Islam and Secularism in France

Throughout history the relationship between religion and politics has vacillated with ongoing disputes about the power and influence of religious institutions in secular, political, and social affairs, and with encroachment of religion in the everyday life of citizens. If religion has brought consolation, religious disputes have also been the cause of hostility and warfare that has decimated populations as in the destructive 30 Years War (1618-48) that killed a third of the German population.

Agreement was slow to come, but in contemporary democratic countries there is now a general consensus on the desirability of a distinction, a separation between the political and the religious realms. For the state and for individuals in those countries, religious belief is a private matter separate from their political opinions or public status as citizens. The problem, however is that dissociation between the two realms is never complete. It is still undeniable that religious beliefs often have played and still play a role in the formation of individual and social consciousness and in the creation of an ethical consensus that affects action. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that there is hardly any human action which does not result from some very general conception people have of religious views.

In recent years, the relationship between the two realms is being discussed from different points of view. One is that of Pope Benedict XVI, who on September 12, 2008 said it was time to reopen the debate on the relationship of Church and State in France, in order to preserve the religious freedom of citizens, and the responsibility of the state towards them. The Pope was troubled by what he saw as the spread of secularism and increasing hostility to churches and religious believers.

Another point of view was expressed on June 4, 2017 by British prime minister Theresa May after the third terrorist attack in UK in as many months. She talked of the need for "embarrassing conversations" to root out extremism in the UK, though her actions have been less determined on the issue. The terrorist networks, she said, were bound together by the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism that preaches hatred, sows division, and promotes sectarianism. Similarly, former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in January 2015 declared that France was at war against radical Islam, not against a religion or civilization, but against terrorism and radical Islam in order to defend "our values which are universal."

Now French president Emmanuel Macron has entered this challenging arena of French values in a discussion of the fundamental concept of French "laicite," translated as secularism, a concept that has never been fully defined in a legal or constitutional text. On February 11, 2018 Macron declared that his goal was to discover what lies at the heart of secularism, the possibility of being able to believe as well as not to believe. He is concerned with preserving national cohesion while at the same time having free religious consciousness.

Macron's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a speech at the Vatican on December 20, 2007, struggled with the issue and meaning of "laicite." The concept, he held, does not mean negation of the past or the elimination from France of its Christian roots: France is the oldest daughter of the Church. That would weaken the cement of national identity. At the same time, while accepting its Christian roots, France values and continues to defend secularism. He called for a "positive laicite" that recognized the contribution of religion to French culture.

France has struggled with the issue of religious tolerance for centuries, almost since Charles Martel, the Frank Christian leader, won the Battle of Tours against Spanish Muslim Moors in October 732. The Edict of Nantes in 1598 allowed Huguenots -- Calvinist Protestants -- tolerance, and ended religious wars in France.

However, it is the law of December 9, 1905 that framed the principle of "laicite," the separation of church and state, the freedom of citizens and organizations from the influence of organized religion, essentially the Catholic Church at the time. The French state is neutral towards religious beliefs and there is no state religion, and freedom of conscience is allowed, while no religion can interfere in the functioning of government. The state simply recognizes the existence of religious organizations and religious beliefs. It does not pay or subsidize nor endorse any religious sect.

One consequence is that religious education is banned in public school. All religious buildings are the property of the state and city councils. Separation of state and church is essential for freedom of thought. Though it overlaps with and is related to anti-clericalism, opposition to religious authority in social and political affairs, the two are not synonymous.

President Macron must now focus, as have former leaders on difficult issues in the diverse and multicultural French society with its six million Muslims, nine percent of the population: wherefore is Islam different from all other religions in France? Christians and Jews accept the principle of laicite, and pose no threat to state authority, and the state makes no attempt to manage them. The issue is whether the principle of laicite is being challenged or opposed by Muslim activity.

French government actions to regulate Muslim activity have been controversial. Among them are the ban on wearing of Muslim veils by public-sector employees. In 2004 the ban on all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. In 2010 the ban on wearing full face veil in public, and on the burqa, the full body covering if it covers the face. In January 2018 the ban on religious garb in the National Assembly.

In dealing with Muslims in France, President Macron faces two problems regarding whether their religion and activity is compatible with the values of the French Republic: what is the fundamental nature and basic objectives of Islam in France where since 2015 more than 230 citizens have been killed by Islamist terrorists; and what is the degree of funding by and influence on French Muslims by foreign countries.

On the first issue, the basic objectives of Islam, there are acute differences of French opinion: is fundamentalism, violence, extremism, and jihadism central to Islam or is the essential religion being derailed by radical Islamists who are not typical of the majority? The issue is specifically germane in France because of the constant violence in the banlieus, the suburbs of largely low-income housing projects with foreign Muslim residents where assimilation has been difficult. France has witnessed young Muslims, cogs in a system, turning to extremism, and the rise of Wahhabism and Salafism, extreme and austere movements, in France.

Or is jihadism marginal in French Islam, and can young Muslims more properly be seen as troubled individuals preoccupied with fantasies of cruelty and violence, while the majority are not radicalized? Do terrorists in France kill in the name of religion though they may not be pious, or are they petty criminals, many of whom have experienced a prison term? Will there be a move from Islam in France to Islam of France, a more moderate concept?

To help in this respect, Nicolas Sarkozy in May 2003 set up the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), as the official interlocutor with the state to observe and advise on religious activities. Though not a legal entity, it is in effect the representative of French Muslims. Former President Hollande in 2015 sent French imams to training institutes in Rabat, seemingly moderate places. Macron has suggested imams be given courses on civil liberties and theology, and appears to imply the appointment of a Grand Imam, on lines similar to the French Grand Rabbi.

The second problem, one not confined to France, is the funding by foreign countries and institutions of Islam in France, including hundreds of mosques, paying and training imams in France. The CFCM has been influenced by and several hundred imams are paid by foreign governments and organizations in Morocco, the Gulf states, and Turkey. The need is urgent, to reduce outside influences, and ensure that French law with laicite takes precedence over Islamic law.

By extraordinary coincidence the Islamic issue was encountered in France in a single day in both fictional and realistic fashion. On November 19, 2015 a novel Soubmission (Submission, the literal translation of the Arab word Islam) by the provocative writer Michel Houellbecq was published. It deals with a Muslim presidential victory in 2022, and the consequential introduction of Islamic law, polygamy, veiling of women and their removal from the marketplace. On the same day, two Islamist terrorists attacked the offices in Paris of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, and killed 12 people. France faces the problem, can the fictional novel one day become reality? President Macron faces the problems, can Islam in France become the Islam of France, and can laicite survive?