At the Heart of the "Affair" A Professor from Creil Provides Testimony by Luis Cardoso (Professor of History and Geography at the GabrielHavez School in Creil) Three young girls who came to class wearing head-scarves, referred to as "Islamic," provoked a national debate about the question of French secularity a century after Jules Ferry. This event raised concerns about the place of Islam in France and even, more generally, about the integration of immigrant populations and other issues related to immigration. Luis Cardoso, who experienced the "head-scarf affair" at the GabielHavez School from its beginning and who, at one time, taught one of the students involved, retraces the various stages of what eventually became a polemic with far-reaching consequences. "The Islamic head-scarf affair" began in September 1989. If one believes the media, the headmaster of the Gabriel-Havez School in Creil expelled three female high school students for wearing head-scarves. Let us recall a few facts in order to understand of what and whom we are speaking. For several years, Israeli students who were members of the Association of the Children's House of the Laversine Chateau near Creil, did not attend class on Saturday mornings. In September, at the start of the school year, these students began classes about ten days later than all the other students. In reaction to this situation, Principal Cheniere and other members of the administration who had met in June of 1989, had decided that absence from class for religious reasons would no longer be tolerated. It is for this reason that certain professors brought up the case of three girls wearing "veils" to school: if Jewish children were going to be asked to abide by the terms of a secular school system, shouldn't the female Muslim students wearing head-scarves also be expected to adhere to the same rules? The summer vacation ended, the first day of school arrived. I had Fatima A. in one of my classes but I did not see her until October 9th! She and her sister (at the behest of their father?) refused to begin classes. Finally, three weeks after the start of the school year, a memo informed us that we had to refuse to let any students wearing a "veil" come into our classes. A few days later, Samira S. was sent to the principal's office. After a heated exchange, the principal saw to it that Samira was chaperoned home with a note warning the family about the new rule. Note that the student was not expelled from school in the strict sense of the term (only the discipline board could make that decision.) To sum up the situation, some students were beginning classes when ever they the feel like it, and repeatedly skipping classes on Saturday mornings; others were coming to school wearing head-scarves and refusing to come back (at least in the case of two girls). This situation certainly caused an uproar as well as a number of surprising contradictions. The young women in question at the outset of the controversy did not always seem to behave in a logical fashion regarding their convictions: they wanted, they said, to practice their religion to the fullest, as the good fundamentalists they seemed to be. They respected certain essential precepts of the Koran; yet, while Samira S. refused to be photographed, she did expose her bare legs. In accordance with the current fashion trends, she wore skirts revealing her ankles and mid-calf. The two A. sisters, on the other hand, had their identity photos taken without their "veils," posed willingly for the photos and let themselves be filmed by cameras. All three students were in a mixed school, taking EPS courses. To me, these three students symbolize one of the current problems with Islam, a problem that concerns all those who practice this religion in a country in which the majority of the population is non-Muslim. Is it possible to reconcile tradition and modernity? It was, in any case, in the name of this shameful modernity and in the name of a certain rejection of French society that, it appeared, certain people were using these young girls for reasons that remained obscure in Creil but were more clear in Noyon. For example, in Noyon, where the veil had been accepted, a dialogue took place with the families in question. In the course of this discussion, other concerns quickly became apparent (as they did for those of other religions as well): some individuals felt they should be exempt from certain rules. The media and the public opinion that followed focused on this “veil” after a scandalous article published by a periodical called The Picardy Messenger. One must ask oneself why the press only seemed to grasp one aspect of the issue and failed to mention the absenteeism of the Jewish students…Stories about the veiled girls sold many newspapers and raised TV ratings in a period when the press seemed to ignore the dramatic intensity of events unfolding in Romania! Some asked us how the students could be secular if they were denied access to the school that would secularize them? But how can one claim this? The girls were in ninth and tenth grades. Others spoke of unjustified aggression, of latent racism and of persecution of one, and only one, immigrant community: the North African one. This accusation did not hold up to the test of the evidence presented here; one must be serious and maintain responsible positions when one claims to represent a community, no matter which one it may be. The school received a great deal of mail in reaction to these events. Apart from many letters offering “unconditional” support, the correspondence could be divided into two distinct categories: On the one hand there were the letters full of idiocy, hate of the Other, and abject, vulgar racism: “The girls should just get out; why don’t they just go back where they came from?!” Honestly, these idiotic outbursts were few and far between, and – but is it even necessary to say this? – we did not relate on any level to this grotesque caricature of the “West.” On the other hand, some letters revealed a tendency to identify, but sometimes also a tendency to take the situation very personally: “We, North African immigrants, denounce fanaticism that consists of seeing an Ayatollah behind every immigrant.” As I said, these stances struck me as opposite reactions; and yet, on some level, they seemed linked: this use of the pronouns “they” and “we.” Can we really believe in integration if we continue to see things in this way? A recent survey, conducted by SOFRES and published in the March 2329, 1989 Nouvel Observateur, revealed that only 27% of Muslims in France questioned felt that they were above all else Muslims, versus 59% who considered themselves to be both French and Muslim; 71%, if the choice were possible, said they would opt for a public school, while 29% said they would choose private establishments. 44% of those questioned believed it was possible to abandon Islam (an enormous percentage which would have been almost unthinkable a few years ago). It seems, according to the conclusions of this survey, that there is a movement towards an “open and secularized” Islam. The danger of an fundamentalist Islam in France is thus an imaginary fear, the bad dream of some cold-hearted and intransigent secularists of fresh date. What is more, if the danger of fundamentalism exists, its manifestations in the academic milieu are not the result of pressure from Islamic groups. On the contrary, for several years, various Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups have not ceased to harass competent ministers or their institutions with their pressing and precise demands concerning the curricular content or the academic calendar (the organization of the week, most notably). For me, there is no ambiguity: the three “veiled” adolescents were not North African, immigrants or French-North African, they were French, that is to say, all of these identities at once. It is useful to recall that this affair only concerned three students out of a total of 875 (of whom 500 were likely to have been Muslim) and that no new students began to wear head-scarves. This is of capital importance: is this not proof that most of the Rouher population had not only understood our position, but also proved to be less receptive to fundamentalist ideas as one might have thought? The teachers at Creil had, by the way, never considered the three students in question to be representatives of Islamic fundamentalism. Dialogue, albeit sparse, began: a meeting was held on Saturday the 7th of October, 1989 with the parents of the three girls, the presidents of secular Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian groups, a representative from the Attadamoun Association (a secular, Moroccan organization), a member of the ZEP (Proprietary Education Zone) of Creil and finally the representatives of the parents of the students. A compromise was reached: the students would be allowed to wear their head-scarves at school outside of the classrooms, and in the classrooms, they would lower their scarves to their shoulders. This compromise clarifies something about the garment itself: in the case of the A. sisters, for example, it was just a head-scarf and, as S. M. Hassan explained to us at the moment of truth, “there is no such thing as a religious head-scarf in the Koran.” This is also what the representatives from various organizations told us at the October 7, 1989 meeting. In any event, the decision made seemed to pit one culture against another. The North African community was hit dead on, violently threatened by an all-powerful institution, so sure of itself that it remained deaf to all dialogue…To this group, the decision seemed entirely arbitrary! This position seems to me to be not only fanatical, but above all, irresponsible. Fanatical because the head-scarf is worn by the girls themselves as a religious symbol of the first order. But also, in a way, by those of us who see them: how else are we to know about the children’s religious affiliations since that is not asked about on any questionnaire? Irresponsible because it pushed both sides to assume extreme and radical stances in the face of a refusal taken on a whim by the girls. In fact, three days later, on Tuesday, October the 10th, the three adolescents again refused to attend classes with bare heads! The situation became increasingly tense, and the media’ s harassment became a quasi-permanent and often inappropriate factor which did not serve to make matters any better. Today, tempers have died down. The news reports are focused on the extraordinary upheavals taking place in Eastern Europe; the “veil affair” is, according to the media, an “old debate”! The two A. sisters came back to class again on December 2nd, 1989, after again agreeing to a compromise. They are once again in the same class but it is not the one to which they were originally assigned. Samira S. finally came back to class on the 26th of January, 1990. As for the reactions of various individuals regarding this issue, the contradictions were also numerous. Some, who had fought for years to improve conditions for Muslim women living in France, suddenly advocated the right to wear the veil in school in the name of the right to difference. Could it be that they forgot that the right to difference sometimes leads to the flagrant judicial inequality of individuals? Others highlighted the need for groups of individuals, not individuals themselves, to integrate. They denounced a measure that seemed to them to go against the movement of individual existence, an idea that is increasingly present in our society and especially among the youth. Still others, who had been third-worldist for a long time, were rebuked by anti-third-worldists from one day to the next because they did not think wearing the veil to class should be authorized by anyone. I could enumerate other examples but it is a dismal dialogue, one that ultimately consists of an oversimplification: in being “for” or “against,” the good guys in one camp and the bad guys in the other. This collection of contradictions is what we experienced at Creil; but what matters is what we can learn from this situation and now apply to our daily lives. Thus, if the head-scarf basically went “unnoticed” at the school for two years, can’t we deduce that it was unconsciously felt to be a problem since a large majority of the teachers were in agreement with the administration’s decision (and were thus not in accord with Principal Cheniere)? This perceived problem, even if it was not ever mentioned, perhaps stems from the fact that, due to the secular character of the space reserved for debate (especially the classroom space), it becomes difficult to speak about freedom of expression if the rights of women seem to be –even if this is a misperception – veiled. It is not that I think the school should try to hide religion. Those who believe that have certainly not opened a history-geography or a civics text book in a long time. In sixth grade, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist religions are taught. In the seventh grade, students study Christian, Orthodox and Muslim religions as well as the development of Roman Christianity (as opposed to that of the Byzantine Empire) in the Medieval world. The second part of the civics program, in the same year, offers an investigation of diversity and tolerance. The place of immigrants in economic and cultural development in France assumes a large role in our discussions. This topic is revisited as certain questions of contemporary history (in the tenth grade) or geography (in the ninth grade) are discussed. Studying tolerance forces one to recognize similarities between oneself and the other without denying the important differences. That notion, in and of itself, is a difficult threshold to cross for each one of us. We do not make it any easier by adopting definitive positions. The study of these questions dealing with immigration and religion have a legitimate place in our curriculum. It makes sense to investigate these topics. But we must also give these situations time to work themselves out in the everyday life of the school. Meanwhile, in my work as a teacher, I want to affirm certain values considered to be universal, assuming that my students are willing to listen to me, and, if possible, to hear me, in the strongest sense of the term. Thus, if one of my students closes him or herself off in his or her difference - and this seems to me to be the case here regarding the headscarf affair – I feel that I am right to tell this individual that this ostentatious affirmation of his or her difference disrupts the class. By the same token, certain moderate Muslin intellectuals could affirm that,in the course of the affair, freedom of religious opinion did not open the door to all possible behaviors. I say this about Islam today, but this is true for all religions practiced in France. The problem is much more complex for Islam. This is clear because this religion does not receive any true recognition in our country, and it does not have any true representation because a multitude of rival groups and associations claim to speak for all Muslims in France. This suggests that there may be a need to clarify their position but also perhaps to decide what can be reasonably “sacrificed” in the message of the Prophet in order to live in a non-Muslim society. This appears to be a question of choice, asked of each immigrant, whether he or she is Muslim or not. There is certainly a difficult and painful step to be taken (I know something about that myself), and it is not easy for anyone. But it is certainly necessary to accomplish it so as to afford a shared existence. This movement does not just involve Muslims. There are many in France who are ready to take this step in the direction of Islam. Just as there is not an Ayatollah behind each immigrant neither is there a racist behind each Muslim. The priority must be to redefine the “rules of the game”: are these rules not fuzzy and often ambiguous regarding secularity and the public schools? We can and must discuss this issue. We cannot assume that the head-scarf will be authorized (or that the rules will be revised). Though the head-scarf need not be condemned, it is nevertheless capable of generating conflict of moderate or long duration in neighborhoods where the problems are already numerous and often exacerbated. It is this last point that I would like to emphasize. The position that the teachers of Creil defended is without a doubt also a sort of alarm in the face of dilapidated neighborhoods like those situated in the Educational Priority Zone (ZEP). The debate about religion and public school is just one of many problems we must face on an everyday basis. These problems, which take a toll on the students, are domestic, social, and racial; delinquency and violence also play large roles. In this climate, the children of North African origin do not pose any more problems than do the other kids. To suggest the opposite seems false to me as does the suggestion that the majority of them are failing out of school. Show me the numbers to prove that! And if by chance they are failing out of school, then under the same cultural and social conditions, their French schoolmates would also be failing at the same rate. The drop-out rate is not a problem specifically linked to immigration, but to the existence of cultural and social “ghettos.” Thus, when one knows that the new school districting map in the Creil region limits the “recruitment” of Gabriel-Havez School students to the Rouher area, we have to wonder if there is any real motivation to resolve the issue of a “theory of assimilation.” The school system, accused of all kinds of evils, is not responsible for this situation, but it must nonetheless deal with it. Those who think that the issues are simple and straightforward and that everyone should just be allowed to do as they please, to be exempt from all rules, should come and spend a little time in Creil and rub up to the reality of the situation… But it would be so much easier if the schools could just work these problems out for themselves and along with them the issues of unemployment, drugs, and violence. Tomorrow they could tackle issues of world hunger, the ozone layer, and maybe also Antarctica. What a simple solution! Teachers are not miracle workers who can remedy all the ills of the world with solutions borrowed from different cultures. I’m not able to say why refusing to let students wear head-scarves in class was more shocking that refusing to let them skip school every Saturday. Is it our job to take students with or without religious conviction and to turn them into good secularists, good agnostics, or good atheists (Note, by the way, that we really have not heard all that much about the rights of the “nonreligious”…)? I answer NO: I do not see myself in this role. How can we reconcile this idea with the notion of respecting difference? Iit is a new contradiction that I do not yet understand well… Neutrality, on the other hand, provides no escape. This is a myth. Can I speak of Nazism in a neutral way, without any passion whatsoever? In any case, my goal is not to convince others at all cost that Nazism is the worst ideology ever created by humans but rather to provide elements for reflection designed to foster critical judgement on this dark period of world history. To provide elements of analysis, keys to reading the contemporary world and not any prefabricated synthesis that the students have only to ingest. That is my opinion of the nature of our work. For this, I only ask one thing: to be able to work in good working conditions and to welcome students. In this way of thinking, religion must remain, to the extent that it is possible, at the door of the school and in the heart of each of us.