The Stakes in the French Secularism Debate

The Stakes in the French Secularism Debate

The recent French debate about laïcité (secularism or secularity), which was expressed revealingly in the passage of a law that bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools, surprises many foreign observers. In fact, the word laïcité does not translate well into other languages. It refers to a very French idea: a republic can ensure the separation of public and private only by refraining from recognizing distinctive cultural or religious identities within the public sphere. Islam-and in particular, the presence, within public schools, of young girls wearing “Islamic scarves” (the foulards)-has become a source of anxiety since the late 1980s. France’s laïcité appears threatened by them. On several occasions, “head scarf affairs” and an upsurge in Islamic radicalism have rattled the populace. As a result, President Jacques Chirac invited Bernard Stasi, a political figure known for his moderate views, to chair a special commission. On the basis of the Stasi Commission’s report the head of state called for passage of the new Law of March 15, 2004, which will go into effect in the new school year.

One hundred years ago the main issue in French politics was how to separate the Catholic church from the French state. Today the challenge is different: how to invent ways of integrating a new religion, Islam, into public life? If the question appears so sensitive, it is because it cannot be dissociated from a number of other problems: the crisis in public schools, which have proved incapable of nurturing the French Republic’s promises of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; unemployment and massive job insecurity; the creation of immigrant ghettos around French cities; the upsurge of all kinds of communitarianism; and the rise of racism and the revival of anti-Semitism.

Three Dimensions

The answer to the challenge of “head scarves” would have been simple, had it been unidimensional. But it entails three distinct social-political dimensions.

The first is the most obvious one. Activists within France’s minorities seem to pose a challenge to the republic’s universalist values-to law and to reason. The challenge becomes visible when head scarves proliferate throughout classrooms. Some argue that the scarves symbolize women’s alienation and indicate that women are victims of domination. Others denounce a more generalized religious obscurantism that they claim accompanies the scarves. This includes the rejection of some secular forms of instruction under the pretext that they are not in keeping with the Quran but also the refusal by some Muslim women of modern medical treatment when it is offered by a male hospital staff. Members of the Stasi Commission report that their position on the “head scarf” hardened by the discovery, during its hearings, of how widespread these problems are.

A second ...

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