“Laicité” and Islam

French “laicité” has been around for over 100 years – or more. The current legal framework, dating from 1905, was inspired by a reaction to the Alfred Dreyfus affair that exposed the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the French military, Catholic Church and conservative political elites of the late nineteenth century. In this reflection, I share my thoughts about applying the idea of “absorptive” immigration (as opposed to “integrative” immigration) to the challenges of applying “laicité” today, involving a significantly more diverse population than existed back in 1905.

What is the meaning of this term “laicité”?  And why use the term even in English? Technically, it translates into “secularity” or, if referring to a system, into “secularism”. In the 1905 French law on “the Separation of the Churches and the State”, the word was not even used although it came to be understood that the law was clearly addressing the concept. Today, the term is even mentioned in the French constitution, such that “laicité” is just as important as the fundamental principles of “liberté, egalité et fraternité” for the preservation of a democratic AND secular state of France.  Put another way, the well-known commentator of French politics Dominique Moisi has called laicité the “first religion of the Republic”!

Its origin, however, is not just a creation of a 1905 law but rather dates back to the French Revolution when the republicans overthrew the interdependent combination of an absolute monarchy and supportive Catholic clergy.  Even as France remained a predominantly Catholic country, it went through a long struggle between the anti-clerical republicans and the pro-clerical monarchists throughout the nineteenth century. One step towards “laicité” was actually a law passed in 1882 to bar religious (i.e. Catholic) teaching in the public school system. But it was the Alfred Dreyfus affair, triggered by a blatant abuse of the judicial system to falsely convict the Jewish Mr. Dreyfus for transmitting French military secrets to the Germans, that finally led to the legal articulation of the separation of the churches (i.e. mostly the Catholic churches) and the state.

As discussed in a previous reflection (entitled “Complications of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Europe and the US”) on this website, however, the progressive reaffirmation of the strict separation of church and state in France post World War II has not prevented an undercurrent of anti-Semitism to burst into the open with deeply disturbing frequency. Recent reports attacking memorials honoring France’s own Simone Veil are just the latest examples. Conscious efforts are needed to combat this through active promotion of tolerance, acceptance and participation in a community of enlightened inclusiveness.

It is also shocking to see how anti-Semitism is so ingrained in the rhetoric of extremist groups espousing white nationalism that it gets caught up with the targeting of other ethnic or religious groups. It is especially alarming to witness the combination of both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim views. The mass shooting in October 2018 by an extremist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was apparently motivated by a hatred of Jews associated with a Jewish group that was helping refugees from all backgrounds and a hatred of Muslims  who were seen to be benefiting from this very enlightened humanitarian gesture. With regard to the horrific act of violence directed at Muslims in New Zealand on 15 March 2019, we grieve once again over the violent display of hatred and the harm it has brought to so many innocent lives. And we also grieve in the face of how difficult it seems to be to overcome this hatred, including its growingly apparent linkages to extremists in France, where both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia keep showing up.

The phenomenon of “Catholic” secularism

The 1905 law was a pivotal development to institutionalize the strict separation of church and state that has become such a central part of French political culture. The French policy of “laicité”, however, has operated under a certain anomaly. The law provided for the transfer of all religious structures in existence in France prior to 1905 to laymen’s associations – Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. The anomaly is that the law also provided for these structures to be maintained in perpetuity, in the control of city councils – at public expense!

So evidently, all religious structures, which are overwhelmingly Catholic ones in this very Catholic of countries, are publicly subsidized, even though the religious organizations that operate within these structures are not subsidized. But most of these structures are Catholic, as are most of the French holidays, which leads to hypothesizing that the French actually practice a form of “Catholic secularism”.  We have personally observed that many of the local commemorations of historical events even start with a Catholic mass  in the early morning before moving later in the day to the wreath-laying and speechifying festivities at whatever monument might be the focus of the particular historical event. What is more, this “grandfathering” provision does not cover new religious structures, such that the Islamic mosques and other Muslim structures that have flourished in more recent times are thereby excluded from these public subsidies. This is but one of the many challenges facing the French capacity to absorb Islam into its “laicité” framework.

Laicité and Hijab

On one of these challenges, I must note here that my views have been evolving. Yes, it is admirable that laicité has come to mean that the public sphere is devoid of religious connotations. So there are no religious symbols in the public ceremonies – not even opening prayers, as we have in the United States. (Those prayers in the US are supposedly conducted by a diversity of religious leaders to ensure no bias for one over the other, of course.)  No priests or rabbis or mullahs in the public sphere. No religious displays at all – no crèches anywhere or, well, no visible crosses or stars of David or crescents or whatever. AND no HIJABS!

Well, this is the rub. The HIJABS! As I have frequently expressed in the past, I find the targeted covering up of women and not men to be a disturbingly sexist aspect of many Islam cultural practices in the world today. I realize that the styles of dress for women are different in different parts of the world, and some countries are especially discriminatory in both style and law. The practice of purdah is especially bothersome, primarily because it symbolizes the isolation of women. It prevents their integration into “normal” activities like business dealings or jobs or sports or whatever else might be part of daily life for the rest of us. But the matter of dressing more conservatively than otherwise, without its interfering with these daily activities, is a bit more complicated.

As a Westerner who has believed that there should be no such distinction between men and women as the hijab that is worn by women but not by men, I have been flummoxed by the women who appeared to CHOOSE to wear hijab independently of any notion that it is discriminatory. These are women who are choosing to wear hijab as an expression of their culture, whether religiously motivated or not. In France, of course, this is prohibited for women working in public services, including in the public educational system (but not the universities). One does see hijab-wearing women on the streets, shopping at the local supermarket and the like, but there is this idea of wearing hijab as being inconsistent with the practice of French secularism.

It was also an inconsistency with what I personally believe to be the basics of gender equality because it is so visibly camouflages women in ways that men are not camouflaged. So the secularism argument gets mixed up here with the gender equality argument. But this is where my views have started to change. Although I don’t personally wear any religious symbols of my Christian heritage, I do have plenty of artifacts of my Scandinavian and American cultural heritage in my jewelry collection and even my wardrobe. What is more, my wardrobe choices are definitely gender-biased. And I wear makeup and curl my hair. So how is wearing hijab any different? In sports? Well, Nike might have withdrawn its promotion of hijab-compatible sports attire in France, but the fact remains that it is not really a barrier to most sports (other than water sports, perhaps). Then there was the “over-reach” against Islam when several Riviera towns sought to abolish the “burkini” on their beaches, clearly in reaction to the terrorist Islamic attack in Nice in 2016. Anyway, my main point here is that I am mellowing on the gender-based argument against hijab – and, for that matter, against the burkini, too.

Absorbing Islam into Laicité

There is still the emotional feeling that the historical evolution of Islam has not advanced gender equality, but I no longer assume that Muslim women who choose to wear hijab in public or burkini on French beaches are lost souls. So my own opinion is that Muslim women should be free to wear hijab or burkinis if they choose to do so. The bigger challenge in France, then, is how to “absorb” such symbols of Islamic values into what the French describe as their “values of the Republic”.

While the French do not collect ethnic data (part of their insistence on secularism), the Muslim population is the second largest religious group in France. And France has the largest number of Muslims in the Western world. The French population of “Muslim origin” may be as high as 12.5% (upwards of 8.5 million out of a total of around 65 million), based on estimates of people living in France whose families came from Northern Africa or the Middle East. But the proportion of practicing Muslims is estimated to be as low as half of that number, and even among practicing Muslims there are multiple forms of Islamic practice largely influenced by national variations.  One might also note here that the French government has not opened its arms (or borders, for that matter) to the influx of Syrian and Afghan refugees in the way that Germany did in 2015 and 2016. And it continues to be very restrictive in the granting of asylum applications. So the Muslim population is mostly from earlier influxes of people from its former colonies in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever the origins, however, the key point is that there is a substantial Muslim population in this country, for whom the prevailing law of laicité is an issue.

On the other hand, more Islamic terrorist attacks have happened in France than any other Western country, including one on that terrible Bastille Day of 2016 in nearby Nice. And there are reportedly more Western IS fighters from France than any other Western country (mostly because France has a larger Islamic population than any other Western country).  In spite of the obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in France are not associated with radicals of any sort, Islamic radicalization is an issue that has fed the anti-Muslim populism of the National Front, now renamed the National Rally led by Marine Le Pen.  French anti-Muslim zealots like Renaud Camus writing about the “Great Replacement” go even further in their rants against Muslims. One has to take note that these French extremists, mostly those associated with something called the Identitarian Movement that has French roots,  were specifically cited by the perpetrator of the New Zealand attacks.

Adapting Laicité to accommodate Islam

As I become more acquainted with French politics, I see more and more that the absorptive challenge to bring Muslims into the French cultural mix is complicated by the history of how France handled the removal of the Catholic network from its political system through an odd variation of “Catholic secularism”. It simply can’t be done in the same way for the Muslim network.  I understand that President Macron and his LREM have been trying to advance a collaboration with the Muslim community through its outreach to the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), an informal but representative body of Muslims that had been created at the instigation of former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003.

Thus, it seems that the Muslim community is being challenged to accept the notion of some kind of governmental oversight of Islamic institutions for an “Islam free from foreign interference” and to ensure that these institutions and imams perform as “prime movers” in reducing the spread of radical ideas. The idea that financing and training would depend on the French government is itself a negative, even if it would be achieved through some kind of delegation for the collection of some kind of “halal” tax by a network of regionally designated Islamic entities.

The oversight issue is problematic. Is the idea here that a French version of Islam has to be free from foreign affiliations of any sort? How is that different from those American Mormons proselytizing door to door around our French Riviera neighborhood or Caritas delivering aid in Malawi or what have you. I guess one could distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate foreign sources, but this is a slippery slope. What this means for me is that multi-cultural and multi-ethnic diversity – and multi-religious diversity – are worthwhile but complicated aspirations. They are different in this country where laicité was originally driven by an anti-clerical focus on Catholicism, as compared to the more neutral but more accommodating separation of church and state in the US or the UK. Any suggestions?

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