The New Secularism, a Discriminatory Principle to Promote the Clash of Civilizations
These are hard times for the Republic: multiplying attacks against Muslims and their places of worship, new measures to monitor and police the Internet and social networks, against a backdrop of the “war on terror.” The farce of January 11 [the mass rally in Paris following the attack on Charlie Hebdo] used the display of a united front against Islamism to launch hostilities to prepare public opinion for tightened security measures, the destruction of freedoms, as well as all kinds of military adventures. With the attack against Charlie Hebdo occurring amidst a marked rise in Islamophobia in France and throughout Europe, it does not take much. Demonstrations against Islam continue to grow and some journalists and leading politicians do not hesitate to blame Islam directly for the economic and social problems affecting France.
“Secularism,” the leitmotif of the discriminatory anti-Muslim speeches, is the spearhead of the modern day crusades. Islam is seen as a conquering and expanding religion, and is denounced as a direct threat to the “values of the Republic.” Why this sudden concern, which marks a break with the policy of tolerance enjoyed by immigrants and their descendants for decades? The presence of Muslims in France is nothing new but has only been seen as a threat to religious neutrality since the early 2000s, precisely from the beginning of the “war on terror.” Does the current aggressive and discriminatory defence of secularism serve a purpose other than maintaining the religious neutrality of the state? If we can answer this in the affirmative without hesitation, then what are these other aims?
The Case of the Islamic Headscarf (1989)
The spotlight was first turned on “the problem” of the veil with the 1989 case of the Islamic headscarf. Soon after the beginning of the school year, three students from Gabriel-Havez high school in Creil, located in a priority education zone, were expelled because they refused to remove their headscarves in class. The case quickly became a national issue and Education Minister Lionel Jospin requested an opinion from the Council of State, which offered a nuanced response on November 27, 1989: it reiterated the right of students to express religious beliefs in school but set limits on the display of religious symbols of an ostentatious or outspoken character. The same opinion was given in another judgment of the Council of State in November 1992, concerning an identical matter in Jean-Jaurès high school in Montfermeil, in which the Council imposed the reinstatement of those students excluded for wearing headscarves.
In its decision, the Council of State reiterated the principles of secularism, which oblige educational institutions to accept all students, regardless of their origin or religion, while simultaneously imposing a number of constraints on the exercise of their religious freedom:
“Students wearing symbols with which they intend to express their religious affiliation is not in itself incompatible with the principle of secularism, to the extent that it constitutes the exercise of freedom of expression and manifestation of religious beliefs, but that freedom does not allow students to wear religious symbols which, by their nature, the conditions under which they would be worn individually or collectively, or by their ostentatious or outspoken character would constitute an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda, would undermine the dignity or freedom of the pupil or other members of the educational community, jeopardize their health or safety, disrupt the conduct of teaching activities and the educational role of teachers, or ultimately disturb order in the establishment or the normal operation of the public service.” (Council of State judgement, November 27, 1989).
Essentially, the Council of State remains compliant with the principle of secularism as it appears in the law separating Church and State. The founding texts indeed define it as an obligation concerning school premises, curriculum and teachers, but not for the students as users of the school system. This is a legal principle in defence of freedom of individual expression and tolerance vis-à-vis religious practice that is consistent with the 1905 law that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights reiterates:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
2003 Turning Point
Demonstration in Paris, January 2004, against passage of law banning the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by students in public educational institutions.
According to French sociologist Raphaël Liogier, the “great bifurcation” (the point at which Islamization began to be presented by policymakers as a major problem) took place in France in 2003, the year of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. At this time all the anti-Islamization associations such as Observatoire de l’islamisation, the Bloc Identitaire, Riposte Laïque, or even Ni Putes Ni Soumises, were born. It was also in 2003, at the request of then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, that François Baroin submitted a report in which he proposed a new conception of secularism. Based on one of the conclusions of the commission, then-President Jacques Chirac spoke out in favour of a law banning the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by students in public educational institutions. This law was passed on March 15, 2004 and came into force in September 2004. It would be followed by others, which contribute to the exclusion of visible signifiers of the Muslim religion in a growing number of public places.
The defence of a new secularism is presented in the Baroin Report as a necessary reaction against the development of communitarianism and fundamentalist action in order to defend the values of the Republic. Exit multiculturalism, enter “assimilationism”:
“Secularism has indeed been gradually replaced in the left’s pantheon of values by the defence of cultural differences and communitarianism. This trend is part of the promotion of human rights as the dominant value of the left. It results in a guilty conscience vis-à-vis France’s colonial heritage and a need for atonement (theme of “repentance”). Freedom of expression and recognition of differences are privileged over other values such as the teacher’s authority, the mission of educating and the emancipation of the individual.”
This report considers the Islamic veil as more of an “attribute of the fundamentalists that is part of a model of society based on a ghetto logic and hostile to the values of democracy” than as a simple sign of religious affiliation. While making a distinction between Islam and Islamism, it advocates relying on integrated Muslims to fight against the threat of Islamization and the implantation in our country of a fundamentalist Islam that challenges the very principles of the organization of our society:
“This oppositional discourse must come from people of immigrant origin. The appointment of several ministers from their ranks was a first encouraging sign. It is up to the current majority to create real republican elites of immigrant origin in all areas (political, economic and social). It is a condition for regaining territories lost by the Republic.”
The New Secularism, a Discriminatory Principle to
Promote the Clash of Civilizations
By turning a legal principle into a “civilized value” and promoting a quasi-religious conception of secularism, this shift clears the way for all manner of Islamophobia. The religious practice of Muslims, a genuine collective phobia, is seen as both a sign of obscurantism and a problem threatening the national identity. The supporters of the headscarf ban rely on an emancipatory conception of education and a belittled vision of religious symbols as being opposed to progressivism and the science of the Enlightenment. As stated by Claude Gueant [former Chief of Staff to French President Nicolas Sarkozy], “all civilizations are not equal” and Islam, by its conquering nature, represents a threat to the Judeo-Christian West. Echoing this misguided conception of secularism, policies have been floated for the past 10 years based on a phantasm of Islamization, France’s version of the neo-conservative theory of the clash of civilizations, as updated by [Conservative U.S. political scientist] Samuel Huntington. It provides several political opportunities: a scapegoat strategy and socio-ethnic discrimination, as well as justification of the Empire’s wars against the Muslim world under the pretence of wiping out jihadism. This ideological shift, initiated by the right, is being pursued by the current government, which shows a remarkable continuity with the previous one in completing this transformation of the security apparatus.
As the new dominant ideology, neo-conservatism serves the interests of globalist elites to justify their warmongering projects. However, the vast majority have nothing to gain from a civil and/or military war against the Muslim world. Far from Islamization being the issue, the real threat is that of a confrontation with Islam modelled on the clash of civilizations. The rejection of the endless war on terror, that has been costly for both sides, is the only feasible way forward to revive a tolerant, peaceful and egalitarian conception of secularism and work for national reconciliation with the populations originating from post-colonial immigration.
* The Council of State is a body of the French national government that acts both as legal adviser of the executive branch and as the supreme court for administrative justice. Established in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte as a successor to the King’s Council (Conseil du Roi), it is primarily made up of top-level legal officers. The Vice President of the Council of State is the highest-ranking civil servant in France -TML Editor
(bourgoinblog.wordpress.com, January 22, 2015. Translated from original French by TML.)