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Liberté, égalité, Head Scarves

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Muslims in and outside France have rallied to the side of French President Jacques Chirac in denouncing the terrorist hostage-takers who seek to overturn France's ban on the wearing of head scarves in public schools.

That's an encouraging sign of Islamic solidarity with France (which has the largest Muslim population in Europe), and of Muslim respect for the democratic process, which generated the ban. After all, many Muslims view the restriction, which takes effect Thursday, as an infringement on religious practice.

But let's not get too carried away with this welcome unity, for who could imagine most Muslims condoning negotiation with terrorists, or murder?

No, for all the agony the hostage conundrum generates, a far more difficult issue facing France is the unresolved contradiction between its policy of "secularism," which justified the ban, and the equality that tradition purports to foster.

"France ensures the equality, the respect, the protection of the free exercise of all religions in the framework of our communal law," Mr. Chirac stated Sunday. "This tradition, anchored in our history, is the glue of our national unity." This tendency toward tolerance plays out in France's foreign affairs - in its well-tended relationship with the Arab world, for instance, and its backing for a Palestinian state.

True to the secular spirit, the new rule reflects a certain equality. It bans "conspicuous" displays of all religious symbols - including Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses - though it allows discreet symbols.

But secularism has a worrisome side. It's supposed to be a unifier, but is also a divider. Behind the ban on religious fashions lurks fear of Muslim fundamentalism. The country's Muslims live largely in their own communities, and the head-scarf ban will probably push Muslim girls into private Islamic schools - further segregating society (and perhaps radicalizing more Muslims), not Frenchifying it. France may be the torchbearer of tolerance, but this year the number of anti-Semitic acts has dramatically increased. And if the tradition of tolerance is so splendidly inclusive, why is Paris so halfhearted about EU membership for mostly Muslim (though secularly ruled) Turkey?

As America knows, managing ethnic, racial, and religious diversity is not easy. But European nations such as Britain and Sweden allow individual expressions of religious identity like head scarves without damaging their democracies. Europe's future lies with a diverse religious population. France must not let its religious-like secularism trample other religions.


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