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ISSUE 117 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/27/2004

Church, state separated; Muslims protest against French law

By Shannon Merillat
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 27, 2004

On Feb. 10, the French National Assembly voted 494 to 36 to adopt a law that forbids students to display conspicuous signs and dress that show religious affiliation in French public schools. The law prohibits Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, and would go into effect in September 2004. President Jacques Chirac claims the goal of the law is to protect the principle of secularism. The French assembly claims that headscarves in governmental facilities violate the 1905 law separating the state from religion.

Liberty, equality and fraternity: the three principles of the French Republic in which the French people take great pride. With their motto in mind, lets examine this new law. The way I see it, the law violates all three principles.

Even though religious symbols of all faiths are banned, opponents of the law claim that the it is directed at the five million Muslims who reside in France. They say that the real goal of the French government in passing this law is not to uphold the principle of secularism, but rather to discourage the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Its true that extreme fundamentalist views do support terrorism. What people, including Americans, often forget is that not all Muslims are fundamentalist extremists, just as not all Christians are fundamental extremists who bomb abortion clinics.

Followers of Islam can be categorized into one of two groups according to their interpretation of the Quran: modernists and revivalists. Revivalists, also known as fundamentalists, are Muslims who call for the restoration of traditional Islamic ideals, and interpret the Quran literally. Modernists are Muslims who interpret the Islam faith in terms of modern knowledge.

The modernists tend to accept Western scientific and political ideas such as evolution, democracy and the emancipation of women and interpret the Quran and Muslim tradition to accommodate these ideas.

Most Muslims classify themselves as modernists, not fundamentalist extremists who believe a dogs life is more valuable than a womans. There are extremists with similarly outrageous ideals in every religion, and it is unfair to categorize all Muslims as evil-doers because of a select few. If Christian extremists had committed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, would the reaction have been a surge in prejudice against all Christians? I think not.

A secular government should be one that does not interfere with personal religious beliefs. The law would not only discourage Islamic fundamentalism, but all forms of Islam. It seems that the real reason behind the creation of this law, the discouragement of the spread of Islam, is anything but secular. This law severely infringes upon freedom of religion, one of the principles that secularism in government is designed to uphold. The principle of liberty is clearly violated here.

French authorities that support the ban say that the principle of secularism is intended to promote equality among people. The ban would, in fact, stigmatize Muslims. Most modernist Muslim women wear the traditional headscarves by choice, and do not see them as a sign of oppression. The ban even threatens the education of Muslim girls whose families are very traditional in their Islamic beliefs. These girls may not be allowed by their families to take off their headscarves, and consequently not be allowed to attend school. It seems ludicrous to deny innocent Muslim girls something so precious and important as education because of their religious beliefs. Clearly, the sense of exclusion this law will bring clearly is not in accordance with the French principles of fraternity, or brotherhood.

I dont see how a ban on headscarves will stop the spread of fundamentalism. The display of religious symbols is not intended as aggressively advertising a particular religion. I doubt anyone upon seeing a Muslim woman in a beautiful headscarf would decide to pick up the Quran and dash over to their local mosque to begin practicing Islam as soon as possible. Even if this did happen, that was the individuals choice. Religious symbols do not brainwash. And even if they did, it is not guaranteed that the convert would opt to become an extremist.

Contributing Writer Shannon Merillat is a first year from Burnsville, Minn. She majors in English and nursing.

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