Secularism and religionMillions of people from former colonies have made France their home; the state has to reach out to them in a meaningful way.
The brutal beheading of a French school teacher for showing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad triggered a wave of protests and debate all over the world. Within France itself, there was anger at the brutal killing for exercising what they believe to be the fundamental right of speech, while Muslim protestors took to the streets throughout the Islamic world denouncing France and French President Emmanuel Macron.
At stake were two varying and irreconcilable views over what constituted free speech in society. France, led by President Macron, insisted that freedom of speech included the freedom to offend other religions. For many Muslims the world over, where the mere portrayal of Prophet Muhammad is considered denigratory, the cartoons were perceived intolerable provocation.
France is an outlier in its treatment of the freedom of speech applied to religion. Few countries enforce state neutrality—relegating religion to the private sphere, or allow mockery of organised religion verging on the offensive as does France. Laicite, the French term for secularism, is a cornerstone for all political parties, even those on the far right. Religion has little resonance with a largely nominally Catholic population.
The history of mocking organised religion goes back to the 17th century Enlightenment values. Famous philosophers led by Voltaire and Diderot routinely attacked the church for corruption and irrational beliefs. The French Revolution of 1789, which involved large-scale expropriation of church lands and exodus of the clergy from France to other countries, further weakened the hold of the church in national affairs.
In an alternate universe where the majority of France had remained homogenous, white and non-denominational, there would have been few conflicts with laicite. But the France of today is hardly a mono-cultural society imbued with Enlightenment-era, post-Christian values. In fact, following decolonisation and World War II, millions of people from former colonies in North Africa have made France their home. Muslims now form around a 10th of the country's 60 million-odd citizens, comprising for the most part second- and third-generation immigrants from North and West Africa, along with a small number of native converts.
This large minority remains mostly concentrated in suburban ghettos and neglected neighbourhoods infamous for crime and poor public infrastructure. Educational achievement as well as participation in public life remains below the national average. As borne out by research, having a Muslim-sounding name diminished the chances of finding employment appropriate to one’s qualifications. Echoing the experience of American blacks, French people with an immigrant background also have higher rates of criminality and are subject to intrusive policing.
It is in this context that commentators have termed the poor taste of the cartoons an affront to a downtrodden and marginal population, rather than an impartial exercise of the right to speech. After all, French Muslims have no problems with criticism of Islam per se, long the staple of newspapers and magazines in France. A few observers see the persistence of colonial French attitudes to Islam on the demands made on French Muslims.
In fact, French immigrants, and Muslims in particular, are, at present, confronted with challenges on two different fronts. Firstly, there is a squeeze by the political and the ruling class. The far right have always seen non-white immigrants as against the French way of life. Though they have remained marginal to French politics, as pointed out by observers, they tend to leave their imprint on mainstream politics, who adopt right-wing vocabulary and tactics.
An even greater point of contention has been the attitude of the official establishment comprising the state and its institutions. Ostensibly neutral, many French Muslims have come to feel that the government action such as restricting the public display of religious affiliation seems to affect the Muslim community disproportionately. France remains one of the few countries in the world where wearing scarves in public institutions constitutes an offence; even mothers dropping their kids to school are discouraged from doing so. Courts have even upheld firing workers for not removing their headscarves.
While the French state and the native white population refuse to acknowledge discrimination, French Muslims themselves have another story to tell. In a study carried out in 2019, four out of 10 Muslims, and one in two Muslim women in France, claimed to have been direct victims of religion-based discrimination in access to education, housing and the job market, at least once in their lifetime.
The second challenge facing French Muslims is the rise of extremism amidst their ranks. While the vast majority remains moderate and law-abiding, the radicalisation of even a tiny proportion is a worrying matter for both the community and French society at large. What made the Chechen-origin youth with no previous antecedents so brutally attack the schoolmaster? Was it the influence of peers, extremist preachers, or radicalisation through social media? It will be impossible to say. That this was no isolated incident is made evident by the fact that hundreds of French citizens travelled to fight in Syria, and that several French Muslims were also involved in several terrorist attacks carried out on behalf of the Islamic State.
The expected response of the French state has been increased policing and surveillance of suspect individuals. While this may certainly help prevent radicalised individuals from perpetrating acts of violence, the state must also more actively engage with moderate Muslim voices, help them integrate more fully without asking them to forego their cultural and religious specificities.
In fact, these challenges are not limited to France alone. Many other European countries with sizeable Muslim populations such as the United Kingdom, Germany or Spain are grappling with issues of social backwardness and radicalisation of their Muslim populations. While immigrant populations everywhere end up more or less integrating outwardly—speaking the local language and adopting the local culture—there has been no significant appreciation of their persistent economic and social differences leading to their continuing marginalisation.
In the specific case of France, acknowledging these differences would amount to some sort of affirmative action involving additional state funding in schooling, housing and higher education for immigrant populations. Ironically, entrenched notions of the equality of citizens and the refusal to accept religious or ethnic identities may yet prevent the French state from acting on behalf of marginalised immigrant populations.
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