French laïcité and Islam: A historical Understanding of the Islamic Question in France


Image: Emmanuel Macron, by paquierjacques is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The French government’s rapid action concerning the radical Islamist separatism has spearheaded a worldwide debate on French brand of secularism, and whether it is Anti-Islamist. Emmanuel Macron’s statement “Islam as a religion is in crisis worldwide” erupted a tumultuous reaction from the Arab countries and Turkey. Social media campaigns are being called for the boycott of French products. Macron’s support for satirical outlets like Charlie Hebdo as “the French way of life” has invited allegations against the administration of being Anti-Muslim. The entire roar germinated from an incident which occurred last month, when a French school teacher was beheaded by an Islamist radical, forcing the government led by President Macron to counter “Islamic Separatism”. But the relation between French idea of laïcité, i.e. separation of religion from state has a long history with Islam. In this article, the history behind French brand of secularism and its tussle with Islam is been highlighted.

The nature of secularism in France is very different as compared to large secular states like that of India. In the French example, any display of public religiosity is problematic, and it becomes complicated to draw a line as to what is anti secular and what isn’t. France had a unique history as compared to other countries, in becoming a republic from a monarchy. The process took more than half a century, with the revolution to overthrow the Ancien regime starting in 1789. Only to be restored later, by the combined effort of the European powers defeating Napoleon Bonaparte. The following decades, France shifted from monarchy to republicanism, multiple times. With every decade the valley of differences grew wider between the proponents of laïcité and the Catholic Church. The Church State had withered away, with France adopting secularism in 1905. It ended the ‘concordat’ between France and the Roman Catholic Church. The church and the state were separated, and this came to be known as “laïcité.

Laïcité is a part of the French constitution, and has been utilised for political mobilization, especially in the recent past concerning the immigration question.

The first wave of Muslim immigrants entered France during and after the World War I, when French authorities were in need of soldiers and workers to support their economy. Muslim males were oriented into the economy, coming from French colonies of North Africa. They had no intention to stay in France, and regularly sent money back to home where their families were. The second wave came post World War II when, French economy was devastated, and again the purpose of rebuilding the economy called for help from the colonies. But the nature of immigration changed after the 1950s, when the decolonisation efforts began in former colonies of France, with emergence of civil war in Algeria. The French population of immigrants from these colonies were divided between Pro-France and Anti France binary. After the independence of Algeria in 1962, the groups who supported French efforts stayed back, out of fear of persecution back home. And a large number of Algerian Muslims came to France and this time with their families, because of the declining economic and political conditions in post-colonial Algeria.

There was harmony among the Muslim population and the rest of the French community for many years. But things started to take a polarized turn after the 1980s, when there came a rise of right wing French politicians calling for stringent immigration policies, calling out the threat of rising number of Muslims. This is the juncture where the alien or “other” was being constructed in the political narrative, the picture of an immigrant Muslim polarizing the divide between “Us and Them.”

In 1989, three school girls were expelled for being anti- Laïcité and wearing headscarves in class room. The event started a debate all over the world, questioning the nature of secularism France espoused. The issue sparked further grievances among the Muslim community. The rightist politicians questioned and raised concern about the growing Islamization of France. The “scarf affair,” had been repeatedly used and taken up as a potential political issue. The scarf affair finally resulted in its complete ban in 2011, with Muslim communities growing even more alienated inside the French society, the results of which haunt them even in the contemporary time. Apart from religious head gears, praying areas and their rise have been uncomfortable for the locals. The Muslim’s assertion of their cultural rights and their access to mosques, have had repeated tussles with the authorities, being divided on the question of whether public religiosity is Anti-Laïcité.

The 2005 riots in the suburban ghettos of Paris, denial of Muslim women of wearing hijabs in public spaces, has repeatedly proven that the growing radicalization of Muslim immigrants should not prevent the authorities from understanding the local grievances and cultural needs of the minorities. The cultural integration of Muslims inside the French “way of life” will always be revolted against and mobilized by fundamentalist groups waiting to fish in troubled waters. In 2015, the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office, was to avenge the controversial depiction of Prophet Mohammed. Suicide Bombings, shootings and mass attacks in cafes and restaurants are taking prominence; with the highest number of citizens to join ISIS from Europe being French Muslim immigrants in 2014-15.

There is no denying to the fact that law and order and acting upon national security threats, remains a primary duty of any political establishment. But larger questions should also be addressed in this context, i.e how to conceptualise the friction between Muslims and the majority of France on questions of Laïcité? Integration of a diverse community, inside the fabric of a homogenous society invites challenge. The lack of flexibility in the idea of Laïcité allows conflict. And this tussle between the homogenous French culture and the presence of the Islam question needs deliberation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Upamanyu Basu is a postgraduate in Political Science from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. He has worked as a Research Assistant with Essex University, United Kingdom. His research interests lie in the field of South Asian History, Migration, and Gender.

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