How can we understand French secularism?

Amr El Shobaki
Monday 21 Dec 2020

It has become difficult to understand many stands that France took towards Islam without understanding the nature of this model

The press conference President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and President Emmanuel Macron jointly held in Paris on 7 December raised a host of questions concerning French secularism and its values. The questions are timely, given they arise following a barrage of criticism in France and abroad due to republishing the offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

Criticisms were directed by figures, currents and public opinion opposing violence and terrorism. They condemned the crime of beheading the French teacher in the street after he had displayed the offensive caricatures to his pupils in order to “to teach them about freedom of speech and expression” as the teacher had explained.

The incident reopened a discussion about the model of French secularism since it has become difficult for some to assess France’s stances about Islam without understanding the model and grasping the historical context of a different cultural and political experience. Naturally, dialogue is the sound ground for understanding points of agreement and disagreement and respecting the specificity of every experience without being a source of offence to others.

The Arab world’s main issue is not the “religious guidance” of the French and European society to Islam or holding them accountable according to its standards and values. Simultaneously, human commonalities among different peoples and different cultures should not be ignored but respected, such as opposition to racism, anti-Semitism, fomentation, hatred, and religious offences.

A set of challenges

The French secular system is faced with many challenges, such as hardline secularism – as described by some people – and legal problems related to regulations organizing the transfer to a process of secularism.

French secularism adopts a hardline stance towards the relation of religion with the public space, not only the political space. There is a definite separation between the state and religious institutions. There is no cross hanging over a school board in governmental schools as is the case in many European schools. The hijab, or head scarf, is not allowed in schools and governmental institutions, while private schools, including Catholic ones, accepted Muslim girls wearing head scarves following their expulsion from governmental schools.

Hence, many in the Arab and Islamic world opposed the French government’s decision to ban head scarves in governmental schools and public institutions, ignoring the fact that the French model targets all religious symbols, not just the Islamic ones.

French secularism is preoccupying itself with many details related to the presence of religion in public space and works on secularising the entire public space to become “free” from all religious manifestations; refusing the head scarf, instigating battles about the burkini swimwear, and selling halal meat at restaurants. These issues don’t raise an interest within the Anglo-Saxon culture in Britain and the USA (except among bigots).

A different model

France’s law issued in1905 represented the legal foundation for the rules organising the secular system. This law stipulates that the state mustn’t spend money on religious institutions and bodies. This was understandable in a Christian country where thousands of churches, monasteries and religious bodies were capable of being independent financially. When millions of Muslims went to France, the need for building mosques, religious institutions, and cemeteries arose.

These expenses were not paid by the French secular state. Thus, the Islamic religious institutions were obliged to depend on foreign funding (some of which was unsupervised) to the extent that a good number of mosques in France continued to be funded and administered by Islamic countries which more often than not place politics before religion.

Perhaps this made President Macron’s recent speech concerning the necessity of banning foreign funding of Islamic religious institutions linked to the possibility of revising one of the legal pillars of French secularism, i.e. the 1905 law, and allowing Islamic bodies to receive financial assistance from the state to restore and renovate places of worship.

In addition, France has the right to refuse contributions exceeding 10,000 euros and necessitates the declaration of their sources. This aims at reducing foreign countries’ influence and control of Islamic places of worship and many Islamic bodies in France.

The French hardline secularism will remain connected in good part to political and religious separatism with religious traditions and institutions which took place in tandem with the French Revolution in 1789. It was dissimilar to the British model which tended to gradually cut off from old traditions. This explains the continuation of the royal institution, the constitution’s acknowledgement of the Anglican Church as a national church, the presence of religion and religious manifestations in public space and the separation of religion and politics.

A prominent role

The Church kept playing a prominent and influential role in French society. France was called the “Eldest Daughter of the Church” in the Middle Ages. French kings were always in the forefront in defending the Papal institution since Charlemagne in the eighth century.

Grinding religious wars, which continued for long decades in the 16th century, drove many, since the French Revolution broke out, to make a decisive move in regards to the relation between religion and the state. It started with a consensual law between the two sides signed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and ended with the total separation between the state and religious institutions in 1905.

In conclusion, understanding the French secular model is a gateway to understanding much of the aspects related to France’s performance on the cultural level and in its stand towards issues such as satirising religions and hijab, among other things.

This does not mean neither accepting it nor its applicability in Arab countries, but it means conducting a civilised dialogue between different cultural experiences. Arab countries can make a contribution through inserting the offence to religions and prophets within the legally condemned crimes in the world such as racism, anti-Semitism, fomentation and hate speeches, away from violence and incitement. 

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