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Scarves aren't scary

France's decision to ban the hijab in schools is a classic case of allowing collective hysteria to overrule common sense, says Henry Maitles

A collective hysteria is never pleasant to watch. Psychologists tell us that it stems from a mixture of phobias, fears and repressed feelings. The recent French report (by a presidential commission under Bernard Stasi, set up in 2003) on religious symbols in schools and the subsequent vote in the French Assembly (outlawing the wearing of these symbols), albeit couched in liberal language, have both been a reflection of and a factor in this collective hysteria.

The group identified as being particularly dangerous in French schools - young Islamic women wearing the Islamic headscarf - are paradoxically the most oppressed group in French society. They face the triple whammy of racism as immigrants and children of immigrants, of poverty by being in the most socio-economically deprived category of French society and of the stagnation of women's rights. This has seen many of the gains of the women's movement clawed back.

With these issues to contend with, it is surely no surprise that some young Muslim women will look towards religion as the heart of a heartless world.

The headscarf ban has been seen by the Muslim community as an attack on Islam.

Yet, for the collective hysteria to be fully functional, the Government must ensure that the enemy is both real and terrifying. The facts about young Muslim women in school - that there were only 30 court cases leading to only four suspensions last year for wearing the headscarf, that there have been an average of only 150 "problem cases" since 1990 (the vast majority of which were solved locally and amicably) - has to be portrayed as a starter for something much worse.

It must be shown to be the tip of some iceberg, despite all studies showing that no more than a few thousand (out of more than 5 million secondary school students) wear headscarves to school.

Thus, the report and the debate in the Assembly have thrown up images such as "politico-religious activists", "communalist politico-religious groups", "activist minority", "organised groups" to build up a shadowy picture of some al-Qaeda supporting network, manipulated presumably by Osama bin Laden.

The picture is further painted of some golden non-secular French school system. The reality is far from this. First, the headscarf is only to be banned in the public education system. Private schools (which are 95 per cent Catholic) do not need to be secular and the principles of secularity do not apply to them. Indeed, the Stasi commission welcomed "the existence of faith-based schools".

Second, in Alsace and Moselle religious instruction is obligatory. Third, Education Minister Luc Ferry has stated that he wants to reintroduce lessons about religious facts. And fourth, there is nothing to prevent the creation of private (but primarily publicly funded) Muslim schools, where the headscarf could be prescribed in the name of the school's faith-based special character. Indeed, the law banning the headscarf will give this a major boost - hardly positive for secular education and integration.

And what will it mean? First, for the young women suspended from school, their education is seriously disrupted; second, it will strengthen those fundamentalist Islamists whom, it is assumed, this is designed to isolate, as it will be seen to be explicitly anti-Islamic (there is no suggestion, for example, that nuns will be required to take off their headgear before entering schools); third, it will strengthen the Front Nationale in its ideas that "these people" are a threat; fourth, there is a suggestion that education and young people are the problem as there is no proposal (yet) to ban religious symbols elsewhere.

The reactions of all sections of white French society have been to applaud these measures. Particularly for left and liberal opinion, this is a mistake. The measures suggest that religion - and Islam in particular - is the problem, rather than racism and poverty.

For France's 5 million-plus Muslims, there may be a breakdown of integration but the headscarf is at best a symptom of that, not the cause.

Henry Maitles is head of the department of social studies education at Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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