The French secular approach ABC

Europe has always had a troubling relationship with the religious authorities of the world. From the Spanish inquisition to religious wars to the latest abuse scandals that have erupted across Ireland, there has always been controversy.

For far too long the religious institutions have created great divides across the European landscape; some positive, but unfortunately the majority, negative.

Many countries across Europe and further afield, such as Turkey and the United States, have sought to create a dense barrier between the church and the state. This was done in order to allow the peaceful retention of religious freedom of conscience and also the unfettered working of a state relatively independent of religious influence.

While countries like Ireland, Malta and, arguably, Italy are still many years behind the rest of  Europe in making a definitive leap to secular law making, real change has been made across Europe as a whole. Europe’s shining example of secularism has always been France. France has for the past hundred years enforced its brand of secularism through its laws known as 'laïcité'.

French laïcité

Simply put, state secularism, or 'laïcité', is the concept of denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as the absence of government involvement in religious affairs. This approach by definition is not anti-religious or pro-atheist but rather a religiously blind governmental view of society, where it does not matter what faith you practice as long as you keep it within the private sphere.

French secularism started in 1905 with the French law on the Separation of the Churches and State which was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 9 December 1905. The law was seen as radical at the time but was underpinned by three very clear principles; the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church.

The French Constitution initiated in 1958 states in article 1 that “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion". By doing so they had erected a thick and uncompromising wall between church and state that gave religious institutions room to breathe but not enough to influence the day-to-day working of the state.

This approach has been widely seen as an effective and forward thinking strategy, years ahead of many other countries in attempting to overcome the very real issue of church involvement in political affairs.

While the French have long been proud of their approach and have triumphantly championed themselves as Europe’s greatest leader in secular rights, it has also been home to the greatest tension over them, unsurprisingly.

France's approach in modern times has been dogged with political and social controversy. While the main aim of the law was to ensure that those of all faiths and none live in relative harmony. The policy has been interpreted by some as fuelling Islamaphobia within the French republic and creating a widening chasm between the Muslim groups and French society.

Growing Chasm

Most French people, like in Ireland, are initially baptised as Roman Catholics, although church attendance has been in free fall for years and Secular Ideology runs very deep with the French people. Despite this, as the French population grows, so too does the Muslim population, making up almost 5 million, or about eight per cent, of the overall population; the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

The controversy between the French Secularists and the Islamic minorities stems from lawmakers turning to heavy handed legislation in order to stifle the growth of public displays of the Islamic faith.

It begs the question, is this the correct approach to adapt to a growing minority in line with reasonable French law? Or is it simply reverse discrimination targeting the Islamic minority? Strong supporters of French Secularism have argued that the country has not gone far enough and that they want more teeth to the legislation to prevent special treatment to Islam.

Great amounts of violence has erupted in the past number of years, with investigations into three attacks in Reims and three more in Orleans on Muslim Women wearing Headscarves.

Veils and headscarves were somewhat targeted in 2004 with new laws banning "ostentatious" religious symbols in public schools. The surprising result was that it was enforced relatively without incident. However when the Burqa was banned in 2011 up to 705 women were stopped within the first year and given fines. This would seem ridiculous when you consider that it is estimated only 700 to 2,000 Muslim women in France actually wear the Burqa on a full-time basis. The Burqa as you may know it is not a strict requirement of Islam and most Muslim women in France wear neither Burqa nor headscarves.

Hicham Benaissa of the National Centre for Scientific Research was quick to comment on France's modern Secular approach and noted that secularism "appears to be a sort of (protection) against the religious influence of Islam" when in actual fact "its spirit is to protect the faiths."

The War on Symbols

France appears to be fighting a war against any and all religious symbols. This may seem understandable as they are a religious identifier in the public sphere, however many Muslim see this as a direct threat to their way of life.

Despite this, a number of recent surveys reveal the majority of Muslims, Catholics and Jews are living peacefully and without incident under the current laws, while only a small minority in the Muslim community take issue with it.

The results of non-secular policies

France has been an unofficial test centre for the wider European Union; testing and probing how best to deal with the issue of church relations on a wider scale. Other countries capitalising on the successes of France's model have slowly began to adopt an approach similar to laïcité. While many would say the policy has been wholly successful as it targets all religions in a manner resembling a blanket, others would argue it is a clear and substantial breach of the free practice of religion.

Such disparity and arguments, while equally valid, should be looked at on a wider scale, as in Ireland where the close relationship of church and state shattered multiple generations of children due to child sex abuse and forced labour.

In actuality, such close church-state relationships across Europe have led to catastrophic mistakes and while many go without incident, some have spiralled out of control. The most notable example of all has to be Ireland where the strict grip of religious influence has had a terrible effect on the youth of the country. Massive redress schemes now have to be extended as a form of damage limitation. Steps toward a secular barrier are nothing but a far off pipe dream for many Irish men and women.

A lack of clear divide that took place in Ireland and its results should compound the reiteration of the French example across Europe. As not just as tool for freedom of conscience but also as a preventative measure.

Conclusion

While the French approach may not be perfect, perhaps it could be a platform that other European states could adopt in order not to attack or subjugate religious minorities, but instead allow the independent operation of religion within the private sphere, developing unfettered by the state. This is arguably impossible due to the restrictions imposed, but that’s where the problem lies.

'Laïcité', in my opinion, is not anti-clericalism or anti-religious or Islamaphobic. It cannot be Islamaphobic on the basis that all religions are treated equally. Crosses are banned just as much as Burqas; it is an even playing-field on the point.

Laïcité should not be used as a tool that seeks to condemn religion into the dens of antiquity but rather a tool in which to create a suitable division between the private life of a citizen where free practice is acceptable and the public sphere where all citizens are equal and devoid of ethnic, racial or religious differentiators. In a Europe historically so divided by war, genocide and ethnic tensions, such an approach seems rather noble to an academic observer.

Such a troubling period in France may also be the result of an acute acclimatisation to laïcité. When laïcité was initially enforced, Catholics decried the laws as unfair and abusive using similar arguments to the ones we see today. As Catholicism retreated from the public sphere into the private sphere, institutional secularism, administrative formality and legal process soon became the norm.

Perhaps that is the next step for French Laïcité; while it is admitted that it can sometimes go too far and be too extreme in its use, it does so for a clear purpose. To not harbour divisions based on religion within French Society, however noble such an approach is in theory with the growing level of dissatisfaction within the Islamic community, it stands to reason that France's policy of laïcité has many more hurdles to cross before it will be deemed completely fair.