Two sisters became captivated by Islam, and their French liberal, `Jewish-by-chance' father has found himself having to face up to their religiosity and subsequent expulsion from school. The incident has provoked both private and national ferment.
Laurent Levy, a sworn liberal and a total atheist, noticed dramatic changes in his two daughters, but he did not attribute much importance to them. One day, about two years ago, the two girls stopped eating pork. "No problem," he said. A while later, they informed him that they intended to fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. Levy thought it the most natural thing in the world that his daughters were adopting.
When Levy's daughters - Lila, 19, and Alma, 16 - told him that they were going to fast for the entire month of Ramadan, he did not stand in their way. "It is their right," he said.
A while later the sisters informed him of their intention to pray five times a day, as commanded by the Koran. There is no reason why they shouldn't do this, thought the father. Then they stopped going to the beach and wearing bathing suits, and even stopped using the family swimming pool during vacations. At night the two sat and learned chapters of the Koran by heart. Friends in the neighborhood and at school were amazed by the change in the two cheerful young women. Gradually they began to wrap themselves in long clothing, even in the summer, and covered their legs with thick stockings.
About a year ago the transformation was completed. Lila and Alma donned scarves and covered their heads. After a while they also covered their chins and their foreheads. At school they stopped talking to boys, whispered only to each other and distanced themselves from the other students. They did not take part in physical education classes, as they were required to wear gym clothes that they felt revealed too much of their bodies.
Quickly the two sisters became a phenomenon. Even in Aubervilliers, the northern Paris suburb where they live, eyebrows were raised. In recent years this suburb has been taken over by Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and Parisians have moved away. On Fridays, residents started taking the day off and preferred to spend their time in prayer; many young people do not go to school. During the month of Ramadan the neighborhood is silent during the hours of fasting, and wakes up after the evening meal that breaks the fast.
According to the father, his daughters were captivated by the Muslim religion and he found himself helpless in the face of their accelerated Islamization. All his life he had loathed religious beliefs of any sort and blamed them for ignorance and various kinds of distress. He preached secularism and joined the movements of the extreme left, because he only felt at home there. In the not-too-distant past, he served as counsel in suits filed against National Front leader Jean- Marie Le Pen for having described the concentration camps as a "detail" of World War II. He has also represented Islamic organizations that sued actress Brigitte Bardot after she published an anti- Islamic book.
About a month ago the two sisters were called into the office of the principal of the Henri Wallon high school, where they studied. Their external appearance, they were informed, was causing ferment among the students, and therefore they must dress like the others; if not, they would be expelled. The girls refused. The school sent a letter to their parents and warned of the steps it was about to take. The parents, who are divorced, defended their daughters, each in his or her own way: The mother tried to moderate her daughters' militant stubbornness, the father supported their struggle.
The two sisters were suspended from school until the convening of a disciplinary committee that was supposed to decide their fate. The media depicted the affair as a test of the state's secularism, and the story quickly hit the headlines. The intellectual community was in an uproar, as were local political institutions; both intellectuals and politicians openly applied pressure on the school's disciplinary committee members to reach a decision that reflected their point of view.
The debate did not remain at the theoretical level, but dealt with the smallest details of items of dress as they express the state's secularism, compared to clothing that threatens its status. Before the girls were suspended from school, they were asked to remove their head coverings because of their religious significance. The school authorities relied on a law that was passed in 1905 concerning the separation of church and state, and argued that the head coverings violated the spirit of the law.
During the discussion of the suspension, one of the sisters argued that a Jewish skullcap covers the head. She was told that partially covering the head does not constitute a violation of the separation of church and state. "I'm angry," fumed Lila after she was suspended from school. "They told us we have to show the roots of our hair, the lobes of our ears and our necks. But if we do that we might as well not wear a headscarf at all - we might as well carry it in our hands."
Last Friday the disciplinary committee met at the school. Dozens of journalists crowded into the entrance to the school, and television cameras broadcast live the arrival of the girls and their father. The deliberations began at 6 P.M. and went on until after midnight. The French waited for the committee's ruling as if the future of the French Republic depended on the decision of a few members of the school board of an obscure suburb of Paris.
At the end of the discussion, the members of the Levy family left the hall. The expressions on their faces testified to what had happened inside. "This was not a pedagogical discussion," one of the teachers told the journalists. "It was like a court martial." Another teacher, with a broad smile on his face, related that the correct and inevitable decision had been taken. "We decided to expel them from the school," he said, "because the internal `balance' in France makes it essential that a head covering not cover the hair, the ears or the base of the neck. It turns out that Muslim young women do not want to expose these parts.'
`How low France has sunk'
After midnight, the family got home. Levy was furious; the girls were still wiping away tears.
"They've thrown them out like dogs," Levy told Haaretz two days later, "and this shows how low France has sunk." According to him, he couldn't fall asleep that night, nor could his daughters. They read verses of the Koran. "I was proud of them," he added. "I educated my children to be rebellious and I am proud that they have followed in my footsteps."
Laurent Levy is a strange individual. This week he was surprised to hear that the reverberations of his daughters' struggle have reached Israel. "No wonder," he said. "With a name like mine, in Israel they probably think that I'm a little crazy."
Levy angrily recalled the deliberations that were held on Friday: "We entered the hall where a number of representatives of the school's educational council were sitting. I had been summoned with my two daughters, but I was not allowed to bring witnesses. They also refused to allow my partner to enter the hall."
With almost religious fervor, Levy defended his daughters' right to lead a strictly religious Muslim lifestyle. He rejoiced that they had chosen a way of life that affords them happiness and argued that even though he is an atheist, he cannot help but admire their choice.
The panel listened and appeared not to be impressed by his fervor. At the end of the deliberations they authorized the expulsion of the two girls from the school on the grounds that their exceptional appearance violated the secular standing of France and the values of the Republic.
Not for a moment did he feel that his Judaism was threatened, nor did he act as a Jew. "I'm a nonreligious person," Levy admitted. "I grew up without a religion and there was not a trace of Judaism in the education I received. My children ate pork like any other French person. There was no religious influence on my children apart from the fact that my wife's parents told them about Islam."
Levy, 47, was born to a Jewish family in Tunis and immigrated to France when he was young. According to him, he is a Sephardi Jew with roots in Amsterdam and Leghorn. His father was active in the Jewish community in Tunis and even wrote a book about the community. "As far as my daughters are concerned, they have never hidden their Jewishness and were even proud of their Jewish heritage."
Levy has four children: Lila and Alma, Sami, 20, and Noura, 16. "They're good kids," he said humorously, "because I educated them, too, not to accept reality the way it is and to be rebellious. I am proud that I have been successful in my education. Lila and Alma have also rebelled in their own way."
The Fifth Republic has taken a stance against their rebellion with an almost Napoleonic brutality and has given them a tough choice: either school or the head covering.
"Let there be no doubt," added Levy, "I know that the disciplinary committee's decision was taken at the highest levels of the country's government. Only someone who isn't French is unable to understand this country's insanity when it comes to the veil. Say `head covering' to a French person and they're ready to embark on a civil war. I'm a leftist and definitely a secular person, but as I see it, secularism is the freedom to act on your religious beliefs without the government interfering.
"My daughters are not militants and they didn't try to convert other girls in the school. None of the members of the disciplinary committee claimed this, but they all demanded that the girls expose parts of their bodies. These people have really become ayatollahs of secularism. Since when, I asked them, can people be forced to expose their bodies? To my regret, this was an embarrassing spectacle. None of them listened to me because the outcome was predetermined."
In the coming days he intends to find another educational setting for his daughters, so that they will be able to take their baccalaureate exams and so that Alma will be able to complete 11th grade. "At least at university, no one will stop them from covering their heads," he added. "There they will be able to feel like Muslims without anyone hassling them."
Scarf or veil?
It would appear that the Muslim religion in France boils down to the matter of head covering alone, as if all the ordinances of the Koran have drained into that piece of cloth called a head covering by some, and a veil by others. The French call it a "scarf" so as to make it less symbolic.
The political establishments breathed a sigh of relief. Left and right went out of their way to praise the school's decision to expel the two sisters. For several years now the right has been conducting a relentless fight against Muslim immigrants whose ritual observances are depicted as undermining the symbols of the Republic. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has recently ordered the preparation of legislation that would prohibit the wearing of head coverings on school premises. The left, which has adopted secularism as its main religion, has fought hand in hand with the right in the war against Muslim ostentation.
Socialist Party leader Francois Holland was enthusiastic about the decision: "We are living in a secular country and the veil is not permitted on school premises." The Republican Raffarin also expressed satisfaction with the decision and his popular Interior Minister Nicola Sarkozy supported it with all his heart.
In light of the increasing anxiety about Islam in France, the affair of the Levy sisters has demonstrated the extent to which Islam has grown more influential in their country. It is not only Islam that scares the French, but also any religion that lifts its head and threatens to blur the secular outlines of the Republic. Studies show that only one out of 20 French citizens sees himself as connected to religion, the lowest proportion in all of Europe.
The question that is being asked today is how to stop the spread of Islam. About two months ago, worrying details surfaced from a secret report written by the French internal intelligence service about French people who have converted to Islam. The information was leaked to the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro and sparked anger mixed with fear throughout the country. According to the secret report, about 50,000 French people have converted to Islam. The intelligence services described this process as "a disturbing phenomenon that is at the height of flourishing."
Many of the new converts were considered to have been affiliated to no religion before they adopted Islam. From extreme secularists they have become religious extremists. It turns out that they also stand out in comparison to their Muslim colleagues. While the ordinary Muslims follow a moderate way of life, the new Muslims have shut themselves into mosques and have learned the entire Koran by heart. They have forced a similar lifestyle on their wives and have cut off ties with their families.
Part of this group consists of women who have converted to Islam because of marriage or social pressure. Men have converted for ideological reasons, because they came to the conclusion that there is no religion more sublime and more purifying concerning the soul than Islam. In the report, the intelligence services expressed "great concern," as they put it, about the exploitation of the new converts by terror elements to advance their aims: It is easy to make the converts operatives as they have European passports and the ability to move among countries without restriction, without arousing suspicion. They look Western and it is easy for them to evade the suspicious looks of border police. This was the case with Pierre Robert, a French citizen who converted years ago and joined a terror organization in Morocco that was responsible for a series of terror attacks in that country last May. He has recently been given a life sentence for his part in the affair.
Not all Muslims are on the same side. More and more Muslim immigrants are speaking up against the exploitation of religion by extremists. "The whole story about the head covering is a matter that is connected to the sexual problem of Muslim men," says Prof. Leila Babes, a sociologist of religion at Lille University, who is herself a Muslim. "The scarf drives Muslims crazy, because they see a woman's body as an instrument for sexual lust only and therefore they force her to cover herself from head to toe to calm their sexual desires. If she is covered, she is a `good Muslim woman' and if not, then she is licentious."
This is why Babes and many other Muslim academics have taken a stance on the side of the government and have demanded the prohibition of Muslim head coverings on school premises.
Levy, however, supported the wearing of the head coverings on school premises even before his daughters became devout Muslims. According to him, over time he learned to appreciate the path they followed until they adopted Islam, and the strength they needed to carry this out.
"A few days ago my daughter told me that she and her sister met a pious Muslim in the street who wanted to enlist his mosque in their struggle," he related. "They told him that it was none of his business. Had I thought that they had fallen into the clutches of Muslim proselytizers, I would have acted differently. But their mother and I know that they came to this of their own accord. However, I'm not with them all day long and I can't swear that something else hasn't happened."
On one of the shelves at his law office Levy keeps a picture of his daughters, with their heads uncovered and shoulder-length hair. Despite the fierce struggle he is conducting, he does not conceal some degree of personal distress. Recently he spoke with his daughters in order to test the limits of their flexibility and willingness to compromise. As a romantic at heart, he feels that they have been swept up as if they had fallen in love. This is why he does not reject an imposed compromise to end the affair. Meanwhile, he has been careful about not hurting them after the state has already done so.
"I am afraid they will leave everything," Levy admits. "Both school and the family environment."