Not a clash of cultures

Thinking the French headscarf ban is about culture misses the point

British commentators from across the political spectrum seem to agree that the decision by the overwhelming majority of France’s MPs to prohibit the wearing of headscarves and other “religious emblems” in state schools should not have been taken.

Liberals smugly expressed their relief that such measures were not being contemplated in Britain while conservatives argued that “British tolerance” could not support such a ban. In reality, however, most writers here have missed the point.

The premise of the French Government’s argument – that the wearing of the Muslim headscarf is incompatible with French “secular tradition” – has in the main been accepted as reasonable, if not endorsed as valid.

For example, liberal columnist Polly Toynbee does not support the ban but agrees that “Islam is the most visible and alarming threat from foreigners to hard-won secularism, tolerance, feminism or social democracy.” Luckily, this “threat” does not pose a problem to Britain, whose approach to immigrants means that “most newcomers are assimilated and religious passion moderates.”

Toynbee shares these views with the conservative Times, which opposes the ban with the proviso that “Muslim community leaders in Britain and France must take the lead against the intolerant radicals in their midst”.

In other words, Toynbee and the Times agree that the headscarf issue is about the meeting of two mutually antagonistic “cultures”, Islam and Western liberal democracy.

Why it is that Islamic and Western “cultures” should find compromise so problematic is rarely explained. Many writers assume, as right-wing Minette Marin does, that the headscarf “challenges our ideas of what's most important in our own culture and the points at which we draw the line of tolerance”. “Our own culture” is seen as open-minded and tolerant while Islam is closed and backward.

However, cultures do not have innate properties that make them tolerant or repressive. Rather, what comes to be regarded as a distinct “culture” is always the product of complex social and political developments.

In the case of France, it was the identification throughout the 1970s of North African immigration as a “cultural problem” and the denial of citizenship to immigrants that gave rise to notions of Islam as a separate and threatening culture.

It was not the innate difference of Muslims that gave rise to notions of cultural separateness: French Muslims are only seen as different because elements of French society have sought to cast them as different. The issue of headscarves is peripheral in this context: long before headscarves were identified as a political issue Muslims were seen as belonging to a “problem culture”.

If we accept that “Muslim culture” as it is portrayed is the product of social developments, we have to abandon the idea that “French culture” is incompatible with it.

As Liberation writer Hakim el-Ghissassi pleads "Stop turning the headscarf into a political issue. French Muslims just want to be treated like Mr and Mrs Everybody."