French secularism is not to blame for Radical Islamism

A teacher’s dedication to educating the youth left a wife without a husband and a son without a father. In the late afternoon hours of October 16th, a Chechen-born radical Islamist armed with a knife decapitated Samuel Paty outside the gates of Collège Bois-d’Aulne. The catalyst for this act of violence? Cartoons that Paty showed students in a class on free expression depicting the Islamic figure, Muhammad. Paty’s purpose for showing such cartoons in class was to educate students through illustration about the importance of freedom of speech, satire and secularism in French society.

The murder of Samuel Paty is not the first case in Europe involving violent reprisals for depictions of Muhammad. A Danish cartoonist named Kurt Westergaard sent a caricature of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban to satirical magazine Jyllands-Posten in September of 2005 for publication at Jyllands-Posten that month. For daring to draw the Islamic figure, he was sent death threats.

Flemming Rose–cultural editor at Jyllands-Posten and responsible for organising the publication of the cartoons–wrote a lengthy Washington Post article, “Why I Published Those Cartoons” (2006) months later about the reasons for publishing:

“We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.”

Religious satire from magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are part of a culture within France that values free speech. This satire works as an expression of civil society by placing a candlelight on issues that concern the public’s interest and that allow for conversation to arise. The purpose is not to isolate any group of people but to rather treat people equally. It is also a form of criticism that falls under laws concerning secularism.

Secularism–laïcité–is an integral part of the Republic that is protected by article 1 of ‘the Constitution and by ‘The Law of 1905. Article 2 of The Law of 1905 guarantees that, “The Republic does not recognize, remunerate or subsidize any religion.” This law originates from the days when clerical rule in France under the Catholic Church dominated public affairs. From this law came forth an understanding that the Republic would endeavour to not involve itself in the matters of private worship.

An allegory of the seperation of Church and State (1905).

President Macron already is implementing an approach that seeks to root out radical Islamism in France. Macron announced a plan in early October after consultation with intellectuals, Islamic theologians and security professionals. This plan involves tightening laws against radical imams that exploit Muslims in the Islamic community. There are estimated to be over five million Muslims living in France (8.8% of France’s total population according to a Pew Research Center report from 2017)–one of Europe’s largest Islamic communities. The majority of these Muslims are law abiding citizens that pose no threat to the state. However, there is radicalisation occurring in a subsect of this community.

Across the Atlantic US news editorials write articles that attempt to shift blame for radical islamist terror onto French secularism. Articles in Washington Post, New York Times and Politico argue that Macron’s approach with French secularism stigmatises Muslims and contributes to radicalism. In a Politico article titled, “France’s dangerous religion of secularism”. Farhad Khosrokhavar argues that French secularism is extreme because of its embrace of religious blasphemy which contributes to a vicious cycle of reactivity from radical Islamists.

There is a bigotry of lower expectations with this type of argument that plays into narratives pushed by both anti-Muslim bigots and radical islamists. On one side of the coin, the argument implies that French Muslims have a higher propensity for violence and that because of this Muslims need to be warded off in some way. On the other side of the coin, censoring cartoons of Muhammad plays into radical Islamists hands by giving into self-censorship. I am of the opinion that a paternal form of discrimination is not a solution to radical Islamism nor is outright bigotry.

French police stand in front of Notre Dame Church in Nice after a terrorist attack, October 29, 2020.

There are people who argue that the government should not be even involving itself in the matters of these mosques. However, radicalism is taking hold in these centres of worship and allowing unfettered extremist doctrines to permeate with a potential to create great risk to the public is irresponsible.

The French state is under a duty to protect public order by ensuring that all citizens liberties are protected. This includes a duty to uphold the fundamental value of laïcité against all impositions. An expression of religiosity is a right that is protected under French law, but this expression cannot violate laïcité nor the rights of others.

Macron’s implementation of a plan to curtail rising radical Islamism follows a tradition of anti-clericalism that dates back to the founding of the state. Followers of Émile Combes–a French statesman and head of the anti-Clerical coalition–voiced arguments in favour of the Law of 1905 formulation as a way of weakening the ecclesiastical hierarchy. This was despite fierce resistance by some Republicans and right-wing Catholics to the law. Nearly a hundred and fifteen years later, Catholicism is still the largest religion in France with around sixty percent of the population and many of whom being integrated into the Republic.

President Macron speaking before an audience on Islamist seperatism, October 2, 2020.

When Macron requests the Islamic leadership in France to accept a charter of republican values that prevents Islam from being used as a political extremist movement, this is in keeping with the Republic’s values and French tradition. Islam is not being unfairly targeted with such policies. Other religions already are faced with similar regulations within the Republic.

Radical Islamism’s impact on France cannot be overstated. The ideology continues to pose a danger to French society. As long as it does policies aimed at curtailing it will remain.

Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson and Edited by Sean Hastings (20/11/2020)

Essayist who writes about the Middle East. Internationalist. BA & LLB student. Contributor to The Jerusalem Post. My website: https://philosophyismagic.com