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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2004/ 11 Mar-Cheshvan 5765

Richard Z. Chesnoff

Richard Z. Chesnoff
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Ban on head scarves make sense? Mais oui! |
In a battle to save its republic, France just threw two young women out of school. It wasn't a pretty picture. The two - teenage sisters - had refused to doff their orthodox Islamic head scarves while in public school and, after numerous warnings, were shown the door. To Americans dedicated to religious freedom and civil rights, it may have seemed an outrage.

Not so. I'm among the first to criticize the French when they cross the line of decency. But in this case, I think the government was well within its rights, even its duty to French law.

Unlike America, France does not see itself as a multicultural nation, and it maintains an even stricter separation of state and church than we do. Secularism has been a cornerstone of the republic ever since the French Revolution in 1789.

As the French see it, everyone has a right to religious freedom but no one has a right to impose it on others in public life. To ensure that, France recently passed a law banning all ostentatious religious symbols from state schools - Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, even oversized Christian crosses.

Most of France's 5.5 million Muslims reacted negatively, though some women saw it as liberating them from male-imposed religious rules of modesty. But whether they liked it or not, most Muslim women opted to obey the law, shedding their scarves as they enter school, replacing them as they leave.

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Why are the French so firm on this issue? France considers itself a nation that is intrinsically French in language and culture. The problem is that, like many other Western European nations, it is in danger of being split in two: a French France and a France of unintegrated Third World immigrants, most of them Muslim.

Ironically, France has always been a land of immigrants. As long as a generation ago, at least one in three French had a grandparent born in another country. But those newcomers became French, albeit keeping some of their traditions from Italy, Spain, Portugal or Eastern Europe.

The new immigrants, from Islamic North Africa, are increasingly marginalized, living in cultural and economic worlds of their own. Even the young people speak Arabic rather than French among themselves. Their suburban slum neighborhoods have become centers of poverty, violence and despair.

Part of the trouble is the refusal of the French to accept the newcomers as really French. Part of it is the lack of economic equality. But a large measure of it is self-imposed - the result of a growing wave of Islamic extremism. Thus, head scarves in schools had become less of a religious statement and more of a provocative political one. Given those circumstances, the French made the right decision.

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JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report, a columnist at the NY Daily News and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Demoracies. A two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award and a recipient of the National Press Club Award, he was formerly executive editor of Newsweek International. His latest book, recently updated, is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR. )

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