U.S. take note: France moves to corral religion in its secular republic

U.S. take note: France moves to corral religion in its secular republic December 30, 2020
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We Are Charlie: “Break One, A Thousand Will Rise” — Cartoon by Lucille Clerc created after 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. (Trish Hamme, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

France is on the brink of activating strict new laws to reduce dangerous religious radicalization of its youth — an initiative the United States would do well to consider.

To combat religious extremism and threats to France’s vaunted secular values and strict church-state separation, French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is poised to introduce starting in 2021 radical new laws that, among other features, would — if deemed constitutional — virtually ban homeschooling nationwide.

While the new laws’ focus is primarily on curbing violent Islamism within France, they also seek to generally bolster the nation’s vaunted and legally enshrined public secularism — La laïcité, c’est le ciment de la France unie (or La laïcité [secularism], in short) — and also to ensure all French children are taught secular values and concepts in public schools. La laïcité strictly and formally requires all religious influence be kept separate from the public sphere.

The new legal measures were crafted to “reign in the influence of radical Islam” in France and aid development of what Macron called an “Islam of France” that is “compatible with the nation’s republican values,” the New York Times reported in an article earlier this month. The Times article explained:

“In a long-awaited speech on the subject [in October], Mr. Macron said that the influence of Islamism must be eradicated from public institutions even as he acknowledged government failures in allowing it to spread.

“The measures include placing stringent limits on home-schooling and increasing scrutiny of religious schools, making associations that solicit public funds sign a ‘charter’ on secularism. While these measures would apply to any group, they are intended to counter extremists in the Muslim community.”

Politicians have become energized in the past few years by an uptick in homegrown Islamist terrorist acts on French soil — by minority French citizens. The continuing failure of the government to successfully integrate immigrant minority groups has resulted in the emergence of “sociological, economic and ideological ghettos where Islamism has flourished” and many French youths have been radicalized, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, wrote in a recent column in Le Monde.

The most famous recent Islamist attacks included two French Algerian brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who stormed the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, murdering 17 people, including 11 journalists and security personnel. The brothers were later killed by French police in a shootout. The magazine had published cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, considered sacrilegious and a capital crime by devout Muslims.

Then, in October of this year, an 18-year-old man youth decapitated history teacher Samuel Paty near his school in a suburb north of Paris, yelling Alahu akhbar! (God is great) immediately before attacking him. The assailant, later killed by police in a standoff, was identified as Russian-born “Abdoulakh A,” a French citizen of Chechen descent. Earlier, after allowing Muslim students to leave his class if they wished, Paty showed “caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad” in a presentation on freedom of expression, which angered some Muslim families who learned of it later, the Washington Post reported.

Three weeks earlier, a 25-year-old French Pakistani immigrant stabbed two people in error outside the former office of Charlie Hebdo, not realizing it had moved to a new location.

These Islamist attacks and others form the backdrop to the new laws France is set to activate in the new year.

Secularism is the cement of a united France,” Mr. Macron said in a recent speech in Les Mureaux, northwest of Paris, according to the Times. He called radical Islam both an “ideology” and a “project” that sought to indoctrinate children, undermine France’s values — especially gender equality — and create a “counter-society” that sometimes laid the groundwork for Islamist terrorism, the Times reported.

Mirroring comments by Paris’ Great Mosque rector Hafiz in his recent op-ed, Macron stressed that the nation is not blameless:

“We built our own separatism ourselves,” he said. For too long, the authorities had amassed largely immigrant populations in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with little access to jobs or public transportation, leading to a “ghettoization of our republic,” he said, according to the Times.

A major impetus of the new laws is to make ensure that France’s fundamental secular values are “inculcated” into all youths age 3 to 16 by outlawing “illicit schools,” the Times article explained. It would essentially end homeschooling (except for medical reasons) in France for an estimated 50,000 Catholic, Protestant and atheist students now being taught that way.

Although religion in general is eyed warily by French citizens in general, Islamism has by far been the most violent manifestation of supernatural faith in the country in recent years.

“The problem is this ideology which affirms that its own laws are superior to those of the Republic,” Macron said in his speech, according to the conservative news site CNS News. “I do not ask of any of our citizens to believe or not to believe, to believe a little or moderately, that is not the affair of the Republic, but I ask of all citizens, whether his religion or not, the absolute respect of all the laws of the Republic.”

The president added:

“School is the republican melting pot. It’s what makes it possible for us to protect our children in a complete way from any religious sign, from religion. It is truly the heart of the space of secularism, and it is this place where we form consciences so that children become free, rational citizens, able to choose their own lives. The school is therefore our collective treasure. It is what allows us in our society to build this common thing that is the Republic.”

As Christian Right evangelical nationalism continues to seep ever deeper into the United States’ body politic via the failed and now ending presidency of Donald Trump, America would do well to consider Macron’s words. Consider that “charter” schools, “school choice” and “private” schools are all code words promoting Christian schools, which make up the vast majority of U.S. special schools under those terms. Meanwhile, Trump, his just-left attorney general and secretary of state have all railed against the surge of “militant secularism” in America and the need for a quasi if not actual Christian theocracy to protect our supposed “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

France, of course, is not America, but in this respect, it totally is.

For us, as them, public schools free of overt religious influence and steeped in Enlightenment reason are our treasures.


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