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Last Updated: 11/25/2003
Drawing a veil over bad habits
Piervincenzo Canale and Joseph Schumacher

Piervincenzo Canale and Joseph Schumacher consider some of the seemingly intractable problems of religious symbolism and is thankful for the European Court in Strasbourg that may well have to adjudicate.

Europe’s recent conniption fit over reconciling the demands of secularity, what it means to be a good ‘European’ and the aspirations of its fast growing Muslim community continues...

Europe’s recent conniption fit over reconciling the demands of secularity, what it means to be a good ‘European’ and the aspirations of its fast growing Muslim community continues to flare unabated. While the most vitriolic debate has been in France and Turkey over the right of Islamic women to wear headscarves in schools and public places, the latest outbreak in the ‘ban or not to ban’ dilemma has the potential to reach those thorny complexities.

Prior to the terrible attacks suffered by its troops in Iraq, the major issue preoccupying the Italian media was the debate on whether crucifixes should be displayed in school classrooms.

Last year, Adam Smith, an Italian Muslim living in Ofena, in the Abbruzzi region, asked that a Symbol of Islam be displayed in his son’s classroom, next to the ubiquitous crucifix, which has been in fixture in most Italian classrooms - not quite since Romulus was a pup, but certainly a long time. In this most catholic of countries the request was refused.

Mr Smith outraged that his religion was being accorded a second-class status, in a country that claims it has officially separated church and state, appealed the decision.

Three weeks ago, a judge  in Ofena, ordered the removal of the crucifix from the walls of the school. Reaction, from both the Vatican and the highest institutions of the Republic of Italy has been of incredulity and they have sternly opposed the judge’s decision. The Italian media have pounced on the issue. The general party line has been that crucifix is an indispensable symbol of 2000 years of Italian culture. 

The inference being that Muslims in Italy must accept Italian culture, crucifix and all, as it is not just a religious symbol.

Though the battle is new the issue for Italians is not. The obscure Italian politician from the northern region of Trentino Alto-Adige/Sudtirol: Alexander Langer has written on the difficulties in uniting the ethnic German and Italian communities in the region. Though his name is Germanic, he was an Italian member of the European Parliament for the Italian Green Party.

One of his books, “Il viaggiatore leggero” (the light traveller), is a history of conflict and misunderstanding amongst the German and Italian communities. Each of these two communities has, at times, disputed the other groups right to live in that land. The rancour has been going on for many centuries and even historians are in disagreement about many of the facts

It should be hoped that a similar spat between Italian Muslims and Christians can be forestalled before it starts. All major political parties, regardless of their past history, are defending the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican and the Pope said very clearly that crucifix should stay in all Italian schools because “it is a symbol of peace”.

To their credit most Islamic groups have opposed the removal of crucifixes from Italian schoolrooms. What they ask is that their culture also be respected and referenced. Surely a way can be found to honour all traditions of tolerance and peace.

Whilst in all European countries the Judicial Institutions are jealous of their own independence from outside intrusion, in Italy the President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, rather ambiguously said: “The crucifix is a symbol of peace. This decision is not final and will be reviewed. I will always defend the independence of judges.” Then to the judges he said: “You have to practice your independence, not preach it.”


Though France is weathering its own storm about the rights of its 5 million strong Muslim minority, regarding headscarves, its fundamental approach seems correct. According to a 1989 court ruling, based on the secular principle at the heart of the French state, it is not illegal to wear religious symbols in schools. But the law does forbid “ostentatious religious signs that “constitute an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism, or propaganda”.


The question, which has been provoking strong feelings in France for almost 20 years, has been shuttling back and forth between the local and National arena. Recently French President Chirac, set up a commission on secularism in direct response to the issues raised by the headscarf debate, which has divided his own government.


The deferral to local institutions, putting the onus back on schools to decide their own rules within guidelines, seems sensible. Localizing the debate, with as little reliance upon centralized authority as possible defuses ideological.  …Given that this is a clash of two principles with tolerance at that their core, freedom of religion and secularity, pragmatic appeal to practical solutions seems vital. Of course it is hoped that any allowance of local autonomy would eschew the example of Bavaria, which recently announced it wants to ban veils, but allow nuns habits and yarmulkes. Such blatant discrimination is unlikely to sit well with Germany’s constitutional court. Although in the end Bavaria’s backwardness may point the way forward.

The more local input the better but when the argument seems irreconcilable, as it will on occasion, why not send the individual cases to the European court. This may be one political hot potatoes national politicians may be happy passing onto Strasbourg.