Charlie Hebdo & French ‘Secularism’: Does it really just privilege White Christians?

By Mayanthi Fernando | The Conversation

Commentators in France and elsewhere have taken the recent terrorist attacks in Paris as an occasion to reflect more broadly about Muslims in France. Many read the attacks as a sign of French Muslims’ refusal to integrate. They’ve asked whether Muslims can be fully secular and expressed doubt as whether one can be both Muslim and French.

Even as we try to make sense of what happened, however, we should be wary of myths about French secularism (laïcité) and French citizenship being spun in the aftermath of the attacks.

France understands itself and is often accepted as a preeminent secular nation that fully separates church and state and restricts religion to the private sphere.

The reality is more complicated, as more than 10 years of research on this issue have taught me.

In 1905, a major law officially separated church and state in France, though it did not go into effect in the northeastern region of Alsace-Moselle, which was under Prussian rule at the time. Even when Alsace-Moselle was reintegrated into France, however, it remained exempt from the 1905 law, and Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Judaism are still officially recognized religions in the region. As a result, religious education in one of those religions is obligatory for public-school students and the regional government pays the salaries of clergy of the four recognized religions.

Other exceptions to the separation of church and state

The 1905 law itself contains a number of exceptions.
For instance, though it forbids government financing of new religious buildings, it allows the government to pay maintenance costs for religious edifices built before 1905 – most of them Catholic churches. Thanks to later laws, the state also subsidizes private religious schools, most of them Catholic, some of them Jewish. And there exist other traces of Catholicism within the education system, like a public school calendar organized around Catholic holy days and public school cafeterias that serve fish on Fridays.

However, when Muslim French request the kind of accommodations offered to other religious communities in France, for example, state-funded Muslim schools, a school calendar that incorporates Muslim holy days, and the official recognition of Islam in Alsace-Moselle, they are reminded that France is a secular country where proper citizenship requires separating religion from public life.

Muslim appeals for religious accommodation are claims to civic equality within the existing parameters of laïcité. Yet those appeals paradoxically become the basis for questioning Muslims’ fitness as proper French citizens, by both right-leaning French Catholics and left-leaning French secularists.

Discrimination against Muslims

French Muslims are also caught in the contradictions of the French model of citizenship. The French state ostensibly recognizes individuals as individuals rather than as members of a community, but it also consistently discriminates against minorities. Because France refuses to recognize communal identities, however, it is difficult to voice claims of discrimination based on communal belonging. For example, because citizens are supposed to forgo particular racial, cultural, and religious attachments in lieu of a French national identity, the state refuses to collect census data about racial or religious belonging. This makes it hard to gauge racial and other disparities in government, higher education, and the workplace.
Yet social science research shows that nonwhite immigrants and their descendants as a group suffer systematic discrimination on the basis of their race, culture, and religion.

Indeed, race and religion come together in the term “Muslim,” used to identify a population of North and West African descent whose members a few decades earlier were referred to as immigrants and foreigners, or with terms that marked their ethnicity (e.g. Arabs). Muslim citizens and residents suffer disproportionately high levels of unemployment and face discrimination in the hiring process. CVs with Muslim-sounding names are often rejected on that basis alone, and Muslims are disproportionately imprisoned, due in part to racial profiling and differential treatment in the criminal justice system. Muslim children attend overcrowded, underfunded public schools.

Moreover, in recent years, the public practice of Islam has become increasingly difficult: a 2004 law bans the wearing of headscarves in public school and a 2010 law bans the face veils in all public spaces. Veiled women have been refused entry to university classes, banks, and doctors’ offices.

Neutral laws that are not neutral

However, because the republican model of citizenship refuses to recognize communal claims, anyone claiming to be the target of anti-Muslim discrimination only reinforces their communal difference from self- described “native” French. Moreover, much discriminatory legislation, including the two veil laws, is couched in neutral terms even as it clearly targets certain Islamic practices. The 2004 law against headscarves, for instance, bans “conspicuous religious signs” and the 2010 law against face-veils bans “the dissimulation of the face.” When Muslim French call attention to this problem, they are met with charges of communautarisme, of thinking and talking too much as Muslims rather than as French citizens. Not surprisingly, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) is often accused of “communalism.”

Even when Muslims make explicit claims to being French – and the vast majority does – those claims are rejected. In a telling incident, the Paris transit authority in 2012 refused to display an advertisement by the CCIF because of its “religious character” and “political demands.” The ad, part of the CCIF’s “We too are the nation” (Nous aussi sommes la nation) campaign, reimagined the painter David’s French Revolution-era “Tennis Court Oath” in the present, with veiled women, Arab men in hoodies, and visibly orthodox Jews, among other citizens, holding aloft French flags and copies of the oath pledging revolutionary ideals. The CCIF thereby affirmed their commitment to France, symbolically inscribing themselves into the French nation as original citoyens.

Rather than stemming from Muslims’ rejection of Frenchness, then, the supposed impossibility of being a Muslim and being a French citizen is largely generated by the contradictions of French secularism and French citizenship and by the majority’s inability to conceive of Muslims as French.

We should not deny the horror of January 6. But, in its aftermath, rather than uncritically reaffirm French national identity and wring our hands about Muslims’ refusal to integrate, we should use this moment of reflection to understand the various ways in which Muslims are consistently excluded from the nation, and to reassess the narrow bases of what it means to be French.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Mayanthi Fernando is Associate Professor, Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV Africa: “France Attack: Backlash Against Immigrants in France as Surveillance Increases”

11 Responses

  1. French secularism likely favors a worldview that is scientific, anti-religious, and materialistic. This worldview holds that nothing exists beyond what science can catalogue, prove, or deduce. It has never been proved to be true, yet it is never held up to examination by academics . It is a good time to reassess the narrowness of the secularism that rules modern culture.

    • Good grief, certainly secular science has been “proved” more than any religious concepts, most of which are mutually exclusive. If you’re going to go the religion over secular route, explain who gets to decide which religion is the “right” one?

    • “This worldview holds that nothing exists beyond what science can catalogue, prove, or deduce. It has never been proved to be true, yet it is never held up to examination by academics .”

      Logical Positivism was an influential theory from about the 1920s to 1960s. It was critiques from academics that led to its demise. Some of its principles live on. (Those principles existed before the theory was formulated and are not exclusive to Logical Positivism.) Broadly, as it relates to religion and the proposition of an entity or reality/existence outside of space and time, i.e. known reality/existence, it begs the question, how do you determine the entities/realities/existences that exist outside of known reality/existence? Religion has never provided an answer to this question. And until it does the secular worldview remains the worldview that has the highest probability of providing an accurate description of reality/existence.

      • A typical religious person will believe that she is a creation of the One that contains every perfection, which fills her life with meaning and a sense of belonging. Her universe is filled with living spirit , and she knows she’s going to heaven. A dogmatic materialist will see her as misguided. But the materialist has no reason to feel superior. The materialists assumptions are every bit as arbitrary as the believers. Science gives us no reason to reject religion.
        the worldview I’m complaining about consists of science plus 2 random corollaries: 1. The scientific method is the best way of getting at the truth; 2. Material entities are all tha exist. The 2 corollaries are arbitrary. Faulty reasoning brought us from appreciation of science to a constricting worldview.
        What I’m saying here is all in Huston Smith’s book, ” Why Religion Matters”.

        • I am not sure if Professor Cole wants us to get into this discussion on his message board, but I’ll take the bait and let him decide. I will keep it short and say two things. First, I am not sure that the materialist and the theist are making the same assumptions, i.e. the only assumption the materialist is potentially making is that the universe is rationally intelligible. Second, the materialist is not invoking special pleading or shifting the burden of proof, i.e. God can accomplish the impossible, you cannot disprove God, etc.

        • What worries me as an atheist is what Islamophobia has become in the wake of the Paris murders, not that it hasn’t reached such a pitch that one’s conscience was daily pricked by events and the propaganda that was/is it’s fruit. The fear mongering has become unapologetic from even the ‘liberals’ who used to speak in more sedate terms of ‘tolerance’: a pernicious political conformity has taken hold of the prophets of the Enlightenment, whose ignorance of the complete diversity of that historical/literary/political force leaves one in a state of awe at the self-enforced ignorance of the experts. Or more accurately a motley collection of scribblers/apologists . Regarding the fact of that diversity made up of theists,deists,and atheists and other assorted thinkers/writers/advocates as relevant to an argument about the ‘historical entity’ called by the name Enlightenment, or more accurately called Enlightenments. The paradigmatic work of the French Enlightenment is Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. He was a deist.
          This in a political atmosphere of the witch hunting of ‘terrorists’ or simply persons that are identified as ‘suspects’ in the political opportunity that this crisis offers, to the authoritarians in our political midst. Recall Carl Schmitt’s advocacy of that opportunity? Governments and police agencies operate with impunity, within that atmosphere, aided by the unrelenting propaganda of the ‘otherness’ of Muslims, when in fact Islam is an integral part of the Abrahamic Tradition and The West. The political hysteria mongering has reached a level that cannot be tolerated by any person of conscience no matter what their identification: theist,deists,atheist and even the religiously indifferent.
          As both an atheist and a queer I cannot turn my back on the historical evidence past and present of the murderous record of that Abrahamic Tradition, toward persons like myself throughout history, but that prick of conscience about political context and manifest political hysteria demand a different response.
          StephenKMackSD

    • You’re trying to shift the blame onto “liberal” secularism, when America’s own experience shows how “conservative” racism can be masked as the defense of the superior values of Christian civilization.

      And how are academics supposed to examine something that can’t be scientifically measured? You’re opening up Pandora’s Box for any group to concoct a God who demands inequality and injustice for the greater good.

  2. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a constitutional law professor who was until recently always on Fox before they happened to fire him over something he said on air they didnt like. points out France’s free speech is very selective and sisnt a French vs. French muslims issue either. it goes much deeper
    link to reason.com

  3. Jeffrey Goldberg has published an essay based on his interview with The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls with the what can only be described as an inflammatory title, French Prime Minister: ‘I Refuse to Use This Term Islamophobia’ read it at this link:
    link to theatlantic.com
    Here in my response to the Goldberg essay,
    link to stephenkmacksd.wordpress.com
    knowing that Mayanthi Fernando’s brilliant historically informed essay out ranks mine by several orders on magnitude! Thank you for publishing this insightful essay.
    Best regards,
    StephenKMackSD

  4. “As a result, religious education in one of those religions is obligatory for public-school students”

    I could not believe that was true and, upon looking it up on the net, I find it is not true. Parents in Alsace-Moselle can ask in writing to have their children exempt from religious education. Many do. In primary school, those who do not take religious education take ethics classes instead. Participation rates are religious education are falling: currently around 60% in primary school, and 14% in the lycées. Compared with neighbouring countries, France seems to me to be fairly atheistic and secular.

  5. As an atheist Turk whose country has been overrun by Islamists I found this article interesting nevertheless. (Yes we have religion “experts” on TV constantly talking about how you can marry 7 year old girls and how you should try not to be naked when taking a shower)

    Here’s a question. If wearing a headscarf is banned in public spaces… Is the same sensitivity to religious attire/fashion? shown towards other religions? Can a Rabbi or orthodox Jew walk into a courtroom with a big beard? How about an Orthodox or Catholic priest?

    Any French citizens to give some clarification?

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