French Immersion


Kulpreet Singh

I found myself rummaging through the garbage the other day. Alas, it was not a term paper or material of the finite sort that I searched for. I was looking for liberty, equality, and fraternity. You see somebody disposed of them in France, and I thought that maybe I would find them in my own backyard and kindly return them to their misguided owner.

Now I'm disenchanted, having failed to locate those three founding principles of the great nation to which we attribute a large part of our Canadian identity. French President Jacques Chirac has recently proposed new legislation that indicates to me that the pillars of French constitution have gone with the trash. As of September 2004, the wearing of all conspicuous articles of faith, including, but not limited to, the yamulkah (Jewish skull-cap), hijab (Muslim head-scarf), dastaar (Sikh turban), and the crucifix (Christian cross), may be regulated in workplaces and banned in public schools throughout France. Yes, you read correctly - banned.

This legislation concerns tens of thousands of faith community members in France and the millions of other individuals who recognise the dangerous precedent that would be set should this legislation became law. This also includes the thriving community of faith adherents at SFU, which has student associations representing almost every religion.

This is not an attack on French culture, here or abroad, or any French person in particular. I say that with spite, because I will trash Chirac, but I find it hard to see him as a "French" person today. French society in particular has praised itself for secularism and religious empathy. (I always evade the use of the word "tolerance;" religious people should be empathized with). But, forget empathy or tolerance. Chirac has jumped the gun and decided fascism is the key word for the 21st century. I wonder if upon reading the report of the Stasi Commission, which investigated the "challenge" of Islamic womens' hijab to the secularity of French governance, Chirac thought to himself, "In order to protect the separation of church and state, let's destroy the church altogether! Now that is what I call separation. Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha."

It took some nerve for Chirac to stand up to the 'Wal-Mart Alliance' of America and England in their campaign to destroy Iraqi civilians this past year. I, for one, was proud of this man and his stance against the Iron Bush. In fact, after the September 11, 2001, there were many unlikely heroes who stood up for the large number of targeted minority groups.

Immediately after 9/11, the dangerous people in America and western countries were seen to be those who resembled the Taliban, such as the innocent civilians from Sikh communities, whose turbans reminded many ignorant people of Osama bin Laden. Then, a wave of panic defense took precedence, and anybody who could be perceived as presenting a physical or ideological security risk was scrutinized (or worse). As you may recall, Maher Arar was detained and interrogated in New York in September 2002, after a return flight from overseas, he was thereafter deported to Syria, despite his Canadian citizenship, where he suffered in jail over a year enduring horrible tortures.

The colour code of the American defense system was a speckled "puke" orange all along, and communities had to react and protect the rights of innocent scapegoats. Some political leaders also took an active role in preventing George W. Bush from taking virtually every middle-eastern country to war. At one point, I thought Chirac was a "good-guy" among leaders. But alas, today I look at his picture and I see the green slimy aliens from the Simpsons.

Now, regarding tolerance and empathy for the hokey "War on Terrorism," I can understand the security threats on our living standards and on the safety of our citizens. Furthermore, we all know George W. Bush is a figurehead with church legs, which could be perceived as dangerous for those that do not subscribe to his religious practices. In light of this, and in light of the fact that religious tensions are such a large topic in the news today, I can understand why the French government may be interested in creating an environment where individuals can live independent of state-sponsored religious influence. In addition, the fact is that the hijab has been a subject of continued debate in French society because it has been regarded as a challenge to the French principle of laicite. As for the neutrality of the French government with regard to religion, I can understand why they may want to research better policies for students and teachers that wear the hijab. Even after reflecting upon these realities, I can't come to terms with the logic that removing hijabs from schools will promote fraternity, equality, and liberty. It is the epitome of oxymoron.

On the topic of morons - Luc Ferry, the education minister in France, has done a very effective job in alienating virtually all people in the nation through his comments on the proposed ban. In a recent interview, Ferry made it clear that hijabs were not the only target of this "secularism" law. Anything and everything deemed to have religious value or significance could be banned, to the extent that people could be asked to shave their beards for the fear that facial hair is an ideological imposition on the liberties of French school children. Adding insult to injury, Ferry made a statement in passing that if Sikhs were reluctant to give up their right to wear turbans and keep their uncut hair - for which, historically, Sikhs have fought to their death - the alternative is "invisible beards" and hairnets. Sometimes I wonder if these politicians are mass-produced in some factory in Texas.

The trend towards this ban did not just stem from nowhere. In fact, since the late 1990's teachers and students in Germany have battled with the government for the right to wear the hijab. In 1997, 20 pupils in France were expelled from school for refusing to remove the hijab. This prompted the construction of an Islamic private school. German resident Fereshta Ludin's teaching application was rejected in 1998 on the grounds that, being a representative of the state, she was challenging secularism and imposing her religious values on her students by wearing her mandatory hijab. Almost five years later, in September of 2003, the higher courts of Germany granted Ludin the right to wear her hijab and teach at school. Despite this landmark decision, two German states counterbalanced the ruling over the following three months with proposals to ban the hijab in schools altogether. In late January of this year, the ban was also proposed in Belgium. It is clear that not only is this trend growing in popularity, but it is also promoting discord rather than cooperation.

According to media reports, many residents of minority group communities in France fear that the ban will result in their children attending only those schools particular to their respective faiths. These children will have no opportunity to intermingle with other children from diverse backgrounds or develop inter-religious empathy and understanding. The same concern was echoed in a letter from Pope Jean-Paul to the French President.

French officials may try to argue that everybody wins when religion is forced out of the school system, because those who are particular about their adherence to faith will still have the option to attend private religious schools. Even if this unlikely proposition materialised, what guarantee would these schools have that the government will protect their students from discriminatory attacks outside of the education system - given that the government itself endorses religious segregation? Furthermore, regular public schools and private schools that comply with the ban will eat up all funding and grants before faith-based schools can have any chance at getting financial support.

In his proposal, Chirac did not stop at the banning of articles of faith in primary, elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions. He also hinted at the idea that the government will support the regulation of religious attire in civil service as well as businesses in the private sector. So, not only is France on the verge of marginalising thousands of students, but also thousands of potential employees who may be fired or rejected as a result of their visible articles of faith.

One of the most disturbing elements of this new law is its vagueness. What is an invisible beard? How big is a big cross? Deliberations began two weeks ago into the fine details of the legislation and final recommendations are being made as I write. The final vote is set to take place later this month.

According to surveys conducted by media agencies in France, the law is supported by about 70 per cent of the French population. I attribute this completely to effective and purposeful misinformation on the part of the French government. I am not sure the French people know exactly how dangerous this ideology is - that in order to separate religion and state, religion must be physically removed from state institutions. I'm sure there are other solutions and alternatives that are much more supportive of cross-cultural harmony.

In his legislative proposal speech, Chirac said that he feels a law should be created to prevent Muslim women from refusing male doctors, on the grounds that their refusal is motivated by religious ideology. I don't know if anybody else sees the bigotry in this, but it is clear to me that Chirac is not concerned about protecting the rights of female Muslims, or of the adherents of any faith group for that matter.

In order to combat the ban, United Sikhs (www.unitedsikhs.org), an international human welfare organisation, has organized an international petition campaign and recently held a protest in Paris, France against the legislation. Meanwhile, a protest in England organised by the Muslim community brought together about 10,000 people against the proposed ban. On the local front, a united group of multicultural organisations is coming together to make their voices heard in a "Rally for Dignity and Diversity" later this month (www.r4d2.ca) in downtown Vancouver.

In our currently war-torn society, which is plagued by materialism and American neo-imperialism, and challenged daily by new diseases and epidemics, it is imperative that we try to find a remedy for this situation so that the youth of France, Germany, Belgium, and other countries can educate themselves to be able to build a better future. We're living in a time of too many inter-cultural conflicts for these further divisive laws to be allowed. We must fight back to protect and preserve our human community.