18 December 2003

Headscarves, continued

Here is Jacques Chirac defending his country's established religion of secularism:

Secularism is one of the Republic's great achievements. It plays a crucial role in social harmony and national cohesion. We must not allow it to be weakened.

Germany is dealing with this issue too, as noted in this report from Deutsche Welle. Here is DW's definition of secularism:

Secularism in France dates back to 1789 and the French Revolution, and has served as a basic principle of the nation's progressive thought since 1905 when church and state officially separated. The Republic works on the basis of recognizing individuals rather than groups, and the idea of schools and colleges as religion-free zones is in keeping with the basic French notion of citizenship.

That secularism might itself be a religion, with its own spirit-filled view of life and of the world, has escaped the French, many of whom are deeply devoted to their 214-year-old deity.

But now, remarkably, the Americans have entered the fray. Here are the words of John Hanford, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the US State Department:

President Chirac is concerned to maintain France's principle of secularism and he wants that, as I think he said, not to be negotiable. Our hope is religious freedom would be a nonnegotiable as well. . . .

One Muslim leader said this is a secularism that excludes too much. We are very concerned that that not be the case. So we are going to watch this carefully and (it is) certainly an important concern. . . .

A fundamental principle of religious freedom that we work for in many countries of the world, including on this very issue of headscarves, is that all persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in the society.

Hanford is right. However, given the chilly relations between Washington and Paris, one fears these words will go unheeded.

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