A basic right
Morning Star, 19 March 2005
By Ken Livingstone
This month marks the first anniversary of the French law banning students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools.
I have given the fullest support to the campaign against this attack on the rights of minority religious communities in France.
In February last year, just before the French parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ban, I wrote to prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin warning that the new law would be a blow to good community relations throughout Europe, and would inflame tensions between communities and encourage attacks on minorities.
Earlier this month the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination drew attention to the problem of racism in France.
The committee urged the French government to prevent the law against conspicuous religious symbols “from denying any pupil the right to education and to ensure that everyone can always exercise that right”.
But this is precisely the right that the French law does deny many pupils.
According to the French government’s own figures, when the law came into force at the start of the September 2004 school term, over 600 students defied the ban.
Some were forced out of the state system and into private education, while many others were obliged to comply with the law under threat of expulsion.
At least 47 Muslim girls have been excluded from French schools for continuing to wear the hijab (Islamic headscarf), and hundreds more have been compelled to renounce a form of dress that they believe is an important aspect of their religion.
In addition, three Sikh students have been expelled for refusing to remove their turbans and another two have been refused admission to their school.
Mejindarpal Kaur, director of the United Sikhs organisation which has campaigned against the French ban, has pointed out that this law “not only affects French school children but any school child from the UK or any other part of Europe who will not be able to participate in school exchange programmes if they wear a turban, a hijab, a skull cap or a large Christian cross”.
This week, my human rights adviser Yasmin Qureshi visited Paris to meet opponents of the ban.
Yasmin spoke to faith, community and human rights organisations as well as French local government representatives.
Among the groups she visited were the Collectif des Musulmans de France, United Sikhs and Ligue des Droits de l’Homme.
The purpose of her visit was to understand what impact the legislation has had on community relations and the human rights of faith and minority ethnic communities.
She met the Sikh pupils who were excluded from their school and found that in just two days 500 of their fellow pupils – in a school of 900 – had signed a petition in their defence.
Despite this the school authorities had refused to accept their right to be educated.
She also found that some people who had applied for driving licenses had their licenses refused because they wore turbans in their photographs.
There was a widespread feeling that the law had been proposed in order to divert public debate from domestic economic issues.
A new poll conducted by MORI for the Greater London Authority found this week that 53 percent of Londoners disagree with the French ban, with just 33 percent supporting it.
In the same poll 63 percent said that children should be allowed to wear clothing or items that are part of their religion, such as the Muslim headscarf, Christian cross, Jewish skullcap and Sikh turban at school, while only 26 percent disagreed.
These results underline the admirable support of Londoners for the diversity that is one of the most positive features of our city.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to believe that multiculturalism is not under threat in Britain.
In July last year, when City Hall hosted a conference to defend the right to wear the hijab, which featured such leading Muslim figures as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Professor Tariq Ramadan, vitriol was poured on the speakers and student activists subsequently sought to ban Prof Ramadan from attending the European Social Forum.
Recently, writing in the Sunday Times in response to Shabina Begum’s successful legal battle for the right to wear the jilbab, Rod Liddle asserted that the real problem lay with the fact that her former school permitted any type of Muslim dress at all.
By allowing “a sort of Allah-lite version” of such clothing to be worn, he wrote, the school “kowtows to the un-British (for want of a better phrase) demands of its black and ethnic minority constituency”.
Condemning multiculturalism as a threat to social cohesion, Liddle claimed that the role of schools should be to impose a uniform “national” culture on pupils.
“The French seem to have grasped this point,” he declared. “It is about time that we did.”
On the contrary, the French ban is a grotesque perversion of secularism that has stigmatised France’s ethnic minorities and infringed the basic rights of many faith groups.
It is essential that the labour movement, and progressive forces generally, should insist that all institutions including schools must respect the right of people to wear religious and traditional dress.
It is only by defending this elementary human right that genuine cohesion between Britain’s diverse communities can be maintained and strengthened.