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France & Muslim Scarves

France & Muslim Scarves

by William H. Benson

March 26, 2015

     In France, a fight has broken out between university professors and students who wear Muslim headscarves or veils into class. Some professors insist that before they will begin a lecture, students must remove their scarf or veil. French law already bans public school students from wearing headscarves, veils, yarmulkes, or crucifixes, but that law does not extend to university students.

     Isabelle de Mecquenem, a philosophy professor, said, “The university invented secularism,” and then during the Renaissance, it was the university that “elevated the search for truth by vanquishing the power of the state and church.” To them, the scarf and the veil represent gender oppression. One professor said, “I thought this fight against religion was long over. It’s just unbearable.”

     So, a division opens in the classroom. A student wants to demonstrate her faith, and a professor asks her to shelve that commitment and join him or her in a pursuit of truth. Can one ever have both?

     Islam began in Saudi Arabia in the seventh century. Its followers carried its message to the east, across India and into Indonesia, and to the west, across northern Africa and Spain, and into France. In October 732 A.D., the French general Charles Martel, “the Hammer,” defeated Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi at the Battle of Tours in north central France and stopped Islam’s advance into Europe, which would remain thereafter devoted to Christianity.

     In 1491 A.D., the Muslims surrendered Grenada in Spain, the last Muslim-controlled city in the Iberian peninsula, and so Spain and Portugal returned to Christianity. Thus, the known world was divided between Christianity in Europe, and Islam in the Middle East and northern Africa.

     In the modern era, Europe’s powerful nation states—Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and England—would conquer and colonize the known world, and even the unknown world after Columbus’s discovery of North and South America.

     In 1848, France annexed Algeria in northern Africa and incorporated it into the French nation. French families began to migrate into Algeria, where they dismantled traditional patterns of land ownership, confiscated the best land for themselves, and converted the native Algerians into paupers.

     By 1954, French Algeria was polarized, divided along racial, religious, and cultural lines. One million French settlers controlled the land, the wealth, the economy, and the political system of the country, and nine million Algerians felt isolated and powerless. In that year, they struck back.

     The Algerian people’s revolt against the French lasted for the next eight years, from 1954 until 1962. The National Liberation Front or the “FLN,” Algeria’s revolutionary force, conducted guerrilla warfare and terrorism against France’s superior military. The fighting between Christian and Muslim, between European and African, was desperate and vicious, and both the FLN and the French resorted to torture.

     Again and again, the French military destroyed the Algerian leaders and soldiers in lopsided and successful military campaigns, but their brutal and oppressive methods alienated French citizens, failed to win an Algerian surrender, and discredited France’s standing in the world. One hundred and fifty thousand Algerians lost their lives, but only twenty-five thousand French soldiers. By 1962, Charles de Gaulle, France’s President, chose to surrender, and so he ceded independence to the Algerian people.

     The war for Algerian independence was not so much a religious or cultural war as it was a war over land. The Algerian people wanted the right to own, control, and live on their land. People can go to war over the issues that divide them—such as religion, politics, race, and culture—but those are of lesser importance in contrast to the ultimate question of land ownership. Who owns and possesses the land?

     Territorial aggression leads to war. When armies of one country invade and seize land that belongs to others, war will result. For example, people in the Southern states still refer to the Civil War as, “the War of Northern Aggression.” Although conflicts over race and slavery split the United States into two countries, war was ignited when Union troops marched into the Confederate states.

     The Nazis were rabid racists, convinced that the Aryan people were superior, and anxious to prevent the mixing of the races, but that fallacious notion alone did not lead to war. What enflamed Europe into a second world war was the day the Germans invaded Poland, September 1, 1939. Two days later both France and England declared war on Germany.

     After World War II had ended and the Allies liberated Europe, citizens of Europe released their former tenacious grip upon Christianity and gravitated towards a more secular and consumer-oriented society, one less religious and more curious about markets. Some scholars now consider Europe post-Christian. On the other hand, the Muslims continue to reject secularism, denounce consumerism, and grip even stronger their faith. Who dares to say that one approach is right and the other wrong?

The headscarf is a simple thing, an item of clothing mainly for women, and yet it is symptomatic of the centuries-long division between Christian and Muslim, and now between a secular Europe and a fundamentalist Middle East.