Religion, secularism and French paradox


There is another theory why Macron is pushing this bill.  Ahead of elections in 2022, he is making a political calculation to win support of the far right and the left. French political framework is complicated because a portion of the left tends to be most strict about existence of secularism, this could also grab attention and support of far right at the same time.

Abdullah Syed

OCTOBER 2, 2021

Lately, a new law is all set to be introduced in France, in the wake of rising religious fanaticism. The French lawmakers want to bring in a law namely ‘Reinforcing Republican Principles’ or Laicite. French President Emmanuel Macron says that the law is all about preventing religious extremism. The bill does not actually single out any specific religion but some French Muslims believe that the bill is targeting the Muslim community in general and used to score political points. What does it have to do with French scenario about secularism? When it comes to religions, France is a pretty diverse place, just over half of its population identify themselves as Christian. It has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe while a third of people in France don’t affiliate with any faith at all and all of those communities have been able to coexist in part because of a legal principle called ‘Laicite’ a literal term of secularism in French.

A law namely Laicite was passed in 1905 to separate the French republic from the catholic church after years of power struggles. These days Laicite can be seen back in action in such a way where French president for example, isn’t sworn in using a holy book. It is a bizarre concept in itself, the state remains neutral, the people working for the state, the civil servants remain neutral. The people however are not neutral. It is considered to be a tool to protect religious freedom. Rather, freedom to believe to not believe. Over the years, French governments have interpreted Laicite in new ways, they brought in all kinds of measures to keep religion out of public life to another extreme level where some people accuse the state running against the religion. Just like a law in 2004 that banned religious symbols in public schools. Huge Christian crosses, Muslim headscarf, Sikh turbans and Jewish skull caps commonly known as the Kippah, all were banned in the name of Laicite also known as secularism.

A ‘legal tool’ that was aimed to protect religious freedom has gradually become a tool to target religious visibility. It goes back to a centuries-old pattern of how the French governments have tried to control religion. So what does Laicite or secularism have to do with this new bill? Well, the proposed law doesn’t explicitly mention Laicite but it talks about Reinforcing Republican Principles which proposed an ideology like free thinking and free speech. President Emmanuel Macron says that the ‘typical French ideology’ is under threat as new wave of terrorism has taken over since 2015 which has resulted deaths of more than 200 people. The attacks mostly carried out by recruited or inspired ISIL or Al-Qaeda. The attack on staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it had published caricatures of a sacred Muslim Prophet whose depiction is widely forbidden in Islam and does not really depict true and soulful meaning of freedom of speech and expression. Ninety people got killed at the Bataclan theater, a truck driven through crowds in Christmas market following a fierce shootout.

Facing all the consequences, once again Charlie Hebdo republished the Prophet’s caricature. As a result, two people were stabbed outside the magazine’s old building. This was the time when Macron announced that he was drafting the very bill but that didn’t go down well with leaders in Muslim-majority countries.

Afterwards, a teacher in France came up with a caricature in front of students the during a lesson about free speech. Afterwards, there was this social media campaign against him. He was tracked down and beheaded. A week later several people were killed inside a church. Macron in this regard, went ahead and proposed the bill. What is in the proposed law? clauses like tougher penalties for people who threaten or attack public workers in the name of religion, more powers to go after online hate speech and putting embargo on big foreign donations to religious institutions. There is other stuff rolling smooth under the carpet, which empowers government officials to stop forced marriages, polygamy and anyone issuing virginity certificates to women who are about to marry. Not to forget, French government have already legislated laws for polygamy and forced marriages are already prohibited.  Even fighting terrorism, French government has a very strong legal apparatus that apparently was ‘not enough’ efficient to prevent terror attacks.

There are even restrictions on religious private schools and homeschooling. French government portray facts in a very twisted manner as well. According to government reports, it is believed that many people end up with ISIL who were homeschooled by their parents. On the contrary, there are examples where most of the students in the modern educational field turn up to be violent not really because of religious extremism but psychological imbalance which triggers violence among those effected. Other than this bill, there is a lot more going on, the government has closed down several mosques and Muslim associations for having radical links which they’ve denied. They’ve also got Muslim religious leaders to agree on a charter of principles that rejects political Islam and foreign interference

This is something French presidents like to do, they build monuments, museums and councils to govern Islamic ideology.  Not just Islam, French government has started organizing the Catholic church and Judaism as well. Religious leaders are split, one Muslim association said separatism is a reality that must be faced. At the same time a lot of people feel that the bill just reinforces fascist ideology in disguise of secularism. There is another theory  why Macron is pushing this bill.  Ahead of elections in 2022, he is making a political calculation to win support of the far right and the left. French political framework is complicated because a portion of the left tends to be most strict about existence of secularism, this could also grab attention and support of far right at the same time. It is hard to square these pointers though, because one can only go so far in in appeasing everybody which depicts sheer political interest. France’s parliament and senate still have to vote on the bill before it becomes law. They’ll have to weigh up a lot of things but chief among them is whether this proposed law goes against the very principles of a free society.


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