National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

French ban: secularism in the extreme

French President Jacques Chirac’s government took a wrong turn this week with its decision to ban students from wearing any religious garb in school. Already, Muslim girls in France are not allowed to wear headscarves in school, and Chirac extended the prohibition to Jewish skullcaps and “large crosses,” saying that the secular identity of the nation was at stake. This is hokum, as anyone must realize. It is also a political measure that may do more harm than good, one that may fan the very flames of religious intolerance it is ostensibly designed to suppress.

The impulse behind the decision is clearly anti-Muslim. Five million Muslims now live in France, and there are fears that alienated Muslim youth may become recruits for militant Islam. The presence of a large Muslim minority is feeding social tensions within French society, which the right-wing National Front has capitalized on in recent elections, appealing to anti-crime, anti-immigrant feeling among French voters. Chirac’s decision seems as much about minimizing the National Front’s appeal to French voters as dealing with a real problem. According to a National Public Radio report Dec. 18, only four cases of Muslim girls wearing headscarves to schools were not resolved amicably in the last year.

Chirac framed his decision in the context of French history, calling secularism a pillar of the French constitution. Chirac said if France succumbs to the demand of its religious communities, “it would sacrifice its heritage; it would compromise its future; it would lose its soul.”

Many devout Muslims as well as Christians and Jews may feel the same about acceding to the government’s demand that they give up elements of clothing that they see as integral to their identity. Secularism, some of these leaders have pointed out, is ideally meant to promote religious liberty, not become its own form of state-sponsored atheism.

Why does any of this matter? In this week’s NCR, historian R. Scott Appleby discusses the complexities of religious extremism, both among the religiously educated and those with little obvious affiliation to a religion. Secularism pushed to an extreme becomes its own form of intolerance. In this country, too, valid concerns about the division of church and state have often evolved into an absurd hypersensitivity to any display of religiosity. Scrubbing any kind of religious context from our lives goes beyond the original intent of the founders of this country or, indeed, legitimate concerns about freedom of religion. The claims and concerns become at best fantastical and hypocritical and at worst bigotry.

In the case of France, one wonders if the measure won’t fan the very flames of religious divisiveness that it is ostensibly designed to suppress. France’s strong anticlericalism is responsible for excesses in its past, and is now being used to justify repressive measures directed against its Muslim citizens.

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: