The French headscarf ban and the tragedy of fear

18.03.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 000  




Today it is not Christianity but Islam that is the challenge to the unitary state and republican secularism. Demographers estimate that 20-30% of the population under 25 is now Muslim. Given current birth rates it is not impossible that in 25 yrs France may have a Muslim majority.

Arguments for:

Arguments against:

Christian response

It is difficult for people in Anglo-American nations to respond to these French developments, because we find it hard to imagine their appalling history of religious conflict over the last four hundred years. But the remembrance of this conflict comes through very clearly when French people speak and write about the new law. Both opponents and proponents of the new law share great fear. Opponents fear that Muslim people will radicalize, and fear that the new law will trigger the very conflict it seeks to avoid, and fear that it will increase, rather than diminish, religious fundamentalism. If such fears are expressed even by opponents to this law, the fear that motivated the overwhelming vote in its favour can only be guessed at.

Of course there is more to the debate than merely fear. Many French people pride themselves on the enormous and ongoing experiment in their country to forge a distinctive identity and culture, without reference to any religion. Nonetheless it would be foolish to ignore the role played by fears of a return to the violent past, and we can only marvel sorrowfully at a society so dominated by such fear. To say as much is not meant to belittle these fears or suggest that they are groundless, for France has seen the worst excesses of what human beings can do to each other.

The French strategy for dealing with such turmoil has been to adopt the principle of laicite, a strict neutrality by the state toward all its citizens. The logic of laicite is that by disallowing religious expression on government property, community diversity is respected. Community life can then be conducted without reference to religious claims, and peace and good order kept intact. laicite is a radical example of the view that peace and respect are best achieved by keeping painful differences hidden. It is a way forward that is self-evident to the French. Like a family who has learnt to be silent about its most painful disagreements, entire nations will react in such a way after a deep trauma. Whole cultures grow up around the avoidance of pain.

Again, it is possible to overstate the point here, for rather than remaining silent about the differences highlighted by the Muslim scarf, the French don't stop talking about it. But this is not perhaps the kind of talk that celebrates the difference of ‘the Other’ in their midst, as some of their postmodern thinkers would have them do. All people have a great tendency to fear strangers, particularly if they are multitplying (Australia's absurd overreaction to tiny numbers of boat people testifies amply to this reaction); and without grasping the emotional roots of laicite, the French logic is hard for others to understand.

For Anglo-Americans, the best way to keep peace and order is to allow members of a society to be open and honest in the expression of what they believe, so that each can understand and accept the other even if they disagree. Freedom of speech and self-expression by individuals follows. These are the luxurious fruits of a society that has not repeatedly torn itself apart over religious differences.

But increasingly, radical fear of disagreement is emerging in Anglo-American societies. The choice therefore becomes whether or not to pursue peace and order with strategies, such as laicite, which encourage differences to stay hidden and silent, or through strategies that enable the clear, free expression of we believe.

To that end, perhaps the time has come to publicly air and discuss the different religious claims within this pluralist society. Liberal thought tends to swing between the comforting platitude that all religions are the same, and the angry shout that religious difference causes the world's conflicts. Neither of these thoughts resonate particularly well with the experience of religious people, of course.

Should liberals promote and sponsor religious conversation, in direct opposition to ideas such as laicite? Yes, because then everyone will be better informed about what account each religion gives about peace, rule, government, order, harmony and the like.

Christianity's account of these matters often evoke surprise. Christians strongly believe in the lordship of Christ, and yet have the strongest reasons to protect and affirm the lives of those who do not. This same lordship of Christ results, paradoxically, in strong conceptions of the independence of church from state, particularly in Protestant thought. Christians understand good government as a precious gift to be nurtured and respected, yet their confidence in the lordship of Christ means that there is no need to utilise government for the expansion of Christianity, since Christ enacts this expansion quite effectively on his own terms. Such theology has generally made for a robust, if sometimes stormy, relationship between states and churches. States have even found themselves inadvertently borrowing from Christian habits of dispute resolution, judgment of crime, freedom of speech and social equality. (If these claims seem surprising, that is because liberals generally work hard to bury their Christian paternity.)

What account do other religions give of the way to a peaceful, ordered, plural society? Their exponents would need to state their case, but in the process of so doing, we might rediscover reasons why the West became renowned for its equality, free speech and good order. We might also begin to suspect that laicite is a high-risk strategy for preserving them.

However laicite is deeply understandable in a society as traumatized as France. It is ironic that the home of enlightenment reason and pluralism, and postmodern concern for the Other in its midst, struggles in a seemingly naive and defensive way. We can only hope (and the believers amongst us pray) that France will find a way out of fear, into the kind of firm, clear discussions where people can disagree about their beliefs while still accepting one other. Even on government property.


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