On August 27, 2023, mere days before the start of the school year in France, French Minister of Education Gabriel Attal announced that students in public schools would henceforth be prohibited from wearing the “abaya”, a loose-fitting dress often worn by Muslim women and girls in keeping with their religious beliefs concerning modesty. On September 1, several hundred French Muslim girls arrived for their first day of school wearing the abaya, as they had always done. School administrators presented them with the option to change clothes or go home.
Following a number of critiques and an emergency petition which attempted to overturn the abaya restriction, the measure was upheld. This prohibition is a clarification of a 2004 French law prohibiting ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. Crosses, yarmulkes, and hijabs were immediately banned by this law, but female Muslim students were still allowed to wear loose-fitting modesty garments until this year.
France is a nation that, after centuries of religious wars and conflict, valorizes laïcité, which is the preservation of secular values in public settings such as public schools and the government. For the most part, the practice of Christianity has not been restricted by the French government as part of its efforts to cultivate laïcité. French Christians may be slightly more guarded than American believers about making their religious affiliation known, but they are by no means restricted from following the dictates of their faith. Muslims, on the other hand, have been forced time and again to leave their convictions behind when entering the public square. While some measures contrary to Muslim practice, such as a 2011 French law banning full-face veils worn by some Muslim women, could be billed as responses to public safety concerns, others, such as this recent abaya ban, restrict Islam where it poses no threat to society.
Anti-Islam legislation in France is beginning to infringe on Christians, too. For example, in 2021, France all but banned homeschooling in a stated effort to prevent Islamic radicalization. Homeschool in France is now restricted to children who are severely mentally handicapped or cannot attend school regularly due to athletic or acting careers. Obviously, this law did not solely affect Muslim families: Christian families wishing to educate their children in a Christ-centered environment are now severely limited as well. The only option that remains is Christian private schools, which can be difficult to find in France and are unaffordable for many families.
Regardless, Christianity itself is not being directly targeted by French legislation. Yes, it is plausible that this exceedingly secular nation could begin to restrict Christian practice, but Christian values are not quite so diametrically opposed to French values as are those of Islam. As of now, French Christians are not unfree. So what’s so concerning about these laws targeting Islam?
Restriction of all religious expression in certain settings was already the law of the land in France. Now, forcing a particular religious group to contradict the dictates of their faith has legal precedent, and Christianity is already suffering some side effects of this legislation. Islam may garner more overt contempt from secular French society, but Scripture warns that Christianity too is hated by the world (1 John 3:13).
Christians cannot turn a blind eye to discrimination against people of other faiths and then expect to be able to indefinitely and freely practice our own religion. To do so would be unreasonable and uncharitable. Rather, we ought to come to the defense of our Muslim neighbors and support them in their efforts to peacefully practice Islam. To defend their liberty to observe their religion is to defend religious freedom in general – and thus our own.