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POLITICS: Charlie Hebdo and the Illusion of French Secularism

From a UK perspective, it is hard to imagine a country more deeply committed to secularism than France.

France is a secular Republic, and has been so since 1905. A law was passed forbidding the use of public money for religious purposes, and banning outward signs of religious affiliation in public buildings. Since then, Nicolas Sarkozy passed a law banning the burka and even the hijab in public. In the past fortnight, French authorities have given police and local courts new powers to clamp down on terrorism with a particularly anti-Islamist bent.

I have supported secularism in this blog and elsewhere and actively campaign against faith schools. But are these measures truly secular?

French secularism always struck me as absurd, from the moment I knew of it in my own school. The idea that religion should be effectively banned from the education system almost completely, so that few of my French friends were aware of any religions outside of the three major monotheisms, and almost none had read a religious book outside the faith they had grown up with. The idea that we are better off for children not having a religious education is so clearly flawed, as it does little more than foster ignorance and intolerance. But little has changed.

Or so I thought until last week. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, a groundswell of local measures in France have gone largely unreported. Ouest France (a regional paper with a small readership) reports the arrest of a 16 year old boy in Nantes, after he posted a cartoon showing a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist being shot while holding a copy of the satirical magazine, saying "It doesn't stop bullets". Tasteless and grossly insensitive towards the grieving families of the cartoonists, you may say. And I'd agree. If it wasn't in fact quoting an earlier Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the prophet Mohammed holding the Qur'an, saying those exact words.

The unnamed teenager was in fact doing something which I suspect the cartoonists would have approved of. Expressing a deeply unpopular political view through satire. I wonder if the police officers who placed him under arrest were even aware of the original cartoon when they handcuffed a teenager... I somehow doubt it.

At the heart of this ludicrous spate of disproportionate use of police and judicial force is a deeper angst. French secularism is reactionary. It was a response to the monopoly of Jesuits in the education system, rejecting their corporal punishment and near-Orwellian teaching methods. Indeed, who wouldn't want to turf out such a band of bullies? But redrawing the map of faith versus tradition in the light of this revolution alone was bound to lead to a terreur of sorts. Islam is the goat which is to be driven into the desert to expunge the sins of the Tribe. Not only has this backfired, but it plays right into the hands of Islamist groups, so well-versed in the rhetorics of Islamic victimhood.

In the last 3 decades, secularists have either openly or (even worse) using thinly veiled Newspeak, insidiously campaigned specifically against Islam in schools. Requesting that children appearing in headscarves be ceremoniously removed, reporting hyperbolically on any issues involving Muslim children objecting to citizenship lessons.

I vividly remember the local priest parading about our state school when I was in France. The Catholic 'Aumonerie' (charity) was very active and, - although it did great work, and I wouldn't personally have wished it removed - had an unfairly privileged position in school life. There was no Imam walking about the school grounds. The secularists would have objected immediately to that, but somehow Catholics are less objectionable.

It is plain to anyone who takes the time to look into the issue that French secularism has become a political baton with which to beat down the unruly, largely North African inner-city youths who dare to express their faith as openly as their whiter, more Judeo-Christian counterparts do. But since Judaism and Christianity institutions pre-date 1905, their organisations are considered historical and not religious.


If France wants to regain a sense of composure after the "Je suis Charlie" frenzy, if its people wish to be anything more than puppets to be manipulated by a cynical class of politician willing to capitalise on Twitter hashtags, then the 6th Republic must be founded on properly secular principles. Religious groups should be treated equally, and nonreligious groups should have equal funding and status for charitable activities. Mosques should be given the same funding and integrated in the same way as any church, temple or synagogue rather than being ostracised and driven into the hands of shady, self-proclaimed Imams. A proper dialogue with and between religous groups needs to be fostered, and the role of Islam in providing direction and a voice to otherwise marginalised youths must be recognized.

Of course religious bullying must cease, and it was right to stand by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in the wake of the shootings. But more action is needed now.

Allez, les bleus.


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