FRANCE'S move to extend its ban on the Islamic headscarf and outlaw the full-face veil appears to be catching on. Belgian MPs will vote on whether to prohibit it and similar laws have been drafted in Italy. Europe's rising Muslim population, which exceeds 20 per cent in some cities, has ensured a groundswell of support for these moves.
The debate in Europe has stirred interest in Australia too. Some commentators have seized on calls to ban the burka, which they judge to be "un-Australian". Others, including this writer, saw the French move as a xenophobic overreaction, more likely to inflame social tensions than ease them. However, this glib interpretation does not withstand an hour's conversation with a key architect of the hijab ban, French scholar Gilles Kepel, who visited Australia recently.
Kepel was a member of a commission established by the French government in 2003, which recommended forbidding the hijab, along with other religious symbols such as the Jewish yarmulke and large Christian crosses, from government-run schools.
Kepel is no xenophobe. He's the son of Czech migrants and has an Algerian wife. He is also one of the world's most esteemed authorities on political Islam.
Kepel argues persuasively that interpreting the French position as a symptom of xenophobia is a profound misunderstanding of the pivotal role of secularism in the French nation-state. He makes a considered and compelling case that, for a country founded on secularity, a policy of multi-culturalism that allows overt displays of religiosity poses a threat to the unity of the state. Whether the same can be said of Australia is a provocative idea that merits sober consideration.
The concept of laicite (secularism) is at the core of the French constitution. Its origin was a law passed in 1905 separating church and state to counter the oppressive domination of the Catholic Church. Laws passed even earlier made schooling -- until then limited and largely Catholic controlled -- mandatory, free and secular. "France had to make a law to be free of Catholic Church hegemony," Kepel explains.
"It was conceived as a reaction to the overwhelming influence of the church."
Laicite was always controversial, detested by monarchists who would prefer Catholicism as the state religion and increasingly resented by Islamists as a bar to free religious expression. Nonetheless it has remained an article of faith in French political and social life.
The French government is constitutionally prohibited from recognising any religion. Religious buildings were made the property of city councils. There is no question on religion in the French census and public schools are seen as a crucial bastion.
Generations of Muslim migrants were encouraged and obliged to embrace this conception of citizenhood. In an essay in The National Interest, Kepel writes that the promise of future French citizenship was "part and parcel of a workable imperial dominion".
"As soon as the former colonized set foot on French soil in their new migrant-worker garb, they took Paris at its word and France paid its colonial debt through a process of cultural and political integration," he writes.
Thus, like the Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles and Czechs who had come before them, a new generation of mostly Muslim migrants became French citizens, in an "intermingled culture, forged on a daily basis between the native Gaul and the immigrant Arab and Berber". This policy of cultural integration -- distinct from the more insidious "assimilation" with its connotations of cultural cleansing -- has "worked pretty well", says Kepel. The North African dish couscous is now the favourite food and a second-generation French Algerian soccer star, Zinedine Zidane, the national hero.
The crushing of Islamist sentiment during the Algerian civil war and a state security apparatus vigilant against its re-emergence have played an important role in France's success. But a willing "cultural acquiescence" has been the key. For most of France's Muslims, French citizenship seemed a fair trade for an overt religious identity.
Contrast this with Britain's policy of multiculturalism, under which migrants settled in enclaves in cultural isolation. "In Britain, one is born English, end of story," notes Kepel. Instead their "Islamness" became a kind of new national identity. While France banned foreign Islamists from entering the country, Britain gave them asylum, creating in "Londonistan" a crucible for the jihadist movement that would eventually blow back on Britain, which now has the worst home-grown terrorist problem in the world, illustrated by the 2005 London train and bus bombings, the attempted Glasgow airport attack in 2007, and dozens of similar thwarted plots. In contrast, France has not had a successful terrorist attack on its territory since 1996.
But back to the hijab. In 2003 then president Jacques Chirac established a commission to examine how the principle of laicite should be applied in today's France. Kepel co-authored its December 2003 report, which led to the hijab ban. He points out it applies only to minors in government-run schools, because "you can't make a law on what people wear on the street", and a majority of Muslims supported it as a necessary compromise.
Importantly, the commission called for the ban to be offset by a suite of reforms to combat socio-economic disadvantage in the Paris ghettos where many Muslims live.
The Chirac government ignored this crucial recommendation. A year later the Paris riots erupted, as mostly Muslim youths burned cars and looted shops in protest against a lack of jobs and economic opportunities. Kepel says it was a lesson to the French government for ignoring its responsibility to ensure socio-economic equality to safeguard the "cultural acquiesence" on which France's ethnic and religious harmony is built.
On a visit to Sydney's southwestern suburbs, Kepel saw many similarities to both Britain and France. "Leb-kemba" is like "Londonistan" in many respects. Inter-generational unemployment is common. Some residents live in cultural isolation, their "Islamness" the closest they have to a national identity. Kepel remarked on the open hostility displayed by some of those he encountered toward the outsiders intruding on their patch. A few angry individuals in insular communities like this have become home-grown terrorists and planned attacks on Australian soil
These similarities should neither be exaggerated nor ignored. Australia is a land of immigrants, like France, but one with an entirely different migration history and far greater ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. No convincing case has been made for banning either the hijab or the full-face veil here. But a powerful case exists for ensuring our Muslim countrymen and women have a strong stake in sharing the national identity and social harmony their fellow Australians enjoy.