Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Laicism and Scarves

I wanted to jump in on Paolo and Rob's posts. I think the best parallel in the United States for what is going on in France regarding Muslim headscarves is our debate over the issue of Spanish language education in the public schools. For many Americans, the idea of the Spanish language competing with English in the public arena is a huge threat to American unity. English is one of the few things Americans have as a true unifying force and immigrants who choose to speak only Spanish (think Miami or Los Angeles), or who want to receive a bilingual education, generate a great deal of controversy. Since 1908, France has relied on laicism to manage contetious divisions within French culture. Until recently, that debate was dominated by issues that can be traced back to the role of the Catholic Church in French society. Laicism, however, is not well-equipped to handle the presence of a huge Muslim minority population, many of whom are now 3rd generation, though often marginalized, French citizens.

George Weigel thinks that France's resistance to war with Iraq is to some extent an "appeasement" of its Arab minority and more evidence of a general European unwillingness to "get tough" with threats to the international order, at least as those threats are defined by the United States. He seems to forget that the "Arabs" at issue in France are for the most part French citizens. and the nation is stuggling with the difficulty of integrating them in a way that is consistent with its commitment to its republican ideals and at the same time respects their right to free practice of their Muslim faith. A marginalized minority is easily radicalized. The Chirac government realizes what is at stake, and it has been scrambling to push "affirmative action" style programs to speed the integration of North Africans into mainstream French society.

The head scarf ban may seem like overkill to us, but radical Islam does present a real threat to France's stability. Paolo raised a very significant question at the end of his post. Must the "West" face the possibility that a society of unfettered religious freedom is unworkable? I won't attempt to answer that question here, but religious freedom understood in a cultural context informed by Christian humanism contains certain assumptions that not everyone shares.


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