Strasbourg, France, June 29 (Reuters): Banning Muslim headscarves in state schools does not violate the freedom of religion and is a valid way to counter Islamic fundamentalism, the European Court of Human Rights said today.
In what could be a precedent-setting decision, the Strasbourg-based court rejected appeals by a Turkish student barred from attending Istanbul University medical school in 1998 because her headscarf violated the official dress code.
The court decision, which takes precedence over national court rulings, could help the French government face cases it expects to be filed in September against a disputed headscarf ban it plans to impose in state high schools. Sikhs in France, whose turban will also come under the ban, has been campaigning for an exemption.
The influential Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) denounced the ruling as politicised justice and said Muslims would consider it a form of persecution.
In its ruling, the court said: “Measures taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious movements from pressuring students who do not practise the religion in question or those belonging to another religion can be justified.”
Bans issued in the name of the separation of church and state could therefore be considered “necessary in a democratic society”, said the court, which is part of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe whose 45 members include Turkey.
The ruling was a victory for Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim society which has imposed a rigidly secular system since the 1920s and faces growing scrutiny about Islam as it inches towards hoped for membership of the European Union.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has Islamist roots, has considered trying to end the ban but backed off after stiff opposition from the fiercely secular military.
The ruling also supports Paris’ argument that its headscarf ban counters possible pressure on unveiled Muslim schoolgirls to join a religious revival evident among a minority of France’s five million Muslims, the largest Islamic minority in Europe.
“The courts are starting to follow the politicians,” protested UOIF president Lhaj Thami Breze, who argues that freedom of religion allows Muslim schoolgirls to wear scarves.
“I’m afraid this will set a precedent that will be applied to girls who are excluded from French schools,” he said.
The decision could also affect cases in Germany where Muslim teachers are appealing against laws in several federal states barring them from covering their heads at work.
In the case before the court, former medical student Leyla Sahin was barred from taking an examination and then refused admission to a class because of her headscarf.
Sahin, who continued her medical studies in Vienna, has three months to request a re-examination of her case but the firm wording of this ruling made a reversal seem unlikely.
In their unanimous judgment, the seven judges said headscarf bans were appropriate when issued to protect the secular nature of the state, especially against extremist demands.
“The court did not lose sight of the fact that there were extremist political movements in Turkey which sought to impose on society as a whole their religious symbols and conception of a society based on religious precepts,” they wrote.