France’s laïcité is preventing freedom of belief and encouraging the jihadist

Image credit: Elke Wetzig CCLicense

Comment by Andrew Brown

How much have the policies of the French state contributed to the jihadi savagery that has erupted onto its streets, most recently in the murder of a schoolteacher — who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils — and three elderly churchgoers in Lyon?

Some people have suggested that the French principle of laïcité, or secularism, which bans all religion from public life, is partially to blame for the extremism of a tiny minority of French Muslims.

The journalist John Lichfield, one of the most experienced British observers of French life, wrote recently that the Muhammad cartoons “have been consecrated in blood as symbols of France’s commitment to freedom of expression and its status as a secular republic. They have become (paradoxically) secular, religious symbols — far beyond their intrinsic worth as either drawings or jokes.”

Experts consulted by the Religion Media Centre suggest that the real damage that secularism does to France is not only that it deprives people of full freedom of belief, but that it also makes a free discussion of the problems of religious extremism impossible for policy-makers. Because of the legal insistence that all French people are equal citizens and that religion or ethnicity must be invisible to the state, it is impossible even to count the number of Muslims or of ethnic minority people in the country.

Dr Joseph Downing of the London School of Economics, who has spent two years working at the elite French university CNRS (the National Centre for Scientific Research), said: “Recognising ethnicity is technically illegal. Scholars can’t talk about the issues that they want to in the ways that they want to. If you as a policy-maker can’t discuss these things, that’s a problem there.

“There are serious security concerns in many of these poor districts. I spent part of my year living in Marseilles, and you can buy an AK-47, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, for around €1,000 in one of these housing estates. This is really serious and really quite dangerous. But I don’t see it as [a sign of] radicalisation and terrorist insecurity. They are vectors of secular forms of insecurity like drug-dealing and organised crime: things you get in socially marginalised areas.

“In France, you discuss in very abstract terms — ‘the Muslims’ or ‘the violent Muslims’ — and this, to me, really obscures the reality of the daily lived experience on the ground. Muslims who believe that interest is forbidden, and consuming alcohol is forbidden will make compromises in their daily lives, and take out mortgages or serve alcohol in their restaurant or whatever it might be.”

Professor Jocelyne Cesari of Birmingham University, who is French, says: “You need to distinguish between Islam as a religion which involves some very conservative people and Islam as a radical ideology. This kind of distinction is very difficult to make if you are in law enforcement. But we need to, otherwise we increase the rage on both sides.

“Most of the surveys we have on radical Islamists show that they come from a secular background, and that’s why it’s appealing to them, because then Islam is an ideology of resistance, of combat.”

Dr Downing points out: “The vast majority of people who engage in violence don’t come from religious backgrounds at all. They often have careers as failed rappers on YouTube: you can see that with ‘the Beatles’ who joined Isis and some of the Charlie Hebdo attackers.”

He argues that the French government’s attack on Muslim institutions is also misdirected. In the wake of the teacher Samuel Paty’s murder, the French government banned homeschooling altogether and shut down numerous Muslim organisations. “I think the view that radicalisation is happening in mosques is maybe 10-15 years out of date. The Kouachi brothers [who carried out the Charlie Hebdo killings] were part of a group that radicalised in a park in Paris where they did keep-fit exercises.”

Professor Cesari agreed that Islam, as a social identity, needed to be distinguished from Islam as a religion. “What is needed is different venues and institutions, for the youths, especially who didn’t grow up Muslim, because most of the radicals [are converts] and they embrace what they think is religion but is an ideology.

“We miss in Europe venues where Muslims can learn their positions independent of political trends that dominate the majority countries. There is a kind of breathing room for American Muslims that I do not see in France, or across Europe.”

In other parts of Europe, and especially in the UK, there are lively debates among Muslims about secularism. But our experts suggest that the French system is suppressing that possibility.

“Macron is seen as weak,” Dr Downing said. “He is hamstrung by the rules of the French state. He can’t in a legal sense identify Muslims as Muslims . . . so the tools you have to navigate these complexities as a politician in France are very limited and I think that’s one thing that really does limit what Macron can do.”