For the Separation of Religion & State:

No to the Hijab Ban!

When French schools reopened in September 2004 after summer vacation, a new law took effect prohibiting students from wearing the hijab (female Islamic headscarf). Under the pretense of defending the secular character of public education, the law banned the “conspicuous” display of any religious symbol, including large Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans. Despite the legislation’s formal evenhandedness, its real aim is to curb the growing influence of Islam among France’s Arab minority.

French school administrators have been waging an intermittent campaign against the hijab for years. In October 1989, three Muslim junior high school students in Creil were suspended for wearing headscarves. They were subsequently reinstated after the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State—an institution the French government consults on legal issues) ruled that wearing the hijab in school did not in itself contradict the secular character of public education so long as it was neither “ostentatious” nor an act of “pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda.” The current ban grew out of a controversy that erupted in October 2003 when two sisters, Alma and Lila Lévy, were suspended from their high school (lycée) in Aubervilliers for wearing the hijab. Their father, Laurent, a Jewish atheist who acts as a lawyer for an anti-racist group, opposes the veil, but believes his daughters (whose mother, though born to a Muslim family, never practiced Islam) should have the right to wear the hijab to school. The Lévy sisters claim to have learned about Islam from their maternal grandparents, and made it clear that they donned the headscarf to protest anti-Muslim racism. They also said they “would never wear it in a country where it’s obligatory” (Libération, 22 September 2003).

According to Education Minister François Fillon, at least 48 students have been expelled since the new law came into effect (Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 January). On 6 November 2004, BBC News reported that three Sikh boys had been suspended for wearing turbans. There have been no reports of the legislation being used against Christian or Jewish students.

The ban on the hijab comes at a time of rising xenophobia in Western Europe as immigrants, asylum-seekers and visible minorities are increasingly scapegoated for the effects of capitalist irrationality. People of Middle Eastern origin are particularly at risk due to the global imperialist “anti-terror” scare. In the Belgian city of Antwerp, police have dusted off an archaic law banning carnival-goers from wearing masks in order to harass Muslim women who cover their faces in public. “If you put on a Mickey Mouse mask and you start walking around in Antwerp,” asserted police commissioner François Vermeulen, “you will be stopped by the police. It’s that simple. It’s not only women in a burka [a full-length body covering] or a headscarf and a veil” (BBC News, 31 January). But in fact this measure, like the French ban, is aimed at persecuting Muslims, who are seen by the racist guardians of capitalist law and order as enemies within the gates of “Fortress Europe.” State-sponsored anti-immigrant hysteria and Islamophobia are fueling the growth of dangerous far-right organizations across Europe. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the fascist National Front, placed second in the preliminary round of the 2002 presidential election, and won the right to square off against conservative Jacques Chirac in the final round.

The French government is currently pursuing a vicious campaign to deport sans papiers (workers without official papers). Under the guise of “counter-terrorism,” immigrants in France (particularly non-white ones) are increasingly subject to arbitrary “security checks,” arrests and deportations under the racist Vigipirate plan. For people of color in France, the promise of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” made by the French Revolution remains a bitter joke.

The ban on the headscarf in schools has had the predictable effect of promoting anti-Muslim bigotry. One physician in Paris, professing concern for “human and women’s rights,” announced he would no longer accept patients wearing the hijab because “extremism has led to many crises the world over” (, 24 January 2004). On 21 December 2004, five women wearing headscarves were refused entry to an official ceremony in the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture at which three of them were to receive their naturalization decrees (Le Monde, 18 January).

Jérôme Rivière, a deputy from the governing conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), claiming to be concerned about France’s secular character, cynically commented: “We don’t have a problem with religion in France. We have a problem with the political use by a minority of religion” (BBC News, 11 February 2004). Yet professed commitment to secularism has not prevented the UMP government, like its predecessors, from lavishly funding private religious schools:

“Despite France’s insistence that secularism must govern French schools, there are exceptions. France spends billions of dollars a year to finance private religious schools, most of them Catholic and mostly to pay teachers’ salaries, for example. Private religious schools that receive state financing are required to follow the national curriculum strictly, but policing by the state is not universal. For example, at the Merkaz Hatorah School for Orthodox Jews in the Paris suburb of Gagny, which receives state money and was vandalized in an arson attack last November, evolution is taught as a theory, not as fact.”
— International Herald Tribune, 11 February 2004

France is home to five million Muslims, more than any other country in Europe. In the 1960s, faced with a labor shortage, the French government, which today views its Arab minority as a surplus population, encouraged citizens of its former North African colonies to seek a better life in the imperial metropolis. Forty years later these immigrants, as well as their children and grandchildren, are still largely unassimilated in French society—chiefly because of official and unofficial racism. Living in substandard housing, concentrated in suburban ghettos, France’s Arab minority faces discrimination in employment and education, and is constantly harassed by racists in and out of uniform. In some areas their rate of unemployment is as high as 40 percent.

Historically, France’s largely secular North African minority tended to support the parties of the reformist left. But the appalling record of anti-immigrant chauvinism of both the Socialist and Communist parties has taken its toll. In one of the most infamous cases, the Communist mayor of Vitry-sur-Seine, Paul Mercieca, had an immigrant hostel bulldozed in December 1980. The growth of radical Islam among France’s Arab population, although exaggerated by racist politicians, is real, and can largely be attributed to the repeated betrayals of social democrats and Stalinists.

The Left and the Hijab

Revolutionary socialists oppose all discrimination. We defend the right of anyone to wear hijabs, turbans, skullcaps, crosses or whatever else they wish. While Marxists are atheists, we uphold the right of people to practice the religion of their choice, just as we support the right of gays and lesbians to exchange wedding vows without endorsing the institution of bourgeois marriage. Socialists do not pretend there is anything progressive about religious obscurantism—whether Islamic, Judaic, Christian or Zoroastrian.

Revolutionaries champion the complete social equality of women and recognize that the hijab (like other forms of the veil) is a symbol of female subjugation. (The term “hijab” is derived from the Arabic word “hajaba,” meaning “to hide from view.”) The Islamic reactionaries who forcibly impose the veil on women regard females as little more than chattel slaves who should be excluded from full participation in social life. While the veil is an emblem of misogynist reaction, banning the hijab can only reinforce the impression among Muslim youth in France that radical Islam is the only viable alternative to the racist status quo.

This elementary fact is denied by various self-proclaimed Marxist organizations, including the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WCPI), an émigré group whose cadres were viciously persecuted by Iran’s reactionary theocrats. The WCPI insists that its support for the ban “has nothing to do with supporting the French government and everything to do with defending progressive human values,” and claims:

“The ban is pro-secularism not a restriction of religious freedoms and beliefs: a ban on conspicuous religious symbols in state schools and institutions is but one step toward secularism or the separation of state and religion.”
—“Unveiling the Debate on Secularism and Rights,” 19 January 2004 (WPI Briefing No. 129)

The French bourgeoisie’s imposition of a dress code on youth is not a step toward “the separation of state and religion,” but just the opposite. The hijab ban is a serious infringement of religious freedom. In supporting the ban, the WCPI lends credence to the cynical professions of concern about “democracy” and “human rights” by the racist rulers.

In embracing the notion that the imperialist state can be wielded as an instrument for social progress, the WCPI treads the well-worn path of “evolutionary socialism” pioneered by Eduard Bernstein in the 1890s. The fact that many of their cadres were tortured and murdered by the Islamic Republic of Iran is no excuse for supporting the French imperialists’ ban, but it at least explains the WCPI’s subjective motivation. The same cannot be said of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), the largest ostensibly Trotskyist group in France, whose supporters scandalously demanded immediate sanctions against the Lévy sisters (Le Monde, 9 October 2003). LO claims that:

“To ban the veil at school is to allow young women who do not want to wear it to resist family pressures, pressures from fundamentalists and chauvinists and aid their struggle.”
Lutte Ouvrière , 6 February 2004).

In reality, schoolgirls denied a public education because their families compel them to wear a hijab will only be able to continue their studies through “home-schooling” or in an Islamic institution.

The position of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR—leading section of the moribund United Secretariat) on this question has been, if anything, even more contemptible than that of LO. While advancing the slogan “neither the law nor the veil” in Rouge, their weekly newspaper, an LCR member who teaches at the Lévy sisters’ school explained that, while it would be preferable to find a way to avoid expelling them:

“We also don’t want to exclude sanctions if a dialogue isn’t possible. The problem is that these two students are going much further than the dozen other cases we have at this establishment. They’re pursuing a militant course of action.”
— Le Monde, 9 October 2003

To their credit, members of the LCR’s youth group, the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires (JCR) seem somewhat less averse to “militant action.” The JCR helped organize a rally in support of the Lévys at their school. One JCR member, Xavier Chiarelli, commented:

“We think that it’s necessary to fight alongside veiled girls. We don’t approve of the oppression of which they are the victims, but we think the main enemy is the dominant class. In the long run, we hope to convince them that the headscarf is not a means of emancipation.”

The LCR’s gross hypocrisy on the hijab ban undoubtedly involves petty organizational calculations concerning its unity maneuvers with LO. Benoît Hubert, an LCR candidate on a joint LO-LCR electoral list for the 2004 regional elections, was forced to step down because of his participation in a Marseilles demonstration against the ban (Le Monde, 7 February 2004).

The British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which has “unity” notions of its own for the LCR, has come out flatly against the ban. Like the LCR, the SWP’s policy is crassly tailored to fit its opportunist appetites, which on this issue happen to run in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of adapting to Islamophobic prejudices in France, the SWP is angling for political support from Muslim clerics in Britain for “RESPECT,” a multi-class electoral project that the supposed revolutionaries of the SWP leadership hope will somehow provide them with an entrée into big-time parliamentary reformism. In an attempt to square this circle, the SWP has taken to floating the notion that Islam is a potentially progressive social force. This is spelled out in an article on the hijab controversy in a recent issue of International Socialism Journal (Spring 2004, No. 102). The author, Antoine Boulangé, who along with other French SWP supporters currently makes his political home inside the LCR, proposes that:

“Islam is not the threat many would have us believe. What characterises any religion is its ambiguity. It is a tool of domination for those who run the system. But it can be a tool of resistance for the oppressed.”

While conceding the possibility that “young women who wear the headscarf are oppressed,” Boulangé suggests:

“Young women can use the headscarf as a means of liberation despite being in other respects dominated. This is not to idealise the role played by religion but to show that religion, for all its being a tool of domination, can play a role in forging an identity—it can be a means of resistance in a racist society where immigrants and Muslims are oppressed.”

Some young Muslims in France undoubtedly wear the headscarf to protest against racist oppression, like the Lévy sisters. But it hardly follows that, by embracing this symbol of misogyny and reaction, they take a step toward liberation.

Sharia Courts in Canada

Many of the issues involved in the hijab ban are posed, from a different angle, in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. The Ontario government recently decided to give sharia tribunals the same rights that Christian and Orthodox Jewish religious bodies were granted under the 1991 Arbitration Act, and permit them to make legally-binding rulings on questions of divorce, inheritance and other disputes normally adjudicated in family courts.

Sharia law, the product of more than a thousand years of Muslim canonical law, is derived from the Qu’ran(the Islamic scripture) and the Hadith (practices of the prophet Mohammed). The various denominations of Islam have differing interpretations of sharia, ranging from relatively liberal to extremely reactionary. But what they all have in common is a belief that women are innately inferior to men.

While the use of clerical courts in mediation requires the agreement of both parties to the dispute, the reality is that women in devoutly religious communities are subject to enormous social pressure from friends and family to put their faith in their spiritual patriarchs. This is particularly true of immigrants—a category that includes most Muslim women in Ontario—many of whom are already extremely socially isolated.

The introduction of sharia courts is hailed by assorted liberals and social democrats as an example of the tolerance and generosity of the Canadian bourgeoisie’s policy of “multiculturalism.” In reality, clerical courts are a tool for reinforcing the isolation of ethnic/religious communities and strengthening the influence of traditionalist religious authorities within them. Charles Demers observed:

“The move towards introducing Islamic courts in Canada, though regressive, is not backward-looking, but the most sinister kind of forward thinking: in a social and legal context in which Muslims have been not only pushed out of the Canadian legal system but held to be its main antagonists, a new umbrella must be set up under which to administer their needs. As legal aid funds disappear, and legal services once offered to refugees are no longer available, and as Canadian law continues to be practiced along lines which define Muslim communities as exceptions to the rule of law (such as the case of Maher Arar [a Canadian victim of the Islamophobic terror scare who was shipped to Syria to be tortured]), there must be a flip-side to that ghettoization and marginalization. Shariah courts mark the ‘opportunity’ for some layers of the Muslim community in the face of the ‘crises’ of a general democratic breakdown and campaign of scapegoating.”
—ZNet, 15 September 2004

The various “community” leaders are valued by the Canadian ruling class for their role in maintaining order in their respective bailiwicks, while their ability to deliver a bloc vote at election time ensures that their concerns are listened to carefully by the government of the day.

Some radical-liberal muddleheads worry that opposition to sharia courts may in itself amount to a capitulation to Islamophobia and “war on terrorism” bigotry. While true of anyone who would deny Islamic authorities the same rights as Jewish or Christian obscurantists, it is not true of Marxists, who oppose all clerical courts and stand for the complete separation of state functions from all religious entanglements. We are equally opposed to state funding for Catholic, Jewish, Islamic or Scientology schools.

Socialism & Religion

The socialist position on religious freedom was spelled out a century ago by V.I. Lenin:

“Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable.…Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church.”
— Socialism and Religion (1905)

Religion is strictly a matter of individual conscience—while defending the right of everyone to adhere to any superstition, or none, we adamantly oppose state subsidies, tax exemptions and all other forms of special treatment for religious institutions. In 1844, Karl Marx observed:

“The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man….The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
—“Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction”

Religion, like other forms of false consciousness, can only be eradicated through the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed to transform the hellish conditions of life in class society that predispose so many to seek solace in fantasies of an afterlife, divine retribution, reincarnation and similar nonsense. Only through the expropriation of the means of production and the creation of a new, egalitarian social order on a global scale will it be possible to eliminate all forms of social oppression and the reactionary ideologies they give rise to. The role of Marxists is to organize resistance to capitalist exploitation and all derivative forms of injustice, and to consistently hold high the banner of the communist future—a future without want, without hatred and without fear.

Posted: 30 March 2005
Published: 1917 No.27 (May 2005)