Shortly before Christmas, the Bush administration publicly criticized France for practicing a too rigorous separation of church and state.
The criticism is misplaced. The U.S. government's job is to defend that separation in America, not criticize other nations for practicing it.
At issue in France and elsewhere is the practice of Muslim girls wearing head scarves in public schools. "The wearing of dress or symbols that conspicuously show religious affiliation should be banned in schools," said President Jacques Chirac.
The Bush State Department didn't like that: "All persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully, without government interference, as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society," it said.
Provocation and intimidation are precisely the issue, but the State Department didn't mention that.
The reason for the Bush attack is clear enough: It targets France (detested by Bush) and supports Muslims (whom Bush is detested by). Americans should not be willing to sacrifice church-state separation on the altar of political calculation.
The Bush administration's "global social engineering," as it is called by Nixon Center head Dimitri Simes, ignores history in seeking to impose itself on Iraq. Now it wants Europeans to conform as well, for France is not the only nation wrestling with how to integrate Islam into Western society.
The Bush administration is in a poor position to give lessons in morality. Its human rights violations, largely directed at Muslims, have been condemned by the courts, the Justice Department's own inspector general and the Red Cross, among others.
More than any attorney general in history, John Ashcroft mixes religion and government. America's character, he tells us, is "godly and eternal, not civic and temporal." Being godly and eternal, this administration enjoys giving lessons, verbal or physical, to mere civic and temporal nations.
Wearing chadors in public schools is a big issue in Europe. Germany's Supreme Court has taken it up. The Netherlands banned full facial veils when Muslim girls showed up in school with them. France has been wrestling over head scarves for years.
Europe and America do not have a communality of views on immigration, the root cause of the dispute over chadors. America is a nation of immigrants, and the question today is whether we choose to remain so.
France, like most of its neighbors, is not a nation of immigrants. The idea is that France is for the French, like Germany is for the Germans and England for the English. These nations have no statues of liberty beckoning to the world's "huddled masses" to come make themselves at home.
But Europe's historic anti-immigration attitudes met a problem: empires. When you take over foreign lands you incur obligations. As its empire declined, Britain opened its doors (briefly) to former colonials, and as the French empire declined, so did France.
France had a special problem with Algeria, which was annexed. When Algeria won its war of independence, France offered asylum to Algerians who had fought on the French side, much as America offered asylum to Vietnamese after that war. Between 1950 and 1970, America received 9 refugees from Vietnam. Between 1970 and 1990, it received 474,719.
Some 300,000 Algerians settled in France after the Algerian war ended in 1962, and today France's Muslim population is 5 million. Chadors on schoolgirls is a problem, said Chirac, because "fanaticism is gaining ground."
The special commission that reported to Chirac after months of investigation, including public hearings across the nation, referred to a "guerrilla assault" on France's secular state. Its recommendations, endorsed by Chirac, call for a ban on all "conspicuous" religious insignia in public schools, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.
France takes separation of church and state seriously. It bases this separation on its concept of society, different from the American concept because of our different histories.
Americans celebrate our differences – how could it be otherwise with a nation of immigrants? The French celebrate their identity – the same as every non-immigrant nation from France and Germany to China and Japan.
Bush's criticism says France is wrong to suppress "heartfelt manifestations of (Muslim) beliefs." Far from "heartfelt," the French commission referred to coercion, sexist abuse, intimidation, violence and ostracism against Muslim girls in public schools.
In private religious schools, said Chirac, children are free to wear what they choose.
In America, head scarves are not an issue. A spokesman at the Council on American-Islamic relations in Washington told me, "thousands of Muslim girls wear head scarves to school. When it's an issue, we work it out."
In America, religious fanaticism is not gaining ground, nor is there a guerrilla assault on our secular state. If that ever happens, Ashcroft or no Ashcroft, you can bet there will be a reaction here as well.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.