Is the Muslim hijab radicalizing French society?

© Jean-Paul Pelissier
France believes very strongly that religion belongs in private and it is an individual matter which should not be made public, says Patricia Chagnon, a member of France's National Front party.

A controversial 'Hijab Day' was organized by the prestigious Paris University of Political Science on April 20. The organizers say it was designed to end the stigmatization of women who wear the veil, others had a different view.

RT discussed this issue with Patricia Chagnon, and Catherine Shakdam from the Shafaqna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in London.

RT: Patricia, how do you view this initiative to invite students to wear Muslim veils?

Patricia Chagnon: It is an initiative which poses so many questions. We are dealing with young people, young adults, even teenagers who are today addressing an issue, which I think is far too serious to be addressed by those young people as a major issue in society.

RT: Catherine, earlier France's minister for human rights shocked many by claiming that those wearing the Muslim headdress are like "negroes" who accepted slavery. But isn't it her duty to safeguard the secular values of French society?

Catherine Shakdam: I think it was rather despicable, to be honest with you. And about the youth participating in the ‘Hijab Day’ at Paris University, it’s a bit patronizing; young doesn’t mean stupid. And I think they are quite perfectly capable of making up their own mind and have an opinion for that matter. And I think they are actually going to university to be exposed to different ideas, different currents and different cultures. And maybe along the way make their own identity and maybe open themselves up a little bit more.

RT: Patricia, the French Prime Minister claims the veil has nothing to do with fashion and is simply "enslavement" of women. Do you think the hijab or the veil really deserve to arouse such negativity?

PC: I agree with you, the PM’s comparison was not appropriate. However, I can understand why she reacted so violently towards what is happening because you cannot see the events of ‘Hijab Day’ organized by students separately from what has been happening in France over the past couple of years and especially over the past couple of months. We should not forget the Cologne attacks on Western women. We cannot forget that in France we still have very aggressive fundamental Islamist speeches…  

RT: Catherine, Islamophobia seems to be on the rise in France. Does it suggest French society isn't willing to admit more newcomers or communities with a different way of life?

CS: There are many layers to that issue. I don’t like the fact that people are somehow aligning a woman’s veil or her decision to cover her head or hair with radicalism. I don’t think that the two could actually be put into the same sentence because one doesn’t necessarily mean the other. It is not because a woman chooses to wear the veil that she is necessarily radical or that she is somehow allowing radicals to have the kind of aggressive language or behavior, whether it be in France or Germany or other places. I think that radicalism should always be condemned. It doesn’t matter whether it is religious, political or otherwise. I don’t think that a Muslim woman’s veil is actually an issue…We talk often about freedom of expression and the right for people to freely choose and express their religion and live in that religion. I think we should abide by those standards if we truly are calling ourselves democratic. I don’t see how a head scarf has anything to do with anything.
I think it is important that we make a clear differentiation between radicalization and a woman’s choice to wear what she wants. I don’t see why a woman shouldn’t be allowed to decide what she wants to wear a head scarf or not. And many Muslim women don’t wear the hijab and still see themselves as Muslims. I don’t see where the problem is. I think that France makes an issue of a non-issue. And I think that France’s attitude towards Muslims has a lot to do with ethnocentrism and some kind of remnant of colonialism than anything else. There is no clash of cultures; there is no clash of civilizations. If anything, I would say France has opened itself up to radicalization because it has entertained friendship with certain countries such as Turkey. And we know that Turkey has a hand in ISIS and helping radicalism across the Middle East…   

RT: Patricia, France is proud of being a multicultural society. So why are so many voices uniting against such a relatively minor item as the veil?

PC: …First of all, we believe very strongly in France that religion belongs to the private sphere. And it is an individual matter which should not enter public space. I was talking about the events which have been held today in France, to the French people reacting to something like the head scarf. I was mentioning what had happened in Cologne. And also that in France we have segregated bathing areas for girls and boys in the swimming pools at the demand of certain Muslims. I was going to mention the fact that many Muslims are claiming, demanding, requesting halal meals for the children in school. I live in a place where I meet Muslim women and these women are actually saying that they can no longer walk around in the neighborhoods without head scarves because they get addressed by Muslim men who are claiming that they should be behaving in a proper Muslim manner. This is very grave. We live in an open society here. And we cannot tolerate that now we are getting groups in the society who is trying to impose their way on women in the society. We are living in 2016. We know respect for other religions and other countries and we should be having the respect that in our country this is just not done. And we are feeling that aggression.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.