My e-mailbag was brimming with responses to last week's column about Jacques Chirac's proposed ban on Islamic headscarves -- along with jumbo crucifixes and all yarmulkes -- in France's public schools. "Good grief," one correspondent declared, concluding a negative critique, "it's just a scarf!"
Good grief, it's anything but. And I say that not so much to reprise last week's arguments, but rather to consider intervening developments -- such as the reaction of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh to a newspaper photograph of a leading Saudi Arabian businesswoman without her headscarf.
"This," said the grand mufti, Saudi Arabia's leading religious authority, referring to the head-exposed Muslim woman, "is prohibited for all. I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences. I am pained by such shameful behavior in the country of the two holy mosques. What was published in some newspapers about this being the start of liberating the Saudi woman ... such talk is null and void. One's duty is to obey sharia by complying with orders and shunning that which is forbidden." Not doing so, he continued, will "cause the doors of evil to open before the people of Islam."
The doors of evil? This sounds like a melodramatic mouthful from an old Saturday serial, but then again, maybe the mufti has a point. That is, if women were ever to achieve equality throughout Islam -- and that means achieving a range of extremely basic rights, from the ability to vote to being able to get a driver's license -- maybe the whole of Islam would unravel. Sharia, or Islamic law, which codifies the inequality of women and non-Muslims, would be shredded, and the hoary hierarchy would lurch if not topple.
A big "if," but not inconceivable. This may explain something about the intensity of the opposition to France's hijab ban among Muslim activists, from France's officially recognized Council of the Muslim Faith to Britain's extremist group Al-Muhajiroun. The question is, in rejecting the Muslim headscarf, do Western governments affirm secular values -- namely, Western civilization's highly evolved traditions of tolerance, equality and liberty? Last week, I wrote that, given Islam's tradition of repressing women and non-Muslims, a result of the twin precepts of jihad and dhimmitude, the headscarf as a trapping of that tradition could well be banned from secular schools without sacrificing Western principles. I still think so. But to what end? This week, French education minister Luc Ferry noted that beards, too, if they were determined to be signs of faith, could be outlawed under the school ban on religious symbols. This prompted author and Islamic expert Robert Spencer to explain on his Web site ( www.jihadwatch.org ) why he believes the French approach -- under consideration or in effect in Belgium and a large part of Germany -- is way off the mark.
In an entry dubbed "A close shave for French Muslims?" Mr. Spencer writes: "Instead of going after the root of the problem, [the French] are targeting minutiae. They can't or won't get Muslims to renounce the sharia and accept Western principles of tolerance and equality: instead, European Muslim groups are loudly denouncing assimilation. So the French instead go against the outward manifestations of the Islamic rejection of those things. But does [the French government] really think that beardless, bareheaded Muslims will not try to institute an Islamic state in France?"
I still don't have a problem with the French ban on headscarves or even beards in their public schools. After all, my own secular school uniform, an L.A.-does-Great Britain costume of blue blazers, pleated skirts and saddle oxfords, included a haircut code for boys that banned beards -- as if -- and stipulated sideburn length. But Mr. Spencer raises a thought-provoking point: that France's actions -- and similar actions contemplated across Europe -- are strictly cosmetic patches to mask the underlying conflict between the West and Islam, between a European Christianity that is contracting and a European Islam that is expanding.
And what of secularism? Also this week, an octogenarian French priest was fined nearly $1,000 for a letter to parishioners that railed against a Muslim "ideology that threatens the whole world" and called the Koran a "manual for the extension of the kingdom of the devil." Assuming that secular France wishes to police the religious speech of its priests, as Mr. Spencer notes, it should also police the religious speech of its imams. Will it? Should it? It would seem that the real battle over liberty, equality and fraternity has yet to begin.