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Why hijab disturbs dictators, democrats

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In 1925, Kamal Ataturk, father of post-Ottoman Turkey, imposed the Hat Law, banning the traditional fez cap for men. The penalty for wearing one was death. That was his idea of secularism.

In 1928, Reza Khan, another soldier who seized power, passed a copycat Uniform Dress Law in neighbouring Iran. It decreed European attire for men and, in 1936, banned the hijab for women. That was his idea of Europeanizing Muslims.


Last year, seven states in Germany banned the hijab for teachers. That was their idea of protecting German identity.


On Tuesday, the French Assembly overwhelmingly approved a ban on the hijab for school students. That is their idea of securing French secularism.


Some German and French citizens envisage extending the hijab ban well beyond schools. That's their idea of emancipating all its wearers.


Over the years, rulers of a different kind — such as the Taliban in Afghanistan — have also waded in. They decreed the opposite: that women must wear the veil or the chador, on pain of being jailed or whipped. That has been their idea of Islam.


As the target of fascist, feminist or racist and mostly male wrath, the hijabi woman is victimized both by those wanting to subjugate her and those who would liberate her. Or she is scapegoated, in the service of one ideology or another.


What is it about her that so rattles dictators and democrats alike?


She is the battleground for the armies of those out to purify Islam or demonize it.


The fatwas of the German and French governments echo those of Ataturk and the first Shah of Iran. They are interpreting secularism the way the despots did: as anti-religious — more precisely, anti-Islamic — rather than by its essential premise of neutrality toward all faiths.


Unlike France, the German regional governments have targeted only the hijab. France proposes to proscribe all "ostentatious" religious symbols, including the kippa and the crucifix.


Bavaria and other states have been blatant, even if confused.


One rationalized the ban under the rubric of progressivism, calling the hijab "a symbol of fundamentalism and extremism." The justice minister of another was more forthright: German school children "have to learn the roots of Christian religion and European culture."


In the case of France, few are fooled by the rhetoric that schools be free of not just Islamic but all religious influences.


First, there are the Freudian slips, exemplified by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin: France is "the old land of Christianity" in which new citizens, regardless of their faith, must conform to majoritarian norms.


The more persuasive argument, best enunciated by secularist author Guy Coq, is the need to safeguard the ideals of the 1789 French Revolution: "If we bow to demands to allow the practice of religion in state institutions, we will put the French identity in peril."


But no sooner had he hit the high note of principle than he slipped into the abyss of prejudice: "To disarm fundamentalism, notably Islamic fundamentalism, can we give up laïcité, which builds a neutral space?"


But laïcité — separation of state and religion — is already compromised by state subsidies to Christian and Jewish separate schools, where students are taught religious values and, in some cases, segregated by sex.


Will tax dollars be made available to Muslim private schools, which are bound to mushroom?


The proposed law, which now goes to the French senate for rubberstamping, guarantees uneven results by leaving too much to subjective interpretation.


Teachers and administrators will rule whether a bandanna on a Muslim girl, or a beard on a Muslim boy, would violate the law but not on students of other faiths or no faith at all.


And what of the Sikhs?


This is treacherous turf.


Two more dubious rationales have been proffered.


One ascribes a political, as opposed to religious, motive to the hijab and invests it with radical attributes.


Alain Juppe, a former prime minister, encapsulates it thus: "It's not paranoid to say we're faced with a rise of political and religious fanaticism."


The second posits the hijab ban as a tool for battling anti-Semitism. The formulation of Education Minister Luc Ferry stacks up thus: Hijab is a/the source of anti-Semitism. Ban it, and the problem will be minimized/solved.


This is as dishonest as it gets.


Anti-Semitism in France is too deep-rooted and widespread to be laid at the feet of Muslim teenage girls from immigrant homes. The biggest culprits are Jean-Marie Le Pen's millions of followers, whom President Jacques Chirac is, in fact, trying to appease with the hijab ban.


While some Jewish groups have gone along with the law, others see it for what it is: "disgraceful" and "sad," as described in London by Lord Greville Janner, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress.


French politicians and media also cite the pro-ban views of some Muslims as proof of the soundness of the decision. Others note that a majority of Muslim women in France, indeed across the world, do not wear the hijab.


This is as ignorant as it is racist.


That a majority of Christians do not go to church on Sundays does not negate the right of those who do.


That a majority of Jews are not Orthodox does not derogate from the fundamental religious right of those who wear the yarmulke and long locks.


That some Sikhs shave doesn't mean that others do not have the right to believe their religion commands otherwise.


It is absurd to expect all Muslims to speak with one voice on religious matters.


It is downright authoritarian to present as legitimate the views of only those Muslims who echo government thinking.


Germany and France are moving in the direction of Turkey, while the latter is moving toward European norms in order to join the European Union.


Turkish women on the public payroll are still banned from wearing the hijab. But the mildy Islamist government of Tayyib Erdogan, moving toward restoring the human rights of Kurds and others, could conceivably lift the ban.


It is ironic that while Ataturk's legacy is being dismantled in its homeland, parts of it are being imposed in democratic Europe.


Meanwhile, across the Muslim world, people will see the French and German initiatives as another instance of Islamophobia gripping the West.


They, like the Muslim girls in Europe, likely will find solace in more Islam, not less.

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