When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate. A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter.
It started as a women’s protest for the right to wear Muslim headscarves at university, in this case at Marmara University in Istanbul. Then the men showed up with their banners and megaphones, lined up in front of the cameras and began speaking in place of the women. That left the ladies standing demurely on the sidelines or in the crowd, all decked out with their bright silk scarves with nothing to do but clap at what the men said.
Anyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.
When Jane Stranz of the World Council of Churches emailed me a link to her blog about me, I thought I should mention something here that is already out there on the web. The Conference of European Churches in Geneva has awarded its John Templeton Award for the European Religion Writer of the Year 2006 to yours truly.
One of the most persistent canards about Islam in France is that Muslim groups played a key role in stoking the three weeks of rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in late 2005. Stories still regularly pop up on the Internet talking about “Muslim riots” or mentioning that cries of Allah-o-akbar were heard amid all the burning and trashing that went on. These cries, reported in the French press at the time, were taken as a sign the Islamists were behind the unrest. Bloggers coined the term “Paris intifada.” Some talked about “Baghdad-on-the-Seine.” Others were frustrated because the media did not make clear what role religion played in the unrest.