It has been almost 10 years since France’s National Assembly and Senate approved a controversial law prohibiting students from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. While the legislation applies to all students, whether they wear Jewish skullcaps or large Christian crosses, the Muslim headscarf has become the primary focal point in the debate over the principles of secularism and religious freedom. The law in schools went into effect in September 2004 and was extended in April 2011 to include the ban of full-face veils in any public place. The French government defends the legislation on the principle of advancing religious neutrality, insisting that the intent is not to infringe on the right of Muslims. However, the law continues to prompt fervent debate. (A report from the Open Society Foundations — “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-Face Veil in France” — offers a range of responses of several Muslim women to the ban.) In November 2013, a Muslim woman even brought a case against the ban to the European Court of Human Rights.
According to a 2010 Pew Research Report, before the full-veil ban was passed in France there was widespread support for the measure across Western Europe, with 82% of the public in France supporting it, 71% in Germany and 62% in Britain. But what, if anything, does support for this type of law say about European attitudes towards Muslims in general? Marc Helbling, head of the Immigration Policies in Comparison research group at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, published a January 2014 paper, “Opposing Muslims and the Muslim Headscarf in Western Europe,” in the European Sociological Review that tries to answer this question. To do so, he explores Western European attitudes towards Muslims in general and legal restrictions on the Muslim headscarf separately. Helbling tests a number of hypotheses on what could shape individual attitudes towards Muslims and the laws, including xenophobia, liberal values, level of religiosity and state-church regimes. To collect his data, he uses the Six Country Immigrant Integration Comparative Survey (SCIICS), computer-assisted telephone surveys conducted in 2008 in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria.
Key findings include:
- Opinions on Muslims as a group and the headscarf legislation do not appear to be directly linked; of the sample, “only about a quarter opposes Muslims, but … nearly 60% of the respondents do not like the idea of schoolgirls wearing a headscarf.”
- “Religious people are significantly more opposed to Muslims than nonreligious respondents. They are, however, torn when it comes to the headscarf; they are neither more nor less opposed to Muslim religious practices than nonreligious respondents.”
- “While people with liberal values are highly tolerant of Muslims, such values are not predictive of support for the headscarf.” Helbling hypothesizes this is because “people with liberal values are tolerant of immigrants in general but feel torn when it comes to religious practices that are perceived by some people as reflecting illiberal values.”
- While country-level characteristics do not seem to play an obvious role in explaining attitudes towards Muslim immigrants, the type of state-church regime does appear to play a role in attitudes toward headscarf legislation. People in countries such as France where there is strict church-state separation are more likely to oppose the headscarf: “There is a likelihood of around 85% that the French citizen will oppose the headscarf.”
- In contrast, there is more support for the headscarf in countries such as Sweden, where there are few government restrictions on religion, there is only a 35% chance a Swede will take a negative position on the headscarf.
Helbling concludes that the two issues — general attitude towards Muslims and views on headscarf legislation — are not necessarily correlated: “opposing the idea that schoolgirls should be allowed to wear the headscarf in school does not mean that one dislikes having Muslims in the neighborhood or is opposed to close friendship with Muslims.”
For additional related reading see the January 2014 Pew Research Center report regarding government restrictions on religion and its relationship to religious conflict: “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High.”