What do we call the following French person? She is born in France, and a citizen, but many of her compatriots treat her as an alien, threatening presence. She is easily recognizable, above all by her distinctive head covering, which proclaims her religious allegiance. No one questions her right to wear this garment at home or in her neighborhood's streets, but many of the French have a different opinion when it comes to official "public spaces"--above all, public schools. For many fervent defenders of the secular Republic, letting her into the schools would pose a threat to the Republic's very existence.
So what do we call this person? Until quite recently, we would have called her a nun. After all, hostility between the Catholic Church and the secular Republic marks broad swaths of French history. But of course it is not nuns who have been targeted by the recent law banning "ostentatious signs of religion" from French public schools, which John R. Bowen has put at the center of his lucid and thought-provoking book. The controversial French women at issue are headscarf-wearing Muslim schoolgirls.
The controversy around them continues to simmer in France, while also spilling across European borders. The Netherlands is considering an even broader ban, while Jack Straw, the leader of Britain's House of Commons, recently attacked the wearing of veils as a "visible statement of separation and of difference," and requested that women remove them when visiting him. This is one of the strangest, and most philosophically rattling, controversies in recent European memory, and in order to comprehend it we have to start with France, and consider the things that the odd shift from nuns to schoolgirls tells us about the relationship between religion and society there. I have in mind three things in particular. [Link]
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