I.P.O. Information Service


Islamic headscarf and religious freedom:

"French government's position incomprehensible and incompatible with human rights"


Declaration of the President of the International Progress Organization



Vienna, 5 February 2004/P/RE/18525c-is


In a declaration issued today, the President of the International Progress Organization, an international NGO in consultative status with the United Nations, Professor Dr. Hans Koechler, called upon the French government to reconsider the controversial draft law banning the hijab (Islamic headscarf) in public schools.

The law which was introduced on 3 February in the French National Assembly by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin would bar "the wearing of signs or clothes which conspicuously display a pupil's religious affiliation."

The President of the I.P.O. stated that such a prohibition directly contradicts the provisions on religious freedom contained in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as well as in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950). Art. 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, including freedom, "either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief." An identical formulation is contained in Art. 9, Par. 1 of the European Convention. The Republic of France has signed both documents and is obligated, under international treaty law, to promote and uphold religious freedom. In addition to this obligation under international treaty law, religious freedom is to be considered part of the jus cogens of general international law from which no derogation is possible.

Furthermore, by adopting the controversial law, France, as a member of the European Union, would act in contravention of its obligations under the Treaty of Amsterdam Amending the Treaty on European Union. Art. 6 of that treaty states: "The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, principles which are common to the Member States."

The President of the I.P.O. stated that the French draft law will not foster tolerance among religions, but will be perceived as discrimination against the Muslim community in France. By passing this law, the National Assembly of France will provoke an unnecessary cultural conflict and will work into the hands of those who propagate the doctrine of a "clash of civilizations" to justify hostile measures against the Muslim world on a global level.

The  proposed legislation is an expression of an extreme ideological form of secularism that implies a self-contradiction. In the way interpreted by the French government, secularism turns into a "secular religion" that leaves no room for any other religion, Prof. Koechler stated. In its real meaning, secularism implies tolerance towards all religions and the acceptance of religious expression on the basis of equal rights for all.

The absurdity of the proposed legislation is also evidenced in the fact that the provisions of the law would not only ban the religious dress of Muslim girls and women in public schools, but also the turban of Sikh males, Prof. Koechler stated.

The President of the I.P.O. announced that the International Progress Organization will present the issue of the ban of the hijab in French public schools to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and in particular to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. He called upon human rights organizations worldwide to condemn the legislation proposed by the French government and to raise public awareness for the protection of religious freedom.

If the law is being adopted, the matter may also be brought before the European Court of Human Rights by those citizens of France who will be affected in their basic right to religious freedom. In that regard, Prof. Koechler stated that the provisions of Art. 9, Par. 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms must not be construed in such a way as justifying the ban of the hijab as a measure "for the protection of public order, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." In reality, the proposed law would produce exactly the opposite result.

A law which provokes distrust and fuels tensions among religions groups instead of promoting tolerance has no place in the Europe of the 21st century. In view of recent developments in the Middle East, such a law would have a detrimental impact on the already fragile relations between the Muslim world and the West, the President of the I.P.O. concluded.

 END/Islamic headscarf and religious freedom Declaration of the I.P.O./2004-02-05/P/RE/18525c-is