Just over five years ago, in Paris on the evening of Friday 15 November 2015, in three simultaneous attacks terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed 130 French citizens. Ninety died and a hundred were injured at a rock concert in the Bataclan theatre, several died outside the Stade de France where France and Germany were playing a friendly football match and others were maimed in attacks on cafés. Only eleven months had passed since another Da’esh-inspired group attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket taking seventeen lives.
Then came a wave of ‘lone wolf’ atrocities, the worst in 2016 when a 19-tonne truck ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Nice seafront killing 86 and injuring 458. Since November 2019 there have been ten such further attacks some at random, others aimed at Christians, priests and a schoolteacher. France feels that it is a nation whose very identity is threatened by these assaults on its way of life. Over seventy mosques and their sources of finance are now under investigation. In November 2020 President Macron re-affirmed in speeches that laïcité, a radical form of secularism, is the essence of French identity and that the Muslim community must conform to a ‘Charter of Republican values’. But what precisely are these values, and when does laicïté begin to erode the right to religious freedom? And is laïcité as the definition of French identity a solution to the problem of terrorism or a provocation? All questions Christians have reasons to be interested in hearing answered.
“All my life I have held a certain idea of France.” “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”, wrote General Charles de Gaulle in the opening sentence of his first volume of war memoirs, (The Call) L’Appel:1940-1942. The General, reflecting his own heroic martial virtues, was always preoccupied with grandeur. So President Macron’s somewhat grandiose deportment and attempts to muster the French people around the Republican flag against terrorism, is not unprecedented. But he can’t reinvent himself as De Gaulle any more than Johnson can reinvent himself as Churchill. Macron needs his own idea of France. And what he needed was at hand: ‘Republican values’ and laïcité as the backbone of French identity.
A few years ago, at a government interfaith conference in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, I gave a well-received talk which gently suggested that banning the head-scarf, hijab, in State schools was a bad idea. Towards the end of lunch I was informed that the French Ambassador wanted to speak to me. I was escorted to her table where she delivered a long harangue on the oppression of Muslim women. According to the Ambassador Muslim women were oppressed by Islam and did not wish to wear the hijab. Laïcité liberated Muslim women and was civilization’s answer to backward religious practices. No ifs or buts, no room for dialogue or nuance. I’d just encountered ‘une certaine ideé de la France’. A rather different emphasis from de Gaulle’s but foreshadowing Macron’s.
France’s population contains Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority. The Pew Research Foundation puts the number of Muslims in France, mainly from the North Africa but also from the Middle East, at c. 6 million which makes them 8.8% of the population (the CIA estimate is between 7-9%). Of these about 100,000 are converts. Some 76 mosques are due for government inspection and 18, some of which should have closed, will be shut down.
In France the hijab is the subject of long running controversy. President Chirac extended an existing government ban on all wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in State schools to every secondary education establishment and this was quickly voted into law in March 2004. In 2010 full length Burqās and face-concealing Niqābs, which barely left wearers’ eyes visible, were banned from public places. In August 2016 the Mayor of Cannes opened up a beachhead in the apparel-wars with a ban on burkinis, body- concealing swimsuits, a ban upheld by the French Council of State which presumably viewed them as un-Republican and a symbol of separatism. Criticism of this ruling from non-Muslims has been ineffectual.
In the middle of November this year, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), under growing pressure from Macron, announced its proposal for a National Council to vet foreign-born imams. Macron plans additional legislation to ban home-schooling, and to initiate training of imams in State controlled colleges requiring signing on to ‘The Principles of the Republic’. His target is ‘separatism’ and thus taqfiri brands of Salafi and Wahabi thinking and behavior - disavowal and rejection of all who do not share their excluding Puritan ethic - which he seems to see as a precursor to, and breeding ground for, terrorism. All this is laïcité in practice. This is not the procedural secularism, the separation of Church and State, of the USA. And it’s not secular Britain with its established Church where very few would consider the Jewish kippa or a head-scarf or a cross an ‘ostentatious’ religious symbol – though occupational restrictions by employers involving wearing of crosses have been upheld in court. The difference is that French secularism, enshrined legally in law separating Church and State in 1905, has become prescriptive and ideological.
But in September the French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, did attempt to formulate an inclusive female standard of dress ‘de façon républicaine’ (in a republican fashion) for State schools. He condemned both short skirts - indécence - and the wearing of hijabs by mothers accompanying school trips. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution has left its trace in hostility to religion in the public domain with little acknowledgement that culturally the hijab for many Muslims is an expression of modesty just as much as longer skirts.
In France since 9/11 conflict over women’s dress seems to be in step with the growth of terror in the name of Allah. And it is an easy jump to the assumption that ‘conspicuous’ religiously approved clothing is somehow a link in a causal chain leading to violence, as well as being a breach of laïcité undermining the foundations of the Fifth Republic. Such a view may indeed coincide with the social perceptions of French governments. But not with the perceptions of France’s disadvantaged and increasingly alienated Muslim communities, who are daily bombarded with extremist recruitment material on-line, and who protest against their government’s hardline laïcité.
Such a preoccupation with controlling female dress does not easily admit to reasoned distinctions. Seeing the face of a person is a major part of human communication, not just a security concern. In this sense the niqāb and burkā which seclude and exclude women – unlike the hijab - are anti-social and might reasonably be considered a direct challenge to French values, more a form of what Macron calls ‘separatism’ than an expression of modesty and human dignity. France’s adopted Lithuanian Jewish philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), a champion of dialogue, symbolically grounded his idea of ethical human relationships in face-to-face encounters.
The major problem with Macron’s approach is that it does not appear to be evidence based. First, ‘separatism’ is common to all three Abrahamic religions: the Amish, the Jewish Haredi as well as Salafis. It is a response to seeing the world as sinful and a source of potential moral contamination. The vast majority of Salafis are peace-loving and pious. Indeed, because they can talk the talk and walk the walk which has taken a tiny minority into violence and terrorism, some are notably good at de-radicalisation. Some of the first assassinations undertaken by Boko Haram in North East Nigeria were Salafi scholars who opposed the movement’s violence and were seen as an immediate threat. Second, recruitment to jihadism in France takes place predominantly through relationships within families and between friends often in particular banlieues or small towns. If the UK is anything to go by 40% of those recruited have suffered from some form of mental illness. It is often because they have little of the Qur’anic knowledge that might have accrued from mosque attendance that many can be duped. Violent criminality is given a ‘glorious’ religious legitimation. This makes recruitment via social media, manipulating emotional reactions to videos and Qur’anic verses out of context, that much easier.
Britain’s Muslim communities, unlike France’s, trace their roots to the Indian sub-continent and Britain’s approach to cultural differences, multiculturalism, has been less doctrinaire than France’s. But we have had our own tragedies and agonizing failures, the 2017 Manchester bombing in which 22 died still has the power to shock. So we can readily and deeply emphasize with our friends across the Channel. Multi-culturalism is no panacea. There are dangers of social division of tolerating what should not be tolerated. But because, at least in this respect, we aren’t deducing counter-terrorism policy from a rigid set of ideological principles, we are able to see what works and what doesn’t, and, at best, adjust policy to changing circumstances. France’s tragic losses suggest that the answer to the failures of laïcité is not more laïcité.