Is it Time for France to Abandon Laïcité?


Elizabeth Winkler in The New Republic:

As France marks the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, French officials are stepping up efforts to counter violent extremism. One measure involves widening police powers to conduct raids and detain suspected terrorists. The Supreme Court is reviewing a draft bill that would make these temporary, state-of-emergency tools, implemented after the November 2015 attacks on multiple sites in Paris, permanent. The state-backed Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Council of Islam) has also announced its intention to issue certificates to imams who acknowledge French values and demonstrate their non-radical credentials.

Some worry that such measures will play into the hands of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Increasing police powers could endanger respect for civil liberties, while imposing governmental control of Islam in France could drive more Muslims to radical sects. It would arguably be more effective to focus efforts on improving the integration of Muslims, many of whom feel alienated in French society. This would involve examining educational and career opportunities for immigrants and their families—paths that will offer them upward mobility and a better chance to assimilate into the workforce. But it would also mean revisiting a pillar of France’s political and cultural identity: the policy of laïcité.

Laïcité is France’s principle of secularism in public affairs, aimed at fostering a post-religious society. It developed during the French Revolution, which sought to dismantle the Catholic Church in France along with the monarchy, and was enshrined in the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Broadly, the idea refers to the freedom of citizens and of public institutions from the influence of organized religion. (“Laïcité” derives from the French term for laity—non-clergy or lay people.)

It goes further than the separation of church and state in other nations, however, by prohibiting religious expression in the public sphere. In early 20th-century France—a fairly homogenous, Christian nation—this was a straightforward attempt to protect government from the sway of the Catholic Church. But in modern France—a decidedly more heterogeneous and multi-religious society—this insistence on secularism is thorny. As a critic argued in Le Figaro, laïcité is unintelligible and even shocking to many Muslims, who view it as “an injunction to abandon their religion.” Instead of enhancing social harmony, it may actually be exacerbating religious and racial tensions.

More here.