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Islam and the West ( 19 Nov 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Placing The Burden Of Tolerance On Islam After Offending Its Symbols Is Unwarranted

By Prasenjit Biswas

19 November 2020

Faith Needs To Be Negotiated With Empathy For The Marginalised And The Culturally-Different By Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling Of Europeanism And Replacing It With Cosmopolitanism


Sigmund Freud’s diagnostic work, entitled Civilization and its Discontents, explains how civilisations spawn neurotic responses. The French principle of laïcité (secularism) places the huge demand of strict separation between State and religion. Freud’s theory of neurotic response arises from the inability to follow such difficult and hard commands of civilisations.


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Essentially it means that France, as a State, has no other way but to respond with angst to the terrorist act of killing of a teacher, which precisely is an act of Freudian discontent, may be even neurosis. The subject of neurosis is necessarily misplaced or displaced. France’s specific problem with its principle of laïcité is that it finds the core values of Islam incongruent with the French national ethos. If freedom of expression in secularism involves the right to offend symbols of other religions by calling them antithetical to French national culture, it marks the effacement of a minority religion like Islam in the  public space. This is how France cannot uphold a true laïcité by overriding the faith of erstwhile colonised Arabs from the Maghreb and other minorities, who comprise a diverse Muslim populace. So laïcité takes the form of political secularism that creates a hierarchy in which it decides which religious faith is acceptable and which one is not. Secularism, then, acts as a rule of the majority over minority faiths. This creates an apparent conflict between the majority world view and minority religions.


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Placing the burden of tolerance on a particular religion after offending its symbols is certainly unwarranted in a secular State. This is a failure to establish equality between religions as well as a failure to ensure freedom of conscience. This also justifies reactive violence on a populace for their failure to come to terms with the offence committed on their faith. The French version of secularism, placing the demand on the State to remain strictly separated from religion, cannot heal the wounds of history of the erstwhile colonised.


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The long history of colonisation of Black Africans and Arabs by France impacts the present shape of French secularism to create marginality and radical Islam together in the people from erstwhile French colonies. Political secularism lives through such contrarian moments of extremism and radical religious politics arising from a history of colonisation. Here, one needs to draw a distinction between “political secularism” and “secularism of values.” Secularism of values differs from political secularism as it promotes an attitude of “neither pro, nor anti-religion.” Political secularism polarises this secularism of values into something that is anti or against some practices of a particular religious group.


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An attitude of neutrality towards religion does not stop the French State from turning against it, or turning selectively in favour of a religion. This brings into picture the logic of uniformity of symbols in public space that does not allow a difference of religious symbols. Political secularism relegates religions to the private, or at most to community spaces.

If the freedom of every religion in France is taken literally in laïcité, why is it so very hard for Muslims to follow their symbols or to ensure their faith? Derogation of the Prophet in any way cannot be considered as consistent with the practice of hard secularist neutrality. Secular neutrality of “neither for nor against” is supposed to remain neutral to the way a religion practises its belief. Instead of such a principled stance, what the French laïcité does is to allow the way a religion is reflected in the mirror of French State or public.


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In effect, exercise of legal indemnity towards a distortion of symbols or image of a faith is a licence to undermine the specific character and practices of a particular faith or religion. This is projecting a wrong image of a religion in the public space. Taken to its extreme, French secularism posits religious identities into an adversary by allowing an underlying “war on religion” or by allowing a derogation of religious symbols. Such an outcome cannot be fully legit in a pluralist democracy. Seemingly France tweaks its legal, political and juridical concepts attached to secularism to legitimise constraints upon those religions that are considered as outliers. Hence the law of secularism is no guarantee for religious freedom, it rather is a way of tweaking and moderating religious expressions within limits of French neutrality.

Are certain identities, then, to be treated as antithetical to the principles of laïcité? Is treating every religion in an equal manner a way of cutting it to size by downplaying its core belief structure? In French President Emmanuel Macron’s language, “no totem or taboo”, referring to religious symbols. Is it then, a hard secular knock at others? Is there a secularism-inspired separation of the self and other as part of State policy? This is a denial or acceptance of the select values of religion, mixed with the secular cause, a certain fragmentation of laïcité itself. Rejection of the turban or the hijab interestingly turns an outsider’s gaze on French secularism that continuously undercuts the line of strict separation.


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This creates a political issue of adjustment between a religious victim’s perception of being denigrated and the demand placed on him/her to not show difference of identity in the public sphere. This also turns French laïcité into a “misuse of secularism to stigmatise people.” Clearly President Macron’s statement, “Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world” or a highly visible crackdown on Islam as a religion border on a near anti-Islam positioning that goes against the grain of neutrality and freedom of conscience.

A mea culpa anti-Islam version of French secularism has its internal victims. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) stated, “We are sometimes targets of anti-Muslim acts but others are also victims of hostile acts. In the face of these provocations, we must remain decent, serene and clear-sighted.” If the public sphere is not supposed to carry the remnants of any such mea culpa version from any side, as per French secularism, the exact opposite has happened. Stigmatisation, racial othering and lampooning of the doctrines of faith assume the garb of French laïcité. So what remains unresolved is this lack of criticism against an anti-Islam stance of President Macron, often known as “Macronism.”

This Macronist secularism misdirected against a religion arises from the French President’s political secularism that wrecks equality of faiths. It further causes an emotional and grief-based solidarity that provides a fulcrum for new laws for monitoring schools and mosques in Muslim areas of France. Acquiescence by Saudi Arabia to the Macronist stance on Islam in terms of his “counter-terrorism and deradicalisation” measures strengthens the pre-emptive fixing of the guilt on Muslim immigrants in France, especially if they are of Arab origin.

The deficits of laïcité cannot be supplemented by such externalisation of an anti-Islam stance. Should secularism turn Islamophobic, it brings back an image of an anti-Semite European world view, which ultimately undermines the secularism of values by a version of political secularism.


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France has to overcome the present antagonism by building more bridges with Muslims on its soil and dispelling the image of being at war with Islam. Macron cannot afford to become a mascot of Right-wing Islamophobes. A liberal State ultimately needs to accommodate differences and return to unifying nationalism that promotes love and co-belonging. Faith needs to be negotiated with a special ecumenism and empathy for the marginalised and the culturally-different by breaking through the glass ceiling of Europeanism and replacing it with cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitanism in Europe places the demand of adopting a value-neutral position to both one’s own religion as well as to other religions. Catholic churches of France, irked by a certain mockery of their faith, filed cases on Charlie Hebdo, but, unlike Islamists, never indulged in terror attacks. However, Islamists and certain conservative clerics create an atmosphere of backlash on the slightest slight of their religious symbols. Islamic nation States, too, are particularly intransigent towards people of different faiths and compel them to comply with codes of Islam in everyday life.

The value-neutral and secular cosmopolitan European culture allows for acceptance of symbols of religious traditions as a universal heritage of mankind. The French version of secularism insists on the separation of the sphere of faith from the sphere of common and shared public life, that is supposed to extol virtues of tolerance and unconditional respect for the other. It is here that reactions to freedom of aesthetic and artistic representation of religious symbols and prophets is supposed to be beyond any dogmatic condemnation.

France stands for not restricting freedom of satirisation or artistic freedom to be unconstrained by religious dogmas. It is here that French laïcité ensures that France will not side with any faith, be it Islam, be it Sikhism or Christianity in allowing freedom of choice, conscience and individuality to all people.


Prasenjit Biswas is a philosopher and political analyst based in Shillong

Original Headline: Time for a hate-free world

Source: The Daily Pioneer


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