What the Islamic Veil Reveals
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
Pierre de Charentenay, S.J., 2015-16 Gasson Chair in the department of political science at Boston College, spoke at the Boisi Center on February 25 about the role of the Muslim veil in contemporary French society. Drawing on research from his book, Nouvelles Frontières de la Laïcité, de Charentenay spoke about how French culture has become hostile to public forms of religious expression, especially those from its Muslim community members.
According to de Charentenay, the debate over the veil occurs within France because it has an individualistic understanding of religion, has been a specific target for terrorist attacks and because of the migratory crisis that has resulted from the Syrian Civil War. Second and third generation Muslim immigrants are more likely to wear the veil than first generation immigrants to France were.
Controversy over the veil in France began in the 1990s when several Muslim girls wore their hijabs to public school. This sparked the creation of the Stasi Commission, which in 2004 passed a law banning all ostentatious religious signs in government places. At odds with Muslims’ demands for greater religious expression in France is the increasingly pervasive culture of laïcité, which promotes the absence of religious influence on the state and holds that there should be no expression of religion in public space.
The debate over the veil in France is only one of the many issues dividing the Muslim minority from mainstream society. Another major problem is the extraordinarily high rate of unemployment in the suburbs of France’s major cities, where a majority of the Muslim population lives.
For de Charentenay, the increased use of the Islamic veil reveals that Muslim immigrants feel at home in France and in Europe more broadly, but seek to maintain their religious identity. According to de Charentenay, only time will tell if France develops into a more multicultural society, tolerant of diverse religions, or completely closes the public sphere to any such forms of religious expression.