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“Imagine” by John Lennon has become the impromptu French anthem after a pianist’s moving performance in front of the blood-soaked Bataclan concert hall the morning following last week’s attack in Paris. It is not hard to hear strains of “La Marseillaise” in this secular prayer for “a brotherhood of man.” But beyond such fraternité, Lennon also imagines a world without religion, and that is something few French agree on.
French Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others are as angered as everyone else by the “holy war” being waged by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). But they do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of a post-religious society, as France sometimes appears to be, any more than they embraced Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire. They heard “Je suis Charlie” not as a defense of press freedom or a right to offend, but as a barb directed at them. On Sunday, a former senior government official gave a scathing interview demanding that Muslim representatives stop “shirking responsibility.”
In his historic address to a joint session of Parliament on November 16, French President François Hollande sought to calm domestic tensions. He singled out jihad and ISIS but made no reference to Islam or Muslims. “It hurts to say it, but we know that these were French people who killed other French people.” Hollande added that the terrorists are “individuals who start out by committing crimes, [then] become radicalized.” In other words, he emphasized, violating French law was the first stop on the terrorists’ slide to violent extremism—not the fact of their having been born into a given religious community. The high percentage of French converts to Islam among the recruits to ISIS—20 percent overall and 25 percent of all female ISIS recruits—testifies to this point.
Reactions to the speech have emphasized Hollande’s martial tone and the lack of a long-term strategy to rid secular France of violent religious extremism. One secular intellectual concluded in Sunday’s Le Figaro that “laïcité is unintelligible and even shocking” for practicing Muslims, who view it as “an injunction to abandon their religion.”
Laïcité was a revolutionary secularism that was hostile to any intermediary associations, especially religious ties, between citizens and the state. A recent book by Jean Baubérot catalogs no fewer than seven different styles of laïcité in the last two centuries. The state has sometimes been anti-religious and sometimes dirigiste—that is, interested in directing religious practice. Today’s laïcité is “identity based,” Baubérot argues, and it is theoretically supportive of religious life that eschews the public or political sphere. For example, the state assumes most of the costs for thousands of religious schools. For historical reasons these are mostly Catholic, but there are hundreds of Jewish schools, too. Expanding this right to include Muslim schools is a natural step that would enhance, rather than diminish, as the Le Figaro author might contend, French laïcité.
The last census to even indicate respondents’ religion was conducted in 1872.But since the late 1990s, governments have had a hard time making such changes out of a well-grounded fear of the far right. The National Front has haunted French politics during the same 40-year period that a native-born Muslim minority has come of age. It’s no coincidence that a law banning headscarves in French public schools came on the heels of the right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen’s best electoral performance in April 2002. That law had the ironic consequence of creating demand for private Muslim schools for families desiring a religious education—that is, it disintegrated rather than integrated Muslims. Qualifying for state support for schools is a long process that only a handful of Muslim institutions have mastered to date.
The problems go beyond schooling. The last census to even indicate respondents’ religion was conducted in 1872, and a 1978 law (later softened) prohibited official record keeping on ethnicity and race. Affirmative action has always been unpopular because it violates the principles of equality and colorblindness. And ethnic or religious lobbies are viewed with suspicion.
Policymakers and the public have thus been left guessing about everything from the exact size of the new Muslim minority to their performance in schools and on the job market—just as the second and third generations emerged on the scene. In a sense, France’s official ignorance about its citizens’ race and religion is a laudable virtue dating back to the abolition of feudalism in 1789. It holds the promise of emancipation from one’s origins.
But statistically dissolving the children and grandchildren of immigrants into the general citizenry also reflects wishful thinking that integration can simply be decreed. This approach hampered the study of the new generations’ socioeconomic experiences and the creation of appropriate policy responses to the difficulties they encountered. Radicalization is indeed a French problem, not just a Muslim one. But if there is only a single unitary peuple français, in Hollande’s words, then there are no communities that are marginalized, no communities from which to draw necessary strength and resources.
Concessions to organized religion have never sat well with a wide cross section of French political elites.French demographers have recently begun to measure the trajectories of immigrant-origin citizens, but the notion of “ethnic statistics” still raises hackles. Political integration has also come along at a very deliberate speed—at the national level, there have been a handful of ministerial appointments of minorities. French Muslims are assumed to make up around eight percent of the national population, but there is only one first-term “Muslim” MP, who is the child of North African labor migrants and happens not to be very religious.
French authorities have also adapted in other ways. At critical junctures over the last two centuries, French governments have gradually liberalized France’s state-church policy to extend accords guaranteeing religious freedoms—including de facto state support for prayer spaces and religious education—to the Jewish Consistoire, Catholic Church, and Protestant Federation. In 2003, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) joined in. Such overt political contact with religious leadership remains controversial: concessions to organized religion have never sat well with a wide cross section of French political elites.
Also somewhat controversial were the government’s consultations with Muslim civil society groups after Charlie Hebdo. These looked beyond mosque administrators to include dozens of individual Muslim citizens with leadership potential. The resulting instance de dialogue has only an advisory role and meets but once or twice annually. It is not meant to replace the CFCM, but around half of its members come from the same pool of religious associations as the council. January’s attacks also pushed the government to introduce reforms to make chaplains more available in prisons, to require the certification of imams who will preach in French mosques, and to move to establish Islamic theology faculties where those for Christianity and Judaism already exist.
This time around, the government seems to be focused on what has come to be seen as necessary repression: closing radical mosques, arresting known radicals, and prosecuting the war on ISIS in Syria. Representatives of Muslim civil society organizations—religious and secular—will bear more pressure to prove that they are part of the solution. The CFCM is preparing a call for national unity to be read aloud in France’s 2,500 Islamic prayer spaces on the first Friday after the November attacks. The country's largest Muslim student group published an emotional video of condolences and condemnation that has been warmly welcomed to the national discussion.
This stands in contrast to the spirit of fraternité that pervaded in January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In response to the killing of 12 people who were targeted for their membership in small communities—journalists, Jews, and police officers—nearly four million joined marches across France on January 11. With the simple messages of their printed signs—Je suis Charlie, Je suis juif, Je suis flic (I am Charlie, I am Jewish, I am a cop)—demonstrators formed a symbolic human shield around the attack’s targets. That is the positive side of French citizenship, rooted in a fundamental belief that everyone is the same.
Equality was the assessment of the terrorists, too, who killed indiscriminately on Friday. But it is also incorrect and gives an incomplete portrait of a complex society. Until French policymakers find a way to give all citizens equal rights to communal attachments, France will not be able to find a way to bring them fully together.
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