Hijab symbolises rift between Islamic and European values


EUROPEAN DIARY:A decision by Flemish schools to ban Muslim headscarves has divided communities in Belgium, writes JAMIE SMYTH

COMMUNITY TENSIONS are running high in Belgium following a decision by the Flemish public school board to ban pupils wearing Muslim headscarves.

“This decision promotes the feeling of equality and prevents group formation or segregation on the basis of external symbols of life philosophy,” said the school board, which runs 700 schools in the Flemish-speaking region of Brussels, in a statement published last Friday.

The ruling follows weeks of angry protests by Muslims outside two schools in Antwerp and the neighbouring town of Hoboken, which introduced their own bans on the traditional Islamic headscarf, known as hijab. The schools argue that Muslims were being pressured to wear headscarves by families and peers, which encourages the radicalisation of pupils.

“There is a problem when there is pressure on one group because we want to live together in reciprocity and it’s very important for us,” said Karin Heremans, principal of the Royal Athenaeum school in Antwerp, which has banned all religious symbols such as the hijab.

“Everyone has to feel good in this school, so a social minority here become majority. So it was a problem.”

Her decision enraged sections of the Muslim community and provoked weeks of protests outside the school with people holding placards saying “No headscarves, no pupils” and “Everybody free except us”.

Heremans has received death threats, the school on Hoboken was vandalised and several Muslim campaigners were arrested last week outside one of the schools.

Muslim students at the schools now find themselves in the middle of a bitter debate that threatens to undermine integration efforts in the community. “I find going to school important, but also wearing the scarf is very important,” one pupil told VTM television as she left school without wearing a hijab.

In Belgium, schools have typically allowed individuals to take their own decision on whether to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves.

About a third of schools have implemented a ban, another third allow the hijab while the remaining schools have not issued any guidance to parents on the issue.

Giving local schools’ autonomy over the contentious issue of the hijab allows principals to consult with the local community and has been credited with reducing tension in many areas.

However the Flemish public school board says it was forced to introduce the ban because of a court challenge lodged by one of the Muslim pupils at a school introducing the headscarf ban.

The Belgian Council of State is expected to issue a ruling today that follows advice already issued by its advocate general that stated: “Such a ban is not lawful and that only the umbrella organisation of state schools can decide on whether or not to introduce such as measure.”

The Council of State’s ruling is likely to force school boards in Wallonia, the French-speaking region in Belgium, to reconsider their own advice to schools on the issue. A blanket ban on all religious symbols, including crucifixes, will prove difficult to implement due to the large number of Catholic schools in the country.

Antwerp imam Nordine Taouil has predicted many Muslims will withdraw their children from the community schools.

“We are getting the signal of ‘you are not welcome’. This forces us to establish our own schools,” Taouil said. Campaign groups are also considering a new legal challenge against the school board’s ban on the hijab.

“For us, this decision is a downright disaster,” Kitty Roggeman, spokeswoman for the “Boss of our own heads” group, told the Belgian media following the board’s decision last Friday.

The far-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang and the right-wing List Dedecker party both welcomed the ban. However local Green MP Meyrem Almaci said local consultations should have taken place before the ban was announced.

The tensions in Belgium arise as controversy continues in many European countries about the best way to integrate Muslims into mainstream society.

France, which introduced a ban on religious symbols such as hijab from schools in 2004, has recently set up a parliamentary commission to consider a ban on the burqa, the full body Muslim dress for women that typically includes a face veil.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy said recently the burqa was “a sign of subservience” and had no place in French society.

Denmark is currently grappling with a proposal to ban judges from wearing headscarves and in Switzerland a female Muslim basketball player has been banned from wearing a scarf while playing league games.

Other EU countries have taken a more tolerant approach. For example last year the Government decided last year not to issue a directive to schools on wearing Islamic headscarves.

But with 16 million Muslims now living in the EU, friction between Islamic traditions and European values, as seen in Flanders this week, are sure to bubble up periodically across the Union.