More than twenty-five articles in the Arabic newspapers are dedicated to the issue of eliminating religious signs in French schools and its relationship to secularism. President Jacques Chirac?s speech on this issue has provoked contradictory reactions not only inside the French community, but outside it as well, especially in Muslim societies.
Al-Qahera published the Arabic translation of Chirac?s speech. The French President stressed the role of secularism as the core upon which French history and tradition are founded. It is the strong cornerstone for concepts of tolerance, human rights, and the guarantee of freedom of thought and faith. It ensures for each individual, regardless of religion and creed, the feasibility of practicing rituals and expressing conviction. Thus, Chirac urged the French people, men and women, coming from different and multiple cultures, to realize that the French Republic with its foundations is the protection for their beliefs. Chirac also confirmed that Islām has its elevated position among the great religions in France. Muslims are permitted their full right to peacefully practice their religious rites. However, basing on the secular rules, schools should be absolutely secured as they are considered the first place where concepts and values are acquired. As a result, wearing any mark that refers to religious belief, such as a Ḥijāb for Muslim girls, large crosses for Christians and skullcaps for Jewish boys, is not permitted in public schools. Chirac also said that religious holidays such as Yom Kippur for Jews and ‘Īd al-Kebir for Muslims would not be allowed without permission of schools.
Through her article in al-Hayat, Nada al-Azhari presented the conflict in the French society towards the issue of the Ḥijāb. She pointed out that in a poll by ?Elle? a French magazine, 49% of French Muslim women are in favor of the idea of issuing a law banning the wearing of any religious signs. The magazine urged President Jacques Chirac to ratify such a law so as to preserve secular concepts and equity between men and women. A French researcher on Islamic and Arab world affairs said he considered the Ḥijāb a political symbol and not a religious sign. He added that France is not obliged to accept political choices that are incompatible with its republican bases. In support of such attitude, a sociologist from an immigrant Arab family said he felt that the Ḥijāb does not fit with European civilization. He also believes that prohibiting religious and political marks in the official institutions is appropriate. On the other hand, French churches condemned a ban on wearing the Ḥijāb in France and Dr. Rowan Williams, Leader of the Episcopal Church in Britain, voiced his refusal for the expected French law stating that ?proposing a ban on wearing the Islamic Ḥijāb in the French schools implies a fear of allowing people to demonstrate any kind of religious commitment openly.?
As it was reported in the French paper Liberation, al-Wafd published the fact that approximately 3000 women wearing the Ḥijāb demonstrated in Paris to express their rejection of the French decision. One of the demonstrators clarified that there is an inaccurate belief that the Ḥijāb is an oppression enforced on women by their fathers, brothers, or husbands and that they should be set free from this constraint. She asserted that Muslim females are wearing the Ḥijāb as an act of obedience to the orders of God. Another demonstrator maintained that this decision will create discrimination. France should accept Muslims as they are. Besides, a French woman who calls for women?s rights pointed out that it is not the right of the government to oblige a certain appearance on women.
Al-Ahrar paper reported that the European monitor for racial phenomena said that Muslims in the European Union have undergone a growing number of attacks since September 11. Concerning Muslims living in France, the monitor showed that there is an increase in the stress in Muslims? daily life.
As for the opinions of the Arab world?s writers, al-Said Yāsīn in al-Qahera said that the Chirac?s decision is balanced so as to maintain the secular laws of the French school. Under the title ?Decision to prohibit the Ḥijāb is pathetic but not bad,? Mazen al-Sadeeri explained that in accordance with the secular regulations of France, banning the Ḥijāb in schools and governmental organizations is a law that protects the French Republic. Whoever claims a right to wear the Ḥijāb in France is like someone who asks to open a bar in Saudi Arabia. Both are forbidden according to the constitutions of the states. Ibtisam al-Hawari emphasized in al-Akhbar in an article carrying the title ?Does the Ḥijāb threaten secularism in France?" that the Ḥijāb is not a religious symbol, but a religious duty imposed upon women. In addition to this, Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that a group of Bahraini women demonstrated to protest Jacques Chirac?s decision.
Regarding attitudes of Muslim scholars, Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi, in an interview with al-Ahram al-Arabi, affirmed that the decision to ban the Ḥijāb in French schools refutes freedoms, human rights, and UN charters. He added that unlike crosses and Jewish skullcaps, the Islamic veil is a religious obligation that should be fulfilled by Muslim women. In his speech of Friday published by Al-Liwa al-Islami, Shaykh al Qaradawi stressed that Muslims in France should be guaranteed the freedom to practice their religious rites. The same opinions were declared by the Muftī of Egypt, Dr. Ali Goma?. Nihad Awad, Director of CAIR [Council of American-Islamic Relations] believed that the Islamic presence in France is the real target of Chirac?s attitude vis-?-vis Ḥijāb.
In interviews with al-Liwa al-Islami and al-Arabi, a large number of the Islamic scholars and intellectuals resorted to the Qur?anic verse ??And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms?? [Sūra 24: 31]. This verse reflects the holy order to wear the Ḥijāb. On the other hand, in a meeting with Nicola Sarkuzi, the French Minister of the Interior who is responsible for the religions file, Dr. Muhammad Said Tantawi, Shaykh al-Azhar, affirmed that Chirac?s decision concerning the Ḥijāb is a French domestic affair. He added that the Ḥijāb is a divine obligation for a Muslim woman as long as she is living in a Muslim country. However, in a non-Muslim country like France, she is treated by the Islamic Sharī‘ah as a compelled person if she accepts and follows the French law that bans wearing the Ḥijāb. This attitude of Tantawi disappointed and annoyed most Islamic scholars.
Al-Ahram reported that the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, followed the French steps and stated he opposed women working in the public sector and wearing the Ḥijāb. Yet, he explained that he could not prohibit a Muslim female student from wearing her Ḥijāb in school, as it is a religious symbol. Such a declaration alarms those supporting a new German law that would imitate the French one.