John Bowen, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
(Princeton University Press, 2006), 328 pp., $27.95.
John Bowen’s Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves is, its title notwithstanding, more a book about French political culture writ large than about Islam in France. And so it should be: Islam is now intrinsically linked with the definition of what it means to be French in political terms. This is not because Islamic ideas or groups of well-organized Muslims are threatening a well-entrenched French political culture, but because French political culture itself is being shaken by the vicissitudes of current history. A great debate over what defines France as a nation has been triggered in part from above, as the vaunted construction of Europe is weakening the nation-state model, and in part from below, as immigration, globalization and unemployment threaten to unravel the French social fabric. These changes are sufficiently vast as to overwhelm the traditional post-1789 tenets of French Jacobinism: the strong central state and the stress on citizenship, rather than sect or race, as the only focus of common political identity. But even if the present crisis does not originate with Muslim immigration, the debate nowadays in France (and not only in France) definitely centers on Islam.1
The French conflict over headscarves and other symbols of parochial religious affiliation thus represents both a manifestation of a deeper discontent and an overlay that is profoundly influencing how that discontent is understood and managed. To his credit, Bowen, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has properly grasped the essence of the matter. This is what enables him to raise and answer the question, almost incomprehensible to most non-French, of how it could possibly be that some few dozen young schoolgirls wanting to wear a Muslim headscarf in the classroom could be seen as a vital threat to the Republic by some 70 percent of French public opinion. How could it be that a few young girls could trigger a full year of national angst, complete with two government-sponsored high-level commissions and a sprawling debate involving hundreds of newspapers articles, heated op-eds, impassioned televised debates and countless documentaries? How could they have driven the adoption in 2004 of a new law banning the headscarf from the schools?
Bowen answers these questions by way of a triptych. In part one, “State and Religion in the Long Run”, he establishes the basic historical context of the debate, without which nothing that happened in 2004 makes much sense. In part two, “Publicity and Politics, 1989–2005”, he tracks the headscarf controversy in detail, relying on many scores of interviews and a thorough...