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Monday, April 14, 2003

Separation Of Church And State

The always engrossing NY Times takes us back to Islam in France. Now, resequencing the story a bit, we are assured that France believes in the separation of church and state:

...there are the women's issues. Ms. Debza, for example, who covers her hair with two scarves, wants the council to press the government to bend its 1905 law separating church and state, which forbids any display of religiosity in schools or the workplace.

"I can't find work here because of my head scarf," she said. "But my head scarf is a part of me. I won't take it off. We have to educate the state about why the scarf is so important and why there should be no fear of it."

Now, I know nothing about this law, so you can imagine my puzzlement as I read this:

The two were among 137 delegates who voted in the modern city hall of this working-class suburb of Paris, not for a school board or town council, but for the first organization to represent the five million Muslims of France.

It is part of an ambitious national project to create what Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called "an official Islam of France." Mr. Sarkozy, who has spent much time visiting mosques and Islamic centers to win support for the council, told worshipers at a Lyon mosque before the first round of voting a week ago that organizing France's Muslims is the way to fight "the Islam of cellars and garages that has fed extremism and the language of violence."

At polling stations throughout the country last Sunday and again today, more than 4,000 delegates from nearly 1,000 mosques and prayer centers voted for members of the new council's general assembly and central committee, as well as 25 regional bodies.

The council will deal directly with the French government on issues as wide-ranging as the cutting of meat according to Islamic standards, the need for more Muslim chaplains and social workers in prisons, the administration of France's mosques and prayer houses and ways to prevent the radicalization of young Muslims.

Muslim leaders say the council will also give them greater authority to get building permits and financing for mosques and designated space for Muslims in cemeteries. They also seek paid time off to celebrate Islamic holidays.

"This is the first time that Muslims are voting as Muslims, that I don't feel like a foreigner in France," said Muhammad Aziz Aziz, the Moroccan-born liaison official between town authorities and the grand mosque of this city, which he described as the biggest mosque in Western Europe. "This is the first time that Islam is considered a building block in France's democracy."

Perhaps I am hopelessly lacking in imagination, but this does not strike me as "separating" church and state. And, later in the story, the plot is revealed:

In a recent interview on French television, [Interior Minister] Sarkozy praised the French experiment as "setting an important example," adding, "What I want is a training college for imams who speak French, who know our culture and respect our customs."

...The creation of the council is part of a campaign by successive governments since the 1980's to gain control over a community that includes Muslims of varying degrees of religiosity and political activism from places as far-reaching as Algeria and Cameroon. Only half of them are French citizens. Similar bodies already exist for Catholics, Jews and Protestants.

The effort to organize the country's Muslims took on more urgency after Sept. 11, which led to a rise in anti-Muslim feelings among French citizens. Meanwhile, the American-led war against Iraq and the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has fueled anti-American sentiments among Muslims and Arabs in France.

So, emphasis added because it IS a government plot!

Now, I would be delighted to see France constructively integrate its Muslim population. I would recommend a more flexible labor market that occassionally created a job, but I suppose allowing women to wear headscarves to school or work might also help. I am simply agog at the concept of church-state separation being described here.

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