Once again, the humble hijab or head scarf that some Muslim women wear, has become a touchstone for anger, resentment, and protest. But France’s decision made last week to enact a law banning the hijab along with Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses (who since Madonna circa 1984 wears large Christian crosses?) has also highlighted religious and social differences within the larger Muslim community. French backers of the ban, including President Jacques Chirac, warn that overt religious symbols threaten the secular nature of the republic. Giving in to the hijab, declared Chirac, would mean “[France] would sacrifice its heritage. It would compromise its future. It would lose its soul.” European religious leaders and world governments (including the US) expressed concern, however. But while Qatar-based scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi decried a law which would ban “a religious duty, like prayer and fasting,” the grand shaikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, said that Muslim French girls should respect the ruling. “If a Muslim woman lives in a country where laws do not permit hijab,” wrote Tantawi, “then she has to comply with those laws.” Similarly, while there have been protests by thousands of Muslims in France and around the world to the French decision, some French Muslims seemed divided about the ruling. A survey by the French newspaper Le Parisien found that 69% of French Muslims support the ban. “Everything has its place,” said an Algerian kebab vendor in Paris. “Religion is private and should stay at home.” The hijab conflict is coming at a time when France’s Muslims are seeking greater visibility as they struggle to articulate a European Islam that stays true to their spiritual roots yet is firmly integrated within European society.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.