After Secularization (special double issue)   /   Spring/Summer 2006   /    Articles

French Secularism and the “Islamic Veil Affair”

Talal Asad

In what follows I want to look in some detail at the so-called Islamic veil affair11xThis essay is adapted from a longer chapter, “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” forthcoming in Political Theologies, ed. Hent de Vries (New york: Fordham University Press, 2006). I am grateful to a number of friends for comments on various versions of this essay: Mustapha Alem, Jonathan Boyarin, Marcel Detienne, Veena Das, Baber Johansen, Mahmood Mamdani, Ruth Mas, David Scott, Markha Valenta, and Peter van der Veer. They should not, of course, be taken as endorsing my views. in France and its central articulation in the Stasi commission report. But first a caveat:


Much has been written on this subject, some arguing for and some against the right of young Muslim women to wear the headscarf in school; my essay is not part of that debate. Nor is it in any sense an attempt to offer solutions to what is often called “the crisis of laïcité.” Its more modest aim is simply to try and understand some concepts and practices of French secularism.


For most of 2003 and 2004, following a speech by the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in April 2003, French public opinion was exercised by the affair of the “‘foulards islamiques’ [Islamic scarves].”22xSee John Bowen, “Muslims and Citizens, France’s Headscarf Controversy,” Boston Review (February/ March 2004): 31. This is also a useful overview of the controversy. Should Muslim girls be allowed to wear a covering over their hair when they are in public schools? The dominant view was definitely that they should not. A considerable amount of polemic has been published on this topic, in France as well as elsewhere. This was not the first time that the matter had been publicly discussed, but on this occasion the outcome was a law prohibiting the display of religious differences in public schools.

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