07 January 2004

France's dilemma

There are, of course, at least two sides to every story. Here is an explanation in The International Herald Tribune of the dilemma facing the French government in its effort to defend laïcité, or secularism: "The long, bloody path that led to French secularism." Author Diana Pinto writes:

Islam's demands, especially for those in the camp of laïcité, or secularism, are deemed to break the (often bitter) republican contract that other religions were forced to swallow in the past. This is why many republican, Jewish and Christian elites, and a significant number of Muslims, are upset that the republic is paying so much attention to the Muslims in religious terms. With religion and politics so intertwined in Islam, they fear that a Muslim political Trojan horse (and even a fundamentalist Islamic monster) has slipped unnoticed into the republic. Hence their refusal of state attempts to channel religious identity into a new type of republican contract. They are convinced that such a religious openness is creating a problem rather than solving one. . . .

One thing is clear, however. Chirac was not condemning Islam to second-rate status within the French republic. He was desperately playing with a Rubik's cube of religious identities; by moving one square on one side, he ran the risk of changing the geometry of all the other sides. In speaking about France's future, he was exorcising the ghosts of its painful past.

What would happen if France were to abandon its 99-year-old experiment with laïcité? What if it were finally to recognize that religion cannot be banished from the public realm and that someone's religion inevitably forms public policy, even if that religion is misleadingly labelled secularism? Might such a recognition lead to a greater tolerance of confessional pluralism within the republic? Or would it lead to a more explicit embrace of Rousseau's ostensibly tolerant but in reality supremely intolerant civil religion?

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