The row that has erupted at Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela school in north London highlights the difference in how Britain and France confront Islamic conservatism in education and wider society.
Birbalsingh has displayed courage in imposing a blanket ban on all ritual prayer in the school, but nonetheless in France such displays of religiosity have been outlawed for more than a century.
Initially this was to curb the influence of the Catholic church, but in recent decades it has been Islam attempting to undermine the secularism of French schools. It began in the autumn of 1989 when three teenage girls arrived at their school in a suburb of northern Paris wearing headscarves. They were sent home. The furore that followed made global headlines, particularly in the West, still disorientated by the more radical Islam that had emerged from the Iranian Revolution a decade earlier.
In excluding the three girls from his school in Creil, the headmaster, Ernest Chenieres, told reporters that ‘patience has its limits…I will not permit these three young girls to continue to disrupt this school’.
The majority of French intellectuals and politicians, whatever their political persuasion, supported the school’s position. The health minister in Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist government, Claude Evin, said that ‘wearing veils is a reduction of freedom’ and it was the duty of the state to give this freedom to Muslim girls ‘who do not find it in their own family’.
There was a minority of left-wing organisations which sided with the three girls. Harlem Desir, the leader of the anti-racism group SOS Racisme, said that ‘banning things is to fall into a trap set by fundamentalism…blue jeans will eventually win over the head scarf.’
Thirty-five years later the battle between blue jeans and headscarves continues. The French state is winning, but only by the strict enforcement of Laïcité (secularism) in its schools.