“The French law of March 15, 2004 banned the wearing of conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools. This law affects Jewish boys as well as Muslim girls wearing the veil. It is ridiculous to suggest that we discriminate against Muslim girls!” Joan Wallach Scott refutes this statement by the French Minister of Education in her book ‘The Politics of Veil. She avers that the law was supposedly universal but its main target was Muslim girls adorning the headscarves or hijab as it is known in Arabic. The other groups’ inclusion was to escape discrimination accusations. France is not alone in enacting these laws and the book mentions Belgium, Australia, Holland, and Bulgaria. This is despite the fact that the women that profess to wearing headscarves are a tiny minority of the population in these countries (Scott 3)
The other signs used to signify the religious Muslim faith by men are not banned, such as unique appearances like beards and loose clothing and sets of behavior namely prayers, food preferences and aggressive assertions of religious identity linked to activist politics. This clearly shows there is an obsession with the veil (Scott 10) The law also ignores structural gender inequalities that are prevalent in Muslim family law that are allowed in these countries. Moreover discrimination of the sexes is not uniquely Muslim but can be found in patriarchal practices in the same countries that encourage oppression of women. Scott asserts that the ban is a result of a clash of civilizations between the Muslim and the western civilization. The French in their attempt to define their French identity in a progressively united Europe portrays Islam negatively. By objectifying Muslims as a fixed ‘culture’ and in conflict with their beliefs they create a myth of France as a lasting ‘republic.’ The ban is a reflection of French republicans attempt to counteract what appears to them as Islamic separatism (Scott 13)
American multiculturalism encourages diversity of culture and individuals while French universalism celebrates sameness as the foundation of equality. Scott dismisses the French view of multiculturalism as a source of conflict, fragmentation, and political correctness. I am inclined to side with Scott’s view that this is a distortion. American multiculturalism encourages the interaction of different cultures with these cultures adopting practices from other cultures that prove beneficial and enriching to them. This creates a melting point of ideas, views and innovative ways of doing things. By accepting that all cultures are equal and none is above the other, American multiculturalism encourages cultural harmony, as there is no competition to prove the superiority of one culture over the rest. This welcoming of different cultures is one of the major reasons America has developed into such a superpower. Every culture finds a society that welcomes and accepts them as different but equal members of the same society. Hence they naturally thrive and contribute immensely to the development of the American society. With their success, they attached to the country and do not have to be forced by laws to be patriotic or see themselves as part of the American society (McIlwain and Caliendo 80).
The American dream that attracts people from different backgrounds and culture is a result of this multiculturalism. The American democracy that is the envy of the rest of the world is an offshoot of the same multiculturalism as individual cultures and their contribution to the national fabric are accepted. The American music and entertainment industry is an example of this multiculturalism. The African Americans have contributed to the evolution of rock and roll and other genres of the popular music culture. This would not have been possible with restrictions to conform to a certain set of behavior or culture (McIlwain and Caliendo 81).
The universalism of the French that propagates sameness discourages the exchange of ideas and cultural practices from people of different backgrounds. By suppressing one culture, there is a risk of alienating members of that community. Homogeneity discourages innovation and freedom of expression (McIlwain and Caliendo 84). Despite the French practice of assimilation, the descendants of North Africa who migrated to France have a stronger affinity with their home countries than to France. Naturally, when you try to strip an individual off his primary culture and force him to accept a universal culture, you breed resentment and rebellion as he tries to justify his culture. The major reason North African Muslims feel left out by the French society is because their perception that the French society does accept their cultural identity. The riots that occurred in the French suburbs were a result of this feeling of alienation. The more the French take hard line stance against the practices of these Muslims the more it will remain a source of conflict (Bowen 56).
The Jewish people in France have had a history intimately intertwined with the events in that country’s history for centuries. Apart from being the largest community of Jews in Europe, it was the first to gain emancipation after the French revolution. Despite the emancipation, anti-Semitism has been a part of French society over a long time before and after French revolution. Before the revolution, Jews were persecuted and expelled during the crusade period, inquisition and during the reign of different French kings and emperors. After the expulsions, other kings and emperors recalled them or the ones that expelled them sometimes were persuaded to change their minds (Bowen 57). After emancipation, the Jews started being assimilated into the French society. Though they gained acceptance into the French mainstream, their cultural identity as a community started disintegrating. Additionally emancipation did not mean the end of anti-Semitism. Part of French society still viewed the Jewish society with suspicion as a threat to the secular republic ideals of the French state. Despite these remnant anti-Semites, members of the Jews community integrated and excelled in various sectors of the French society such as medicine, journalism, the art world, science, commerce and many other sectors. Although anti-Semitism has not been eradicated in the French society, the level can not be said to be rabid, with a majority of the French population considering the Jews as part of French citizens (McIlwain and Caliendo 91).
The history of anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation into French has similarities to the contemporary anti-Muslim discourse but up to a point. Before emancipation the treatment the Jewish population got from the French society in terms of suspicion, discrimination and oppression are similar to the experience of the contemporary Muslim population in France. The Jews were considered to be a threat or blot to the French ideal secularist republic just the same way Muslims are viewed by the French society. The Jewish religious practices and customs aroused ridicule and resentment among the French the same way Muslim practices and custom is rubbing the French the wrong way. The unique identity of the Jewish community as a group was considered outside their French identity as compared to criticism of the Muslim identity Facing (History and Ourselves 41).
According to Wallach Scott, Le Pen and Eugene Cheniere have used the ‘Muslim problem’ to advance their political careers which have indeed been boosted by their anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric (Joppke 34). U.S politicians have similarly used the anti-immigration rhetoric as a strategy to gain votes. The ‘immigration issue’ has been a major debating point in the U.S political campaigns in the recent past. From the national to the state level politicians have used the citizens’ fear about employment and security to stoke anti-immigrant sentiments. The recent presidential campaigns have seen discourse on whether the federal government should enact a comprehensive immigration law and who has the responsibility enact these laws; federal or state government (Portes and Rumbaut 25).
The states bordering Mexico have seen a flurry of political activities based on concerns on Mexican immigrant laborers. There are worries about jobs being taken over by ‘foreigners’, the welfare system being overwhelmed, security and anti-social behavior. However genuine these concerns might be, they are underpinned by covert racism about the changing profile of these states’ citizen face. The Arizona state recently enacted a law that was however rightly repealed, giving the local police the right to stop and demand official papers proving status of anyone they suspect to be an illegal immigrant. This law was seen as targeting people of Mexican descent. This law was the politicians’ way of assuaging what they believe is the citizens’ resentment of immigrants (Mcllwain and Caliendo 21).