Why Emmanuel Macron Will Pursue ‘French Secularism’ Despite Reservations Of The Muslims & Liberals

French President Emmanuel Macron is likely to go ahead with the new law against what he thinks to be “Islamist separatism” and continue to defend and reinforce the French laïcité (secularism).

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In what the French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin describes to be “an extremely strong secular offensive” against various “Islamist” groups in his country, the Lower House of the French National Assembly approved on February 16 the ‘Respect for the Principles and Values of the Republic’ or the ‘anti-separatism’ bill brought by President Emmanuel Macron.

There were 357 votes in favor of the bill and 151 against it.  The bill will be now put to vote next month in the Upper House or the Senate where it is also likely to have smooth sailing.

The bill, once enacted as a law, will impose measures through its 70 ‘Articles’, expanding the ability of the State to close places of worship and religious schools, as well as to ban preachers it considers “extremist”. Some noteworthy measures are as follows:

A new offense for online hate speech under which a person can be detained for spreading personal information about the government employees on social media with the intent to harm them, and will be punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 Euros ($55,000).

The blocking or delisting of websites promoting hate speech will also be made easier and legal proceedings accelerated.

Under the “separatism” offense, anyone found threatening, violating, or intimidating an elected official or public sector employee will also face up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 Euros ($91,000). If the offense is committed by a foreigner, they could be banned from French territory.

Doctors will be fined 15,000 Euros ($18,000) and face a prison sentence of up to one year for providing virginity certificates and rules will be put in place against polygamy. Any immigrants practicing it, for instance, would not be issued a residence permit.

The “neutrality principle”, which prohibits civil servants from wearing religious symbols like the Muslim hijab and voicing political views, will be extended to the private sector providing public services such as those working for transport companies.

It may be noted here that during a high-profile speech on secularism and Islam last October, French President Emmanuel Macron had said that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, and there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”.

He had said this in the aftermath of the beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher, for showing his pupils the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. His beheading by an 18-year-old Muslim Russian refugee of Chechen ethnicity bore the hallmarks of a similar attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

In 2015, the office of Hebdo was attacked, for creating these comic strips on the Prophet. Hebdo has remained one event where the French laïcité (secularism) was in direct conflict with one’s religious norms and the beheading of Paty further deepened the social conflict. Macron has since politicized the attacks and called Islam to be in crisis.

Unlike other democratic countries, including those in Europe, France follows a strict separation of religion and state, formalized through Art 1 of its Constitution, wherein to be a French secular means avoiding religious symbol in public space. “The French state does not favor any one religion and guarantees their peaceful co-existence in respect of the laws and principles of the Republic,” the government’s website reads.

Many in France assert that the French State’s secularism is based on respect for freedom of thought and freedom of religion. The absence of a state religion, and the subsequent separation of the state and church, they say, are prerequisites for such freedom of thought.

When the idea of separating church and state first gained ground in the 1800s and then was written into law in 1905, the idea was to have a peaceful coexistence of all religions under a neutral state. It was only under this secular principle adopted in March 2004 that a law was legislated that prohibits all clothing or other attire conspicuously displaying religious worship to be worn in schools, no matter what the religion. And then in 2010, another law was enacted, banning full face-coverings, including the niqab, from all public places.

For liberal multiculturalists elsewhere, such French measures are a blatant infringement of the right to religious expression. Inside France, the Muslims have been aghast to all these. And this is precisely that – the lack of accommodation between the French State and Islam – which is at the root of all the recent terror or violent attacks in France.

Though a Catholic-majority country, France now has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe (because of heavy immigration, mainly from West Asia and North Africa), with more than 5 million estimated Muslims in a nation of 67 million.

Those who oppose the French model of secularism say that there cannot be any law, which has been made to offend Islam, and its practices just because some “Bad Muslims” resorted to terror or violent acts. Their empathy for the Muslims in France may be summarised through three points:

One, there must be a distinction between the terrorists as individuals and their religion, Islam, which, all told, is a great religion of peace. Two, these terrorists are only reacting to the grave injustice to the Muslims perpetrated by the Western countries and their allies in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.

Three, these terrorists also happen to be the “victims” of so-called democracy and capitalism in non-Muslim-majority countries in the sense that they are badly nurtured and remain deprived and depraved; the result being that the fundamentalists allure the likes of them by employing starkly religious language and invoking religious texts that promise “other-worldly” rewards as compensation for “this-worldly” sacrifice, including “the guarantee of eternal Paradise, and most famously, the lascivious offering of seventy-two heavenly virgins”.

These are the standard sympathetic and empathetic arguments that one comes across whenever any terrorist attack by Muslims takes place in the West, particularly in Europe. The main point that is made here is to make a clear distinction between Islam as a religion and “the Muslim attackers”, who are mostly immigrants from the former colonies, leading a life that is “a heady mix of unemployment, crime, drugs, institutional racism and endemic cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement”.

However, the mainstream French thoughts do not buy the above logic. The French point is that even if one overlooks the behaviors of the derelict Muslim youth, the fact remains that what they think to be acts of apostasy and blasphemy are serious offenses under Islam, leading eventually to death sentences in a brutal manner (these are the official policies in countries in North Africa, West Asia, and Pakistan, all ‘Islamic’ countries).

Under the French thoughts, the “French life”, which has been the case for hundreds of years, makes a clear distinction between public and private life, in which religion was relegated to the private sphere with no hold over public life. In fact, many French point out that it is their secular politics that explains why the immigrant communities, including Muslims, do receive in France some of the most generous benefits such as free education, free health, subsidized housing, and multiple other handouts from the State.

There are many charms in their secularism, in particular the freedom to believe what you will do in private. But this is something many Muslims will not agree with. For them, the very distinction between private and public is either meaningless or unacceptable.

On the other hand, recent studies reveal that the Muslim assailants (in violent incidents) are not necessarily those suffering from either material deprivation or inadequate education.

After examining the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners, Peter Bergen, the author of Holy War Inc, and Swati Pandey, a research associate at the New America Foundation, have found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering and medicine. Databases of terrorism perpetrators collected by sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog also reflect this trend.

In other words, Islamic terror in countries like France has also attracted reasonably well educated, financially comfortable, and, in some cases, quite well off and often gainfully employed people.

Of course, this is not to suggest that poverty is not connected with the deadly phenomenon. But the important point is that whereas the poor may turn out to be foot soldiers or motivators, like the assailants in Paris, Berlin, and London, the leadership is usually in the hands of those who are well educated and powerful.

Against this background, whatever may be the reservations in fellow democracies in the rest of the world, President Emmanuel Macron is likely to go ahead with laws against what he thinks to be “Islamist separatism” and continue to defend and reinforce the French laïcité.

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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com