Since French President Jacques Chirac proposed a ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools, some of America’s most prominent media outlets have come out in favor of Muslim women’s religious rights. This phenomenon deserves to be documented and explained.
Two days after Chirac asked parliament for legislation banning religious symbols in public schools, the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor denounced the proposed ban.
The Globe slammed the proposal as "intolerant legislation to enforce a rigid conception of tolerance" and considered Chirac’s move to be motivated by his "political opportunism" more than by his interest in France’s secularism.
"Chirac’s stand against the head scarf may have been his way of cooping the primary issue of the far-right and virulently anti-immigrant National Front," said the Globe.
The Christian Science Monitor said France’s complicated historical relations with religion, the dislike certain French groups feel toward Islam, and the social and economic problems France’s suburbs suffer, are all factors contributing to Muslims’ difficult incorporation into French society. Editors noted that "bigotry and lack of opport! unity, not head scarves, are the threat to France."
The New York Times warned that Chirac’s suggested ban will primarily target Muslims, will be perceived by Muslims as discriminatory and confrontational, and will lead devout Muslims to become less moderate if they believe they are being targeted by the government. "The French understand full well that the discussion is essentially about Muslims," the Times cautioned. "President Jacques Chirac made the wrong decision."
Outraged by the proposed ban, the Houston Chronicle compared the French proposal to the Taliban’s decision to force women to wear burkas. "Whether it is residual Taliban elements forcing women to wear a burka or the French Parliament singling out Muslim women and girls to remove their scarves, such restrictions on dress have no place in a secular democracy."
The Columbus Dispatch saw the scarf debate as a demonstration of the "profound differences in the way Americans and the French understand the separation of church and state." "[In the United States] the intent of church-state separation is to protect the individual’s religious liberty from government infringement …In France; the threat works the other way."
There are several reasons for the American media’s defense of Muslim women’s religious rights.
First, there seems to be a consensus within the American media that Muslim women will be the main victims of the proposed ban because wearing the scarf is a religious obligation not just a religious symbol, like a cross for Christians.
A number of editors share the belief that banning Islamic scarves will add to French Muslims’ alienation by forcing them to establish their own schools, will prevent Muslim women from fully participating in French public institutions, and will fuel the Muslim World’s suspicions of France and the West in general.
Also, the American media viewed the proposed ban as an extreme and counterproductive application of secularism that will unavoidably infringe on Muslim women’s rights.
Even though America is a secular country that forbids state sponsorship of religion, the American laws protect an individual’s right to freely practice their religion in private and in public.
Lastly, there are signs of a growing understanding within American society of Muslim religious practices. This growth in sensitivity is matched by increased political and social involvement by America’s seven million Muslim citizens and residents.
The American media’s sympathy for Muslim Women’s rights may surprise some people, particularly those living in the Islamic world, but it is real and heartfelt. Such interfaith understanding should be acknowledged and encouraged.