France's Crusade Against Faith

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No religion French secularists hone in on Islam

For most of the 105 years it's been in force, France's secularity law has endeavored to segregate private religious belief from the strictly agnostic sphere of public life — usually without too much friction. But that relative harmony has given way to tension and conflict in recent years, as secularists have turned their attention to the spreading influence of Islam, now France's second largest faith.

Whereas secularism — or laïcité — traditionally sought to create a wall between religious expression and the public domain, critics claim its defenders have become far more militant. In some cases, that's creating a zero-sum showdown in which France's secularists, who dominate public life and debate, exhibit a quasi-evangelical zeal in imposing the values of laïcité on the private observance of religious minorities.

"The 1905 law establishing secularism describes it as a measure to protect individual citizens' freedom of religion and faith by rendering the state totally neutral to — and disconnected from — religious matters," says Jean Baubérot, an expert on secularism at Paris University's Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Baubérot notes that secularity was initially meant to reduce the Catholic Church's influence on society by tasking the state with removing religious instruction from public schools as part of an effort to relegate faith to the private sphere. "Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs of people or organizations," Baubérot says. "Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a 'civil religion': the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to — or be made to respect."

The most controversial example of secularism's evolution is the pending French law to ban full-body coverings like the burqa and niqab that, after its final passage Sept. 14, is expected to come into force in early 2011. But that headline-grabbing measure (applicable to only an estimated 370 to 2,000 burqa-wearing women) was preceded by the 2004 prohibition of headscarves being worn by Muslims in public schools. Islam seems to have taken the place of Catholicism as the main target of French secularist ire. Catholics initially decried early secularist measures as unfair and abusive. As segregation of private faith from public life became the norm, however, impassioned tussles between the state, institutional advocates of secularity and religious groups gave way to administrative formality and legal process.

In July, for example, the Conseil d'Etat — one of France's highest legal bodies — heard a request by the France-based International Observatory of Secularism to strike down 2008 educational accords between the Foreign Ministry and the Vatican. The Conseil's ruling upheld the bilateral agreement, under which France recognizes diplomas granted by Catholic universities operating outside the French educational system. But the Conseil's decision also required that state colleges and institutions reject applicants who hold Vatican-sanctioned degrees that education authorities deem inferior to official French standards. Such is the studied, sober manner in which France tries to decide the limits of Catholicism's reach.

At times, however, that approach is overtaken by more emotional — and some would argue irrational — secular sorties. When, in 2007, France's then Urban Housing Minister Christine Boutin chose a Catholic priest as an adviser on policies to improve the nation's troubled housing projects, the public let out cries of protest — ignoring the priest's long history of social work in suburban ghettos. Earlier this year, a Jewish teacher in Nancy was suspended when authorities decided her history lessons on the Holocaust lacked "secular neutrality." And in July, Green Party politicians in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois aired concern over the city's decision to create meat-free menus in public-school cafeterias. The move was fine for vegetarians, critics claimed, but would look too much like acquiescence to Muslim parents who wanted halal meat in school lunches.

To some observers, such protests sound a lot like secular fundamentalism. "As secularists become more militant, their arguments have begun to ring with the righteous conviction you usually associate with religious forces they oppose," says Rokhaya Diallo, founder of Les Indivisibles, an association that celebrates the diversity of modern France. Diallo attributes the trend to rising secularist concern about the spread of Islam's influence. That feeling, she laments, has led the French "to recognize secularity as an alibi to express increasingly Islamophobic attitudes." Only time will tell whether France can establish with Islam the happy balance it generally maintains with other faiths — or whether laïcité will become synonymous with the state's interference in how Muslims practice their faith.