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Wearing religious symbols: the European comparison test

This study was conducted using press information and diplomatic telegrams provided by different diplomatic sources and consulates (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Greece, Holland, Italy, Luxemburg, Portugal, United Kingdom, Quebec (Canada), Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey). It was completed and updated using press information and the data provided by the Eurel correspondents.

In western countries, wearing the Islamic headscarf became a habit since the early 90s. The second generation of Muslim immigrants wore it to affirm their identity searching for a way different from that of going through assimilation and social exclusion. It may also be due to the new immigrants practicing the Islam that is more rigid than the one practiced by the older ones (Bosnian, Iranians and Iraqis in Germany, Finland and Denmark). The phenomenon is not to be exaggerated since according to a study carried out in Brussels, only a minute minority of young girls (2%) wears the Islamic headscarf. This issue is all the more complex since there are diverse meanings attached to it. It reflects various strategies and takes on many different forms. The headscarf is not only a religious symbol. It is also used as a means to affirm one’s identity while in a foreign culture and to forge a “feminine” identity under the traditional family authority which has been enfeebled by migration and unemployment and while living in host societies moulded by their own ideals and/or feminist practices. It is seen, at times, as a transitional symptom which comes with the adolescence crisis related to body change and sexual identity. It is also a sign of a crisis accentuated by the suburban context where the man/woman relationship is marked by a certain violence and ostentatious affirmation of a chauvinistic identity.
Wearing a headscarf at school did not give rise to national controversy in all European countries (as well as in Quebec), except in France. However, there exist other problems: female teachers demanding the wearing of a headscarf in Germany, the “full dress” in Belgium, the Islamic headscarf which covers the face in Holland or the carrying of the kirpan (a ritual dagger of the Sikhs) in Quebec and most generally, the refusal to attend certain classes such as Physical and Sport Education (PSE), music and sexual education). Meanwhile, in England, the debate was rather focused on financing Muslim private schools. Finally, in many European countries such as Scandinavian countries and South Europe, where Muslim immigration is recent the issue of wearing a headscarf at school or at work may be only at its early stages.
A distinction has to be made between countries where this problem does not exist since the society bases the integration of the immigrants on the principle of non-discrimination and multiculturalism (England, the Netherlands and Quebec) and countries where predominant religions prohibit symbols of other religions which are perceived as proselytising (Greece). In Ireland, Italy and Austria, people are used to seeing Christian symbols in public places (consecrated people wearing a habit or a crucifix in class and in court rooms) so much that they easily tolerate religious symbols other than Christian ones. However, the absence of a major crisis does not mean that there are no problems. Meanwhile, in a large number of countries, school headmasters and prefects judge situations basing themselves on individual cases to reach amicable agreements. The regional decentralisation of the educational system in many countries (Germany, Belgium and Quebec) and the district decentralisation (England, Denmark and Finland) encourage this type of management. In Quebec, there exists a principle of “reasonable accommodation” to encourage jurisprudence and informal conflict management.
Apart from France, there is no other country which has set up specific legislation forbidding the wearing of religious symbols at school or at work. Other countries prohibiting the wearing of the headscarf in public establishments are “secular” Muslim countries, namely Turkey and Tunisia. In the European Union, the principle of freedom of religion prevails since jurisprudential systems have been set up. Is jurisprudence a much better legal system than law in handling complex situations and establishing a better understanding of the evolution and demands of the society? In Italy and Germany, there exist contradictions with regard to legal competences. In federal countries like Germany and Belgium, varied local ways of handling the problem could lead to various legal systems which cause legislative inconsistency. This is the reason why there is a call for harmonisation on a national level which marks the beginning of original thinking. In Quebec, managing the issue of religious expression in public schools is linked to the academic mission of public schools.
Integration is considered a long process which requires real understanding of secular rules achievable through explanation of principles in an interpersonal teacher-student dialogue and consultation with different academic key players while considering the reality of the socio-cultural environment of the establishment.

The French law passed on 15 March 2004 provoked, at the time, a general misunderstanding from the Vatican to Muslim countries, from European partners to the USA. Numerous demonstrations were held in front of the French embassies abroad after the promulgation of this law which was considered liberticidal and anti Muslim. Today, France is not seen as an exception but a pioneer. Its legislation on religious symbols appeals more and more to other countries. As for our European neighbours, they put emphasis on a different issue: it is not the headscarf but the wearing of a “full dress” (burqa, niqab) which is seen as a sign of social separatism and a symbol of total refusal of any type of integration in the host country. Teachers are also forbidden to wear religious symbols.
This opinion is held especially in countries like Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany where politicians openly discuss issues. Sometimes, this gives rise to diverse national or local legislative systems (See the table). In Great Britain and in the Netherlands, this change of attitude is due to the crisis of the integration model based on communitarianism. Dramatic events have changed public opinion: the London terrorist attack in July 2005 perpetrated by British citizens of Pakistani origins brought up in Britain who appeared to have been integrated and the assassination of Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist in December 2005. Most generally, different issues which put in question freedom of speech and religious criticism have given substance to conflict of values between western principles of human rights and adhering to Islam (the issue of caricaturing of Mohamed in Denmark and in other European countries, the suspension of the Opera “Idomeneo” in Berlin and the Redecker problem in France). In this climate, wearing visible religious symbols may reinforce and spread the opposition due to their symbolic nature.
Furthermore, in France, diverse reports have it that the debate on religious expression in public institutions shifted from schools, where the law would have solved the problem, to other public services (local authorities and mostly hospitals). The issue is no longer the wearing of the headscarf but the general attitude which puts in question social mixture and equality between man and woman, values which are generally advanced by those opposed to the wearing of the headscarf.

Updated version of the article which appeared in the Cités magazine in March 2004, p. 177-123.
See the table showing the legal context and administrative practice in relation to the wearing of religious symbols in different European countries (in French).

D 5 October 2012    ABérengère Massignon

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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