considering banning students from wearing a head scarf -- called a hijab -- in public schools. Even the French have their limit on "vive la difference."
President Jacques Chirac created a 20-member commission to look at where to draw the line on secularism. Last month, the panel recommended a ban on public-school students wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols -- including the hijab, large crucifixes and yarmulkes.
Apres the recommendation, le deluge of criticism. The standard American reaction -- from the State Department to political pundits -- has been to chastise France for its lack of religious tolerance, especially since this rule might alienate the country's large Muslim population. A U.S. official summed up that reaction when he berated the move as infringing on "a basic right that should be protected."
Why do scolds overlook radical rules in backwater countries while demanding absolute purity from Western democracies? Right now, female humanitarian aid workers are wearing head scarves in earthquake-damaged Iran because they believe they need to do so in order save lives. Women (regardless of their personal beliefs) in Saudi Arabia must wear abayas in public -- or risk being beaten or jailed.
But when France considers saying no to the hijab in public schools -- not public places, not private schools -- France is repressive.
Of course, a similar ban likely would be illegal in the United States, where freedom of religion rightly is protected by the Constitution. America, unlike France, was founded to protect the right to worship freely.
The French constitution, however, preaches secularism and prohibits religion in public schools. If the French go too far, well, that's their affair. When Americans insist that the French govern like Yankees, we risk sounding as arrogant as, well, the French.
Besides, the Bush administration shouldn't be so sure that a hijab limit couldn't happen here. A Florida court turned down a Muslim woman who wanted to pose veiled for her driver's license photo. When American parents insist that their children be taught creationism, and not evolution, public school officials tell the parents where they can go -- parochial or private school. And editorial writers agree.
For their part, the French are trying to cope with Muslim students who refuse to participate in co-ed physical education classes or walk out of history classes on the Holocaust for religious reasons. In a sense, then, it's downright Franco-American to expect those students to attend a parochial school.
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