France is reviewing its policy of laïcité, the principle born in the French Revolution, that all French are equal and will prosper and thrive within a secular state which respects diversity, promises liberté, égalité, fraternité, but demands allegiance.
The current French administration is by no means rethinking or reassessing the policy itself, but how it is taught; or in the view of the Education Minister not taught enough or taught properly.
“We have to re-appropriate the concept of laïcité so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they’re not excluded. Secularism is not something against them; it protects them,” she said.In other words secularism and the State which ensures it are the best means for religious and ethnic minorities to prosper. Within this universal democratic framework, all groups regardless of faith are not only free to express their beliefs but encouraged to do so. Every group’s civil rights will be protected equally, none will be favored, and all will become more productive, satisfied citizens.
Americans, who have espoused the principles of secular democracy even longer than the French, could not agree more.
Yet at the same time our Republic was firmly based on religious grounds. Our rights are God-given, and although a secular government was created to protect and guarantee them, they were solidly rooted in the Enlightenment whose rationalism had a purpose – to better understand God’s Creation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.The French had more than enough of religion and the Divine Right of Kings in 1987 when Jacobins chopped off the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette along with hundred more aristocrats.
Americans revolted against the taxes, economic exploitation, and abridgment of personal liberties imposed by George VI; but we never had to suffer the arrogant, entitled rule of royalty close up. We revolted against colonialism and had no visceral hatred for the English monarch. It was the system of authoritarian rule which took everything from the colonies and gave little or nothing back that we opposed.
Largely because America was based on a foundation of religious principle and was settled by migrants who fled religious persecution, we have far more tolerance for sectarian diversity than the French. America is one of the most religious countries in the world, with a significant majority of the population professing profound faith. France on the other hand, while Catholic in appearance and history, is secular to the core.
Last but not least, France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. Not only are these immigrants Muslim, but come largely from North Africa where violent wars of independence were fought against the French.
North Africans have been increasingly radicalized in recent years, partly out of residual resentment of the French, partly because of their relatively low economic status, and partly because of the influence of foreign advocates of a strict religious conservatism. As a result they far different from Pakistani Muslims in the UK who live in ethnic enclaves but who have been respectful of and obedient to British law. Britain like the US has not enforced secularism, preferring ‘diversity’. Religious expression is a good thing, both they and we feel; something to be tolerated and encouraged.
Secularism is comparatively easy in America. Our immigrant population is largely Christian, and those Muslims who have settled here have quickly subscribed to the American ethos of work, upward mobility, success, and wealth. Our minority group – blacks – have been segregated while Muslim minorities in Europe choose to be so. Our challenge is to facilitate the integration of poor blacks who would like to become part of the American mainstream but who feel excluded. France’s challenge is to convince Muslim groups not to reject French secularism, Western values, and European ways that there is a value in joining the mainstream.
This will be a hard sell. The world is becoming more separatist, more sectarian, and more politically religious than ever before. Russia has challenged the Western idea of the nation-state. Crimea and Ukraine belong to the historical Russia, avers President Putin, not the Western configuration designed to suits its end. Putin looks to Imperial Russia as the model, and has no reservations about praising its greatness. Religion, culture, language, and the soul of the Motherland – the core of modern Russia are very different from the West for whom democracy is only a process. Process without a profound spiritual, cultural, and historical foundation means nothing. The West has lost its way and Russia has found its own.
ISIS has similarly challenged the idea of national boundaries established by former colonial power to serve their own interests. A religious caliphate, one based on the laws of God, will do away with these artificial, secular borders and establish a uniformly sectarian political and religious unit.
Everywhere in the world ethnic, religious, and political separatism is alive, well, and aggressive. Whether Sunnis, Kurds, or Shiites; Wahhabis, Alawites, or Sufis; Basques or Quebecois; French or Sulawesi Muslims; Uighurs or Tibetans; Chechens or Ossetians; the movements are the same. Liberal, secular democracy is a thing of the past. Al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS and their offshoots and followers are not simply ‘terrorists’ but the avant-garde of a post-democratic, post-secular world.
Countries which were once secular religious states – like Bangladesh and Mali – have descended into sectarian violence. Radicalism in Bangladesh threatens an always fragile democracy; and Islamic militancy and Tuareg separatism in the North threaten an equally precarious secular state.
France, then, is fighting a losing battle, and has little idea what to do about it. Tens of thousands of Muslim migrants are flooding France and much of the rest of Europe. Despite initial outpourings of concern and expressions of welcome and generosity, countries are shutting their borders. The principle of Western liberal, secular democracy is one thing. Dealing with thousands of angry, dispossessed, and religious newcomers is another.
Teaching more about secularisms and the founding principles of the French Revolution sounds like a good idea. “If these foreigners only understood what a good thing they have”. Yet laïcité falls on increasingly deaf ears. What students hear at home, learn at madrassas and at the mosque is quite different from a public education.
In fact most native-born French consider France la fille aînée de l'Eglise – the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, the country which beat back the Muslim Saracens at Roncesvalles, which led the Crusades to the Holy Land against the infidel Muslims, and which has championed and promoted traditional French culture, language, and thought throughout the world.
It is not easy for a young Algerian of recently-arrived parents, to receive lessons on French culture, secularism, and tolerance when the fact are quite different. France has fought Muslims since Charlemagne. It’s secularism is as intolerant of ethnic or religious expression as any; and its leadership, still one of old-line elitists, cannot fathom change.
President Obama is flummoxed by all this. He believes in American exceptionalism as deeply as any of his predecessors; but perhaps no President before him has seen principles of ‘diversity’, secularism, and liberal democracy so attacked. We all thought that Western democracy was it. Even despite the upheavals in the Middle East and elsewhere, we have continued to believe that liberal democracy was of a higher order than any other political system – God-given, in fact. It is hard to shake that notion and deal coolly with a world in flames.
More than likely the next 50 or 100 years will witness increased political and geographic fragmentation as new powers, disrespectful of past borders or national principles, aggressively promote their agendas. Europe may return to a pre-Garibaldi past. India at the time of the British raj was made up of over 30 major ethnic/linguistic states ruled by princes. The British allowed them to retain some power and in return the princes promised fealty. Over 200 years of British rule the states emerged as separate political units within a central authority. Perhaps the rest of the world will return to that political-ethnic model.
In any case everything from La Marseillaise to radical modern French secularism sounds wrong to the increasing number of Muslim immigrants. It is one thing to hear the American mantra of ambition, drive, and success (i.e. who cares about the past?); but another thing altogether to receive an education steeped in culture.
The new emphasis on laïcité seems naïve and hopeless, an attempt by an over-matched French government nearly as sandbagged by current events as the US.