French battle against Islamist ‘separatism’ is at odds with commitment to liberty

 The writer is a professor at European University Institute

At the beginning of October, before the terrorist murders of a school teacher outside Paris and three people in a church in the southern city of Nice, French president Emmanuel Macron launched a crackdown on Islamist “separatism” in France. He announced plans for strict controls on religious and cultural associations, and a ban on home schooling except for health reasons.

The French government will present a draft law designed to “reinforce laïcité”, France’s distinctive version of secularism, and “consolidate republican principles”, in early December. The proposals are based on two assumptions.

First, that jihadist terrorism is fuelled by the spread of Islamism or “Salafism” in France’s poor suburbs. And second that the way to combat it is to promote, or even impose, the “values of the republic”. 

The first assumption is particularly important because it justifies targeting Islamist “separatism” alone, and not other religious communities or secular separatist movements, such as Corsican nationalism. This could lead to decisions that range from preventing Muslim states from sending imams to France, to forbidding doctors from providing certificates of virginity. It might also require public services to report “early signs of radicalisation” — usually no more than a show of devotion such as praying in public. As well as widening the state’s ability to proscribe organisations deemed harmful to the republic, Mr Macron has urged an expansion of existing counter-radicalisation programmes.

The proposals raise two key questions. What is the link between Islamism and terrorist violence? And what are the “republican values” the government wants to protect and strengthen?

My study of those responsible for previous terrorist attacks on French soil show, contrary to the now dominant view, that they were not radicalised by a “Salafi incubation” in the mosques and religious schools of France’s deprived suburbs. Rather, most were radicalised among small groups of friends and relatives, often in a milieu characterised by petty crime and delinquency. They used the internet to find texts and inspiration, and made little or no reference to the tenets of sharia law. They came from the margins of Muslim life in France, not the centre. 

Could the measures now being proposed have prevented any of the terrorist attacks carried out in France since the bombing of the Paris Metro in 1995? The answer, it seems to me, is no.

The second assumption behind the draft law — that reasserting the “values of the republic” is central to combating Islamism — raises two further questions. What are these specific values? And what does it mean to impose them on a society supposed to uphold freedom of opinion and belief?

It is true that there has been a growth in France over the past two decades of what I call “neo-fundamentalism”. By this I mean the transformation of traditional forms of Islam into a system of explicit norms that have an impact on social life, including the wearing of the hijab, calls for the eating of halal food and refusing to shake hands with women.

Neo-fundamentalism has taken root in some of France’s most underprivileged areas, even as the country’s social fractures have deepened. That has also given rise to non-religious protest movements, such as the gilets jaunes. But what is the alternative that “republican values” are meant to embody?

These values were not encoded in the law of 1905 that established the separation of church and state. The values of the republic at that time were secularised conservative Christian values — women did not have the right to vote and homosexuality was criminalised. 

The republican values that President Macron refers to are clearly the liberal values of the 1960s: gender equality, sexual freedom, coeducation and so on. But how do these differ from the values of other European countries? 

What is specifically French about the values the president has chosen to defend is laïcité, or secularism. The draft law would have the effect of reducing the display of religious faith, and not only Islam, in public life, often at the expense of the very liberal values — freedom of religion, thought and speech — that it is intended to protect.

To view these questions, as some critics do, through the lens of racism misses the point. Many secular Muslims are vocal supporters of the fight for republican values. Conversely, many conservative Catholics feel increasingly uneasy with current interpretations of laïcité. And although some are hostile to Islam, they reject the very idea of what Mr Macron calls the “right to blasphemy”. The real issue here, therefore, is what remains of religious freedom in our secularised republic. 



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