Consider what happened six years ago when France adopted a law banning the wearing of headscarves by girls in public school classrooms. Many Muslims found the urgency and vehemence of that debate to be disproportionate to the actual number of girls who wore a foulard to school (estimated to be around 1,250 when the law was passed). At the time, 71 percent of French Muslims thought there was "too much" discussion about the headscarf issue.
Three months later, two French journalists were taken hostage in Iraq, and their kidnappers demanded the immediate repeal of the ban in return for their freedom. Yet this only served to unify a country that had otherwise been divided over the politics of the veil debate: Even opponents of the ban who had organized demonstrations led unanimous calls for all schoolgirls to respect the new law. Muslim leaders almost universally denounced the foreign interference in their internal affairs. When one high school student remarked, "There will be no blood on my headscarf," the phrase became a rallying cry for French Muslims, appalled by the violence being perpetrated on their behalf.
Of course, there is little chance that burqa wearers will suddenly welcome the law (which enters into force on April 11, 2011) banning the religious garments from the public space. Still, bin Laden's message has offered a welcome opportunity to clarify once again where French Muslims stand when extremists attempt to hijack French domestic political issues to further their own agenda.
Here again, Muslim leaders have reaffirmed their loyalty to the French Republic and demonstrated their solidarity with overall public opinion by issuing denunciations of bin Laden's statement. The French Council for Muslim Faith (CFCM) issued a statement saying, "these questions are an internal affair for France" and "in the name of Islamic values… the CFCM totally condemns any act of hostility targeting our nation or our compatriots, no matter its source." Even the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which has traditionally promoted a more assertive and politicized Islam in France, was similarly unequivocal: "Any attack on French security is a direct attack on its Muslims."
Could it be that bin Laden has succeeded in renewing the bond between French Muslims and the state after two bitter years of division and recriminations over national identity and burqas? French Muslims' ready denunciation of terrorism is further evidence that they are at home in French society, but it is also a depressing reminder of the misgivings that they face. The specter of al Qaeda has cut two ways for French Muslims since 2001 -- spreading fear of Islam but also providing the opportunity for better integration.
By all appearances, it seems that bin Laden's latest communiqué may have the effect of actually repairing the relationship between the French Muslim community and the wider electorate -- and uniting them in a common cause: the battle over retirement benefits and budget cuts.