In This Review

Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
By John R. Bowen
Princeton University Press, 2006, 328 pp
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In March 2004, France's parliament passed a law banning students from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. The law mentioned no particular religion and applied to all, but it was rightly seen as targeting the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls, a matter of controversy in France's famously secular school system since the late 1980s. Bowen seeks to explain why France -- hardly the only country in the world divided by religious issues -- has gone to such lengths to protect secularism in schools. He argues that France's particular approach to this challenge is deeply rooted in the country's "Republican" tradition, which seeks to maintain national unity by "emphasizing general interests and shared values over individual interests and pluralism." The argument makes sense, and Bowen, an anthropology professor and expert on religion, provides a good discussion of France's historical traditions. Still, one is left wondering whether a better explanation of the French law might not simply be found in the particular scale of the challenge: integrating 5-6 million Muslims.