Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of 'National Identity' and Racism in the French Republic
Jaddaliyya, May 16, 2015 by Myriam François-Cerrah

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Professor Olivier Roy, Head of the Mediterranean Program at the European University Institute discusses the development of the concept of laicite in France, from its emergence as a tool for the management of diversity, to its rebranding as an ideology of exclusion. In this interview, he questions the notion of national identity as a politicized concept and identifies a profound crisis of identity at its root. He also outlines the double-bind faced by French Muslims, called at once to hide their faith, but then speak as representatives of it during periods of crisis, thus leaving them open to accusations of communalism.
Roy calls for a return to a notion of secularism which allows for the free expression of religion in the public sphere without compromising a core institutional separation between the state and religion.
He also identifies the racist function of secularist rhetoric, both on the Right and among French feminists, unable to see past secular prejudice, a common struggle shared with French Muslim women. The interview took place on 9 April. It was originally conducted in French and translated into English by the interviewer.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah (MFC): In a recent interview in Le Monde, you say, “Laicite has become the expulsion of religion from the public sphere to the private sphere.” Is the secular Republic necessarily hostile to the practice of religion in the public sphere?
Olivier Roy (OR): You must look at the origins of laicite in France, it comes from a violent conflict between the Republic and the Catholic Church, the Republic was anti-religious, it was called “anti-clericalism”—at the same time, it affected the Catholic Church, not protestants or Jews at the time. But the law of 1905, the founding text of laicite in France, is not an anti-religious law, it is a law of compromise, the law of 1905 does not exclude religion from the public sphere, it speaks only of religious practice, it forbids itself from defining religion because the state must be neutral and separate from religion, so the law notes that people have a religious practice and organize it in the public sphere. Of course, the Republic has the last word—for ringing bells, processions, prayers in the street—you need a permit (authorization)—there are conditions, you must respect public order, but it is not forbidden at all—the law of 1905 says the representatives of the state must be neutral but not that citizens must be neutral—avoid wearing a cross, a robe, etc.—it is not a law to exclude religion from the public space or to define who the good religious person is. However what do we note today is that there is a demand for the exclusion of religion from the public space. It starts with schools, forbidding the headscarf, here there could be an argument about minors who cannot affirm a personal choice, but we are now hearing about forbidding headscarves from universities. When I was a student there were nuns who were students who wore the catholic veil, there were priests in robes, but now we speak of excluding religious symbols from public spaces and private work spaces, such as in the Babyloup affair (a nursery worker who was fired for wearing a headscarf at a private nursery). In the last election, a man with a kippa on his head was threatened with exclusion from a voting office because he went to vote with his kippa on—this is illegal. Today we have a laicite which wants religion to only be in the private sphere—this is new and it is against the law of 1905—this is why I say laicite today is anti-religious, it is not a laicite of compromise, which allows for religious freedom it wants to exclude religion from the public sphere and it reflects a phobia of religion.
MFC: Does this logic of exclusion not apply more so to one community than to others?
OR: It started against the Muslim community with the issue of the veil in Creil in 1989, but I would say there are two forms of laicite here. One is selective and the other is universal, the former is that of the Right and Far Right—which affirms France’s Christian identity but which targets Muslim symbols, but the Left today, it is anti-religious in general, even if it all began with the Muslim sign, the left is anti-religious in general. The Rabbi of Toulouse was asked by a Communist Party member to remove his kippa when he came to vote; in Vende, the municipality was attacked by a socialist for establishing a Christian nursery. On the left, it goes far beyond Islamophobia to a more general rejection of religion, and an anti-clericalism which is profoundly anti-religious and which is increasingly vocal among activists. Beyond an Islamophobia which stretches from the Left to the Right, there are two genealogies of Islamophobia, one which is from the Right—rooted in identity politics (identitaire) and the other on the Left, which is laic (secular) and for the exclusion of religion.
MFC: Why and how does a value or a judicial principle, turn into an ideology?
OR: In the beginning, the law of 1905 was simply a judicial principle, it was not understood as a set of norms and values. Why? Because at the time, the believers and non-believers shared the same values—on family, on homosexuality, morality, modesty, etc.—there was a common set of ethics, culture. As Jules Ferry said, a laic teacher was not meant to say anything which might shock a religious head of family. What’s different today is the moral cleavage which emerged in the 1960s, that is not related to Islam but to religion in general. From the 1960s, there is a secular ethic which diverges significantly from the religious ethic – sexual freedom, gay marriage, IVF, etc.—this is why the laicite, which was a principle of neutrality turned into an ideology affirming values – under the principle of tolerance, the idea that one must accept blasphemy, homosexuality, feminism, etc., which has never been central to the Catholic Church. There is a disconnect between the dominant culture and religion, which means that communities of faith feel themselves minorities in the contemporary western world and that’s why they ask to be protected from the majority—there are two tendencies among people of faith. The first is “reconquer,” demanding that the state take into account Christian values, such as forbidding abortion, or if deemed impossible, requesting an exemption, such as a believer not being made to perform a gay marriage, undertake abortion, etc.—today there is a clear disassociation between secularized culture and religions, and when I say laicite has become an ideology, rather than accept this diversity, laicite is demanding that the believer share in these secular values—this is the tension. For example, take the Charlie Hebdo affair. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” can have two meanings: one of solidarity, opposing the attacks and terrorism, but the second meaning refers to an approval of Charlie—and many believers cannot say that they approve Charlie. They condemn the killings but cannot necessarily approve of Charlie’s images—it is what the Pope said, he was very clear, when he said he was against blasphemy, not that it was a question of law, but he opposed blasphemy, especially gratuitously. There was a very strong reaction in France among secularists who thought it scandalous that the Pope speak in this fashion. Today there is a laic intolerance. From the principle of the separation of state and religion, we have moved to the idea that everyone must share the ideals of the Republic but which are in fact very recent values and which are a consequence of profound social changes since the 1960s. Laicite no longer accepts diversity.
MFC: We often say “the Republic says” or “laicite says” but terms do not speak, people do. Is there not an issue of the lack of representation of the individuals in question within the institutions devising the terms, which is at the heart of the matter here?
OR: Yes, certainly, we have moved from the principle of secular Republican political integration where everyone can be a citizen, to a principle of cultural assimilation, which means everyone must share the same values, and this is new, because the law of 1905 by definition recognized that the believer is different to the non-believer, it recognizes the specificity of religion, but it treats everyone in the same way, the believer and the non-believer, everyone is a citizen, but today, we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen, that his/her belief not be known, a demand of cultural, normative, ethical homogenization by the state—that is why I call it an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered not just as the dominant system of values, but normative—and which is official. And here, we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system on people. On all believers, Muslim or other. The problem is that the Republic defines itself according to a culture, but culture is much more complicated than to be reduced to a certain number of principles or basic norms—eating pork is not part of French culture—there is pork in French cooking but it is not normative in French culture. Here there is an abuse of language by the proponents of an uncompromising laicite (pure et dure).
MFC: Where did this transformation come from? OR: I think it comes from a profound crisis of identity, the term identity is new—today we speak of French identity, Sarkozy had launched this term as a theme of reflection—if you look at texts forty, fifty, one-hundred years ago, no one spoke of French identity. Some people spoke of French culture, of the French Republic, of many things, but not identity, the idea that a culture could be reduced to an identity, no one thought of this. Why?
Because I think there was a strong link to the Republic—or to the monarchy for those who were royalists—but there was a strong connection to the state. Nobody questioned the existence of something called “France.” Today there is a serious crisis of political identification. We have two profound changes of French society that happened at the same time. The first is immigration, and the second is the European project. There is a gap between the political scene and the national scene. There are decisions taken in Brussels that are not taken by the French parliament or government. At the outset, there was a new population which arrived which had a different culture, not just a different religion, but a different culture. So there is a sense that French society is questioned from above through the weakening of the nation-state and from below through multiculturalism and this leads to fearful reactions—reactions of anxiety and fear, whereby some people try to find refuge in the invocation of identity. But we do not know what identity is. When the National front speaks of identity, it refers to a picnic with red wine, saucission (pork sausage), and folklore music—things which are completely marginal to a real culture so for me, “French identity” means nothing. French culture has a meaning but it is itself very diverse so I think this question of identity is a response to a political and social crisis which is real and which exists.
MFC: What is a “moderate Muslim” in the French context, since the definition differs in different societies?
OR: In the French context, something which is very explicit among politicians, journalists, etc., is that political radicalization—jihad, terrorism is a consequence of religious extremism—the idea that the more people become religious, the more they become politically radical—this is the assumption, the premise of the reasoning which leads the authorities to say that to resolve the problem there is a need to develop an Islam which is theologically “moderate.” And as you know, in the police files, concerning Muslims who wish to get a security clearance to work at an airport, etc., their religious practice is noted. This is not new—in 1905, the French ministry of defense, which was under the control of radical secularists, had files on French officers noting their degree of religious practice—did they go to church every week, with a prayer book, etc., so it is not just Islamophobia. It is linked to this phobia of religion and the view that religion ultimately leads to fanaticism, which is a secular idea by definition. It is not understood in French society how someone can be religiously radical while being totally politically moderate–while of course it exists. Take even a priest (moines)—his is a religiously radical decision since he has decided to dedicate his life to religion exclusively, but he is someone very pacifist and moderate. But because we no longer see priests in public spaces, we have forgotten this and we do the same thing with Muslims. So a Muslim who prays five times a day is considered a potential radical. This will be found in police files and in the view of many people. Hence the idea which was launched by an adviser to the government that the state should train laic imams, in other words, moderate imams—there is a need to reform Islam, theologically, that women are the equals of men etc. for example, but the problem is that the state—the secular state—must not interfere in a theological debate, otherwise it is no longer secular. There is meant to be a separation between the state and religion, and secondly, if one is consistent, it should be done with all religions, but no one is asking the Catholic Church to ordain female priests. There were reforms on this. The law of 1905 refused to recognize Catholic hierarchies. That the pope had authority over bishops, this was only recognized in 1924. There is an old French Republican tradition that demands churches reform in line with the demands of the Republic—it is not only Islam. I think Muslims often, when they do not know French history well, put everything on the back of racism, but it is deeper than that. My response is simple, the secular state should not delve into theology—and secondly, what is a religious reform? Martin Luther was a reformist, Calvin was a reformer, but they were not moderates—you need only look at American evangelicals, they are not moderates. There is not “moderate” religion and the question should only be asked in political terms. Hence a moderate Muslim is one who condemns violence and jihadism—OK—there is no need to ask what he thinks of the Quran, of prayer—this is the separation between church and state—it must not be a political question.
MFC: You seem to see a contradiction between the need to hide one’s faith, as a “moderate Muslim” and the need to publicly denounce attacks on the other hand. Are French Muslims in a lose-lose scenario?
OR: Exactly, it is a double bind. On one hand they are criticized for being communitarian (communautarise)–-and on the other hand because we perceive them as communitarian, we demand of them that they respond as a community to condemn terrorism. But because there is no “Muslim community,” nobody can speak on behalf of it to condemn terrorism, [but then] they are told they do not condemn terrorism. It is a trap Muslims are placed in. The answer is to speak in different voices. This is what happened after Charlie Hebdo, unlike after the Rushdie affair twenty-five years ago when the Muslim community had no representatives. Today I wouldn’t say the Muslim community has representatives, I would say the Muslim community has Muslim elites, intellectuals, cinematographers, lawyers, artists, religious figures, organizations like the UOIF who can speak, compared to twenty-five years ago when there was this injunction on a community which didn’t exist. Thousands of Muslims spoke up—this is also where social networks play a part—when something like this happens, you automatically get thousands of tweets. This didn’t exist twenty-five years ago, so speech is freed up. There is not one Muslim speech, but many Muslims speaking out, with nuances and divergences among themselves, on issues or allegations against the Muslims community—so I’d say there has been progress. Very clearly. Stop talking about the “Muslim community.” It does not exist. That message is starting to be heard.
MFC: Some thinkers argue that the French Republic forged its very identity in opposition to its colonies. Can it ever adapt to integrate Islam as part of national identity?
OR: I think we put too much emphasis on the colonial past, it is an intellectual construction and concretely, this is no longer really the issue. The colonial Republic was secular (of course it supported religious orders, the great paradox of the law against congregations in 1904, which excluded Catholic congregations from education in France, was that it allowed them abroad—the priests were useful abroad, but the enemy in France), but French colonization didn’t build itself as Christian. That there is a sense of superiority compared to indigenous people, that there is this civilizational mission—yes, but the colonial institutions were more complex. Let me give you one example. A French institution that gives its full place to Islam is the army. The French army has created a Muslim chaplaincy, which is on the same plain as the Jewish and Protestant chaplaincies, not quite the same plain as the Catholic chaplaincy. The Muslim chaplains organize the pilgrimage to Mecca in uniform, just as there is a Christian pilgrimage to Lourdes, in uniform. Why has it been easier for the army to integrate Islam? Precisely because the army has a colonial past. There were Muslim troops, the issue of halal came up, as did chaplains etc. The colonial heritage is more ambiguous than what we might think. The grand mosque of Paris is also a consequence of the colonial past—France was very ambiguous because on one hand it wanted to be a Muslim power, through its colonial dimension, but on the other hand, it never treated Islam the way it treated Catholicism—the 1905 law wasn’t applied in Algeria. I do not agree with the stance of those such as the French movement of the Indigenes de la Republic (a former political party) who believe we simply have a progression of the colonial relationship–-I think today we are more so in a state of hyper-laicite than in an extension of the colonial set-up. This hyper-laicite affects all religions, but more so Islam. It is more a refusal to take into consideration religion in the public space—it is a religion-phobia.
MFC: If the fact of not displaying one’s religion is the definition of a moderate Muslim, but yet many Muslims may not consider it possible not to “display” aspects of their religious identity—whether through a headscarf, the need to pray five times a day, fasting, etc.. Is it possible for Muslims in France today to be fully Muslim and fully French?
OR: That depends on the niche you occupy. Where one lives, where one works. It is a question for all religions—the issue of compromise. It is not proper for a religion to arrive with a list of non-negotiables, which the Catholic church has done. It has for example said that gay marriage is non-negotiable, which causes huge problems because it leads to an impasse. Now it is time to rethink the relationship between religion and Republic. By leaning on religious freedom laicite has gone too far in transforming into an ideology and needs to return to a rule of cohabitation and not an exclusion of religion. Now, the forms of cohabitation must be negotiated. We see it already in the workplaces; companies negotiate their religious workforce. It is obvious that a checkout person who refuses to ring up alcohol cannot be a cashier. We cannot expect him not to take into account the purchase of alcohol, he needs to do another job – but there are plenty of other jobs. Similarly, there are jobs where the practice of Ramadan and prayers are also problematic—but all of this is negotiable—we need to consider it not in a multicultural perspective but from the basis of religious freedom whereby religious communities come together to renegotiate the contract, because the problems facing Muslims are also those facing Orthodox Jews. The Catholic Church is struggling with the growing gap between its values and the dominant culture and the Protestants have always been the most integrated to the Republic, but with the growth of evangelicals, we have a Protestant movement which is much more assertive in demanding its rights, much more critical of laicite and modernity, such as on abortion. So I think there needs to be a coalition of religions to ask the Republic to apply the principle of religious freedom rather than the principle of uniformity through laicite.
MFC: You refer in your book to the crisis of culture as a consequence of globalization and new modes of communication, a dynamic which isolates religion according to you. Is this a process of secularization on a global scale in your view?
OR: Its international. Take fundamentalist preachers—Salafis or American evangelicals, they all say the same thing—that dominant culture is no longer religious, that the culture is “Western,” “secular,” “atheist,” “pagan,” whatever, they each have their terminology. But the gap between religious cultures and dominant cultures is observable everywhere. Even in the United States where the majority identify as religious, religious authorities complain that culture is not a religious culture—see the laws on gay marriage that recently passed even when a majority of society identifies as believing. I think there is a growing divorce between dominant culture and religion, but people remain believers. For me secularization is not measured by the number of people who cease to believe, it is when dominant cultures no longer identify as religious.
MFC: Is the French model of laicite a good model for the management of diversity for other societies?
OR: It is a model which is essentially French, because even in countries which have adopted it officially, such as Mexico or Turkey. In Turkey although everyone speaks of laicite, the constitution is not secular because religion is organized by the department for religious affairs. Kemalist Turkey preserved the Department of Religious Affairs to control religion, specifically Islam—it is not laicite. Similarly in Mexico, there is a “French style” laicite, but it is clear that religion, especially Catholicism, plays a much bigger part in society than it can in France, so in all countries there is a national dimension, a historical dimension, there is a national question over the issue of religion and the state. If you take a country like Denmark where less than ten percent of people practice a religion, Danes will tell you they are Lutherans because it is the religion of the state—but they do not practice, they do not care at all. So it is an extremely secular country although officially there is no separation between state and society so each country in my view invents its compromise to manage the relations between the church, state, and society. I do not think in particular that laicite in its current version, as an ideology, can be positive for any country, I think it has gone too far–but we can conceive of a secular constitution, in the sense of distinguishing religion and politics, which works well in a religious society. Take the example of the United States. There you have a total separation, but no president can be elected if he does not believe in God. Look at Bosnia, created specifically to be a Muslim state for the Muslims of Yugoslavia, is totally secular—which does not mean that there is a Muslim community which functions very well in laicite, which is blossoming in a secular framework. The issue is not the laicite as a constitutional principle of separation, I think this can function very well, the problem is when laicite constructs itself as an anti-religious ideology.
MFC: The sociologist Pierre Merle considers that laicite as it is understood today, which prohibits religious displays rather than respecting them, leads to marginalization, rather than fostering a sense of living together—what is your view?
OR: Of course, any society which is diverse… I reject a multicultural approach for a very simple reason: it is not an issue of accepting the culture of immigrants. We are now into the third generation. We are no longer dealing with an issue of immigration—immigration is over —those of the third generation do not want to assert a culture, but a religion. I think the issue at its root is not one of multiculturalism, it is an error to speak of this, it is an issue of freedom, of democracy. Religious freedom is not a demand for recognition by minorities, it is written in the constitution, it exists within Republican ideals and it must be applied. So for me, this is the question, religious freedom presupposes there are believers in society, and that believers have a right to be believers in the public sphere. They should not be asked to hide their beliefs in the public sphere—it is totally absurd in a diverse society to ask everyone to pretend to be the same.
MFC: In your view does the term laicite in France today serve a racist function?
OR: On the Right, yes—on the Right and Far Right, certainly, but on the Left it is more complicated. The blurring in fact comes now through converts and the gap between religion and ethnic identity. In the French imaginary, and the European imaginary more broadly, a Muslim is an Arab or a Turk or a Pakistani—thankfully things are changing. Slowly we see people who are of Muslim origin who are ultra-seculars. In France those who criticize the veil most vociferously are often of Arab background, in particular of Algerian background. The lesson-givers are ex-Muslims who criticize Islam, whereas there are converts who reveal themselves to be much more extreme than Muslims from birth—it is quite common. When you look at Daesh (ISIS), they recruit many converts. It is no longer a question of ethnic origins, so yes, there is a racism behind Islamophobia, but I think there is also a challenge to this because religious identity is no longer determined by ethnic identity.
MFC: Since the law of 2004 forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” in schools, the field of prohibitions seems to growing ever wider. It is no longer simply headscarves—or headgear such as bandanas or hats, which are prohibited in schools—but now also long skirts, dark or loose clothing are also suspected of being “religious symbols”. Lila Charef from the Committee Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has said, “we’ve moved to another level of surveillance concerning women’s appearance.” Why in your view are Muslims women subject to such levels of control of their bodies by the state and its institutions?
OR: Because women are perceived as being at the heart of culture. This is an old story—when the Soviets wanted to Sovietize Central Asia in the 1930s, their campaign targeted primarily women—unveiling, mandatory education. The French did the same in Algeria. It is not an issue of laicite versus Islam. It is a more general question. For example, when I was at school in the 1960s, there was a regulation of women’s dress and not of men’s dress. At the time, it was also about the length of skirts, they had to be below the knee. Now they are required to be over it. It goes up or down, but that’s where it is always measured. The skirt remains the measure of the control of women. There is a very macho patriarchal dimension here—social control happens through the control of women’s bodies, but under the pretext that this control serves to free the alienated Muslim women. It is not perceived as a part of the continuity of the control of women’s bodies in order to ensure social control. The Catholic Church was very big on this—control of hair. My grandmother would never have left the house without a hat. Women who went out without hats were women of poor repute—this has always existed, but it is now in the name of women’s liberation when in fact it is still about control.
MFC: Why have French feminists, predominantly, been unable to perceive the regulation of Muslim women’s bodies as an extension of patriarchal control of women’s bodies?
OR: It is surprising. I think the French specificity is the inability of French elites, intellectuals, to understand religion. French elites are profoundly secular. In Germany, in the United States, there is a much more flexible understanding. I am thinking of Judith Butler, who is a feminist for example. Because Americans, even when they are atheist, do not have a phobia of religion. Feminists in France share a phobia of religion, which is a marker of the French intelligentsia. The second thing is their theory of emancipation—the veil as oppression—they cannot see beyond this. This is partly why the educational sector is so hostile to the veil. I see many of my colleagues who say they cannot stand to have a woman in a headscarf in front of them in lessons or lecture halls. We have seen how the Stasi Commission basically refused to listen to women who wear headscarves. The comparison is possibly a little risqué, but it is the same issue with prostitutes: we do not listen to prostitutes because a woman who is oppressed is a woman who is not meant to have a voice, not to have anything to say; that someone else must always speak for her and so people speak only to those who resemble them. This is very clear, there is a mirror effect between French feminism and women of Muslim origin who are anti-veil, they speak only among themselves.
MFC: Do you recognize a link between the marginalization that flows from the increasing social and legal restrictions being placed on French Muslims and the openness of some French Muslims to the rejectionist message of Daesh (ISIS)?
OR: Not directly, no, because those who are joining Daesh are not in the categories most targeted. Paradoxically, those most targeted are not the young and marginalized. Young marginals are not at university, at school, they do not eat in cafeterias, so they do not really care about repression. It is more the rising elites who are the victims of hostility to Islam, it is young women at university, girls at schools, young people who eat in cafeterias, but this is not where the Daesh is recruiting. I do not see a mechanical effect whereby a sense of exclusion leads to radicalization. However, there is an indirect relationship. Given the difficulty in recognizing an Islam within the public sphere, young people have no positive models of Muslim citizens, no image of someone who can say, “I’m a contented Muslim citizen,” so they live their exclusion vicariously. They are excluded, not necessarily because they are Muslim, but because they have no positive images. The only positive image they have is the jihadi, so greater flexibility towards religion in the public space would contribute to circulating different images of integrated Islam, Republican Islam, which would allow them to say you can be French and Muslim.

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