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FIRST STRIKE

French knot

ANIL DHARKER

... while the reasons for it's legislation may be laudable, its method of handling the issue has been less than subtle, says ANIL DHARKER.

AFP

Opening up a Pandora's box - it's turban

THE French have no doubt about it: 70 per cent of the French population said they supported President Chirac's ban on "ostensible" religious symbols in schools. And when the French National assembly voted on the subject, the vote was unambiguous: 494 voted for the ban while only 36 were against (with 31 abstentions). The French intelligentsia too wasn't sitting on the fence: Bernard-Henri Levy, the maverick philosopher said, "I am in favour of this controversial law. I am for it primarily because of my belief that religion should have no place in civic affairs nor in the state."

But matters aren't really as clear cut as that. The French Foreign Minister discovered that on his recent visit to India. Sikhs wanted to know "What about us?" That's because, buried in the debate, which seemed to focus primarily on the wearing of the head scarf by Muslim girls, was a line from the Minister of National Education. Luc Ferry (who is also a philosopher and best-selling author) had said that bandanas and "excessive hairiness" would be banned from public schools if they were considered religious signs. Since turbans presumably wouldn't be allowed, wouldn't that "excessive hairiness" bit specifically target Sikhs? A Pandora's box has truly been opened. Yet there's no doubt that Chirac and Ferry acted from generally honourable motives, but hell is paved with good intentions. Those intentions can be seen from the lengthy preamble to the legislation which demands that public school guarantee total equality, including "co-education of all teachings, particularly in sports and physical education." Religion could no longer be used as an excuse to avoid gym or biology classes and "questioning of the Holocaust would not be tolerated". This issue has been simmering for a while, but with the growing number of Muslims in France, coupled with their increasing assertiveness, put pressure on the French Government to do something. Anti-Semitism has been on the increase, with many Muslim clerics being openly (and rabidly) anti-Jewish. And when militant Muslim groups decreed that Muslim students should not be made to study chapters on the Holocaust, things had gone beyond just outward symbols like head scarves: there was now the very denial of history.

There was also a denial of the culture of the host country, and this is a dilemma which isn't peculiarly French. The British, until now smug in their seemingly successful multi-culturalism, are just waking up to the problem as will most societies. The Muslim head scarf, for example, isn't just an outward garment, it's a hijab. And hijab means curtain, and the barrier that it implies is central to its context. Muslim girls, in other words, born and being brought up in countries where women are equal to men in law and increasingly in practice, are being made less equal. The diktats of conservative clerics, enforced by small but militant groups, are trying to do to Muslim girls exactly what a lot of Islamic countries do: make them second-class citizens. Thus they are forbidden to go to gym classes unless there is gender segregation and they are banned from attending biology classes because they teach about "human reproductive processes". Some are asked not to draw or learn musical instruments. In other words, they might be in France physically but in spirit they might be as well be in Saudi Arabia.

AP

... and scarf trouble for the French.

What would be the clerics' next step? A ban on Muslim women working in Europe? Stopping all education for girls? No one's said that as yet, but you can just see the contours of that slippery slope, can't you? Why should a modern, liberal nation allow ideas like these into the country? Why should they give in to pressure, especially since it is brought to bear by extremist groups which are not supported by a majority of Muslims and whose ideology also does not give a true picture of the tenets of Islam? The protest in Paris against the French legislation, for example, was organised by a group called Party of French Muslims which is tiny in its size and has an openly anti-Semitic leader. A similar demonstration in Britian was the work of Al-Muhajiroun, a group which actually celebrated 9/11 and whose agenda is the establishment of a world-wide Islamic State.

The reasons for France's legislation, then, was laudable. Their method of handling it, on the other hand, has been less than subtle. Have we dealt with it better? On the face of it, yes. Multi-culturalism has existed in India years before the phrase was invented. A multiplicity of religions, cultures and languages co-exist all over the country today, and a combination of secular and minority religion-based schools continue to give a rainbow-coalition kind of education so that everyone is happy. Head scarves and burkhas are worn as are turbans, crucifixes and sandalwood on the forehead, while a secular curriculum is followed by all without protest with the one intention of doing well in the all-important examinations.

But behind this happy co-existence, there is a huge problem. After 50-plus years of independence, our social fabric has shown signs of wear and tear, especially when it comes to the question of communal harmony. You only have to say "Gujarat" to know how terrible the problem is. Our "peaceful co-existence" model for education, obviously, hasn't worked: communal prejudices not only continue, but have got worse. Education, which was supposed to make us more equal and tolerant, has instead increased our divisiveness.

Obviously, we need a rethink. That rethinking would not come from Jacques Chirac or Luc Ferry. Nor, most definitely, from Murli Manohar Joshi. But it must come from somewhere within us, and it must come soon.

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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