Cultural and social integration in a changing Europe


This week the French government decided to press ahead with its proposed law to ban the wearing of the Islamic hijab or headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbolism in state schools, despite the doubts expressed about it by members of its own parliamentary majority, writes Paul Gillespie

Legislation to prohibit ostentatious religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses will be debated next week in parliament and become law by the opening of the next school year in September.

The initiative has sparked an important debate in France and elsewhere in Europe on multiculturalism, secularism, and toleration - not least in an Ireland that has to come to terms with new socio-cultural realities after making the transition from an emigrant to an immigrant society over the last decade.

Different models of multiculturalism arise from different historical and national experiences. The French example should not be taken as typical, for all that its republicanism has influenced so many other states since the French revolution. France combines three approaches: a civic republican model of citizenship, a liberal-secular approach towards separating church and state, and a strongly assimilationist model of national culture in the educational system.

This makes its experience of multiculturalism quite distinctive compared to that of other states. The hijab controversy should be judged rather by whether it contradicts one or all of these norms than on whether it sets a precedent other states should follow. In his interview with this newspaper on Thursday, the French Foreign Minister, Mr Dominique de Villepin, denied the proposed law means France shows mistrust towards any religion. "On the contrary, it's a question of being faithful to a principle that is strong in France, the principle of secularism, which is about neutrality and tolerance".

The five-million-strong nominally Islamic community in France is mostly of north African origin, coming mainly as labour migrants from the former French colonies in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. They have found citizenship, and many individuals have successfully integrated into French society.

But cultural and social assimilation has been far less successful. Most of them live in quite distinct and separate neighbourhoods, often strongly disadvantaged ones, in the major cities. They have become the targets of growing French racism, as expressed by the National Front and the efforts of the mainstream parties to compete with it.

These communities have responded in several different ways to such separation and prejudice. One takes the form of a religious revival, a means of asserting difference against a hostile host society. It should be seen in part as a protest against France's failure to welcome and assimilate them into French society, coming from a culture that does not make the same distinctions between the religious and secular domains as most Europeans do. More young women are wearing the headscarf to school as a result.

The trouble with the proposed law is that it cannot distinguish between the headscarf worn as a symbol of such cultural assertiveness against prejudice and its undoubted, but much smaller, role as an expression of the subordination of women within traditionalist Islamic communities or as a symbol of growing Islamic fundamentalism. In these circumstances it cannot be automatically assumed, as many French intellectuals and secular activists tend to do, that the headscarf represents only a resurgence of patriarchy, a growing rejection of the neutrality and secularism on which their educational system is based, not to mention greater Islamic militancy.

Already opinion is quite polarised on the matter. As one Muslim leader put it on a protest of over 10,000 people last weekend, "the real issues for us high unemployment in the Muslim community, violence and harassment, discrimination in jobs and housing. The strife is only just beginning, believe me." Libération said in an editorial that "unless the proposed headscarf ban is accompanied by a vigorous effort on serious integration, it will be nothing but a useless annoyance".

It is perverse to condemn a symbol of protest against prejudice as manifesting a rejection of the host society's core values - however small the numbers involved. Is it not possible to find alternative ways to target fundamentalism or oppressive patriarchy? There are growing fears the legislation will play into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists and the National Front. And despite refinements to the proposed legislation, individual schools and teachers are going to have to make decisions about which is which.

In a study entitled Mosaic or Melting Pot - Living with Diversity, published last year by the Royal Irish Academy for the Irish committee of the European Cultural Foundation (available at Attracta Ingram, the UCD political theorist, suggests there are four alternative models of civic integration, and thus of multicultural society and citizenship, relevant to Ireland's historical experience.

Two are variants of liberalism - liberal neutrality and liberal pluralism - while two are more inspired by republicanism - civic republicanism and communitarian republicanism. Liberal neutrality combines religious and ethno-cultural neutrality (in which religious diversity exists in the private realm) with common citizenship. Liberal pluralism acknowledges majority nation-building but seeks to compensate minorities with special rights to preserve their way of life. Republican pluralism broadens the liberal democratic public sphere to include an engaged civil society, while republican communitarianism broadens that again to allow for continuous negotiation of minority rights.

Within the rapidly growing literature on multiculturalism, Germany, the US, Canada and the UK are often counterposed as models to France. Prof Ingram suggests France combines the civic republican model with large liberal elements, with a very strong assimilationist approach. She thinks Ireland combines a legal order of liberal neutrality and civic republicanism.

So, rather than extrapolating the French model directly, it is better to look at these issues more broadly. But that involves deciding what kind of country a more diverse Ireland is. As Prof Ingram says, "that is a matter of how we conceive national identity, the interplay between national and other cultural and social identities, and between identities and citizenship."