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  • Writer's picturethreshe

My love-hate relationship with 'laïcité'

laïcité = secularism



1. the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.

The principle that rids people of the obligation to follow laws that are influenced by another faith. The principle that acknowledges the people as citizens first and foremost. The principle that promotes equality for all French people.

It all sounds rather lovely, doesn’t it? La laïcité represents everything that the French state stands for: ‘liberty, equality, fraternity.’ However, I’m facing a dilemma. I don’t believe that this policy, in practice, truly demonstrates these core French values. In fact, I would argue that ‘la laïcité’ is being used to totally undermine these values. Bold, I know.

In theory, there are so many things to love about ‘laïcité.’ Perhaps most crucially, it acknowledges that religious faith is not for everyone, yet politics affects us all. Often with religion, we are faced with archaic doctrine that is twisted and bent to fit our liberal modern society. I promise you that 99% of the ‘super progressive’ changes that are made to our communities, such as legalising homosexual marriage, have huge religious implications. The notion that some religious communities are willing to repeal rights from other citizens would suggest that religion may not always accommodate for total equality: a fundamental value of the French state. This is why France is promoting ‘thinking as humans,’ and valuing human rights over certain beliefs that compromise them. Evidently, this points to ‘laïcité’ as a solution: where no one is subjected to another’s religious views because no one’s religious views have impacted the laws they live by!

‘Laïcité’ should, theoretically advocate religious pluralism. France, despite having Catholic roots, is an incredibly diverse country, arguably to a greater extent than others in Europe. There are major groups of French citizens that practice Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism and Hinduism, just to name a few. In no way would we be able to accommodate for all of these faiths in one long list of rules, or in one political party. Essentially, the core message is: ‘you are free to believe whatever you would like, but do not impose it on others, because not everyone wants to hear it.’

This is equality. This is treating everyone the same.

Instead of attempting to satisfy each different religion, denomination or personal religious conviction, ‘laïcité’ promotes a society where our foundations are human; where we can vote as citizens, and not ‘players on opposite religious teams.’ The French state is acknowledging that we have our own religious convictions yet, irrespective of background, we put these aside in order to work together and look towards a bright future. There you have it – liberty, equality, and fraternity. Happy days I hear you sing?

Not quite.

You see, religion is so engrained within the French people, in both history and morals, that secularism almost seems unrealistic. There are far too many people maintaining that the origin of moral decision making is the Bible, leading many French citizens to believe that politics without God's good word is like a rowboat with no paddle: it just won’t work. Regarding history, to neglect Catholicism, is to forget an event paramount to the development of French identity: the French revolution, which not only symbolises the power of democracy but also initially established the core French values, a source of immense pride.

I would say that the nature of religion is such that it tends to be wholly integrated in your life: your decisions, your political affiliations, the way you present yourself. This is the beauty of religion: the way it manifests itself in society to breed a rich culture. However, the reality of ‘laïcité’ is that religious freedom is being impeded, and I loathe it.

You may be familiar with the French ‘Burqa Ban’ of 2010: ‘act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space,’ which had huge implications for Muslim women in France, whose veil is symbolic of modesty and virtue. This law, for me, does not represent the secularity of France, but the French state’s concealed suspicion and absent-minded fear of Muslims, in the wake of terrorism. The French state is confusing the purpose of secularism. It is not to strip people of religious expression; the purpose is merely to ensure clarity when governing the country.

This is the bit that sends alarms off in my head. Christian citizens were not asked to remove their crucifixes. Sikhs were not asked to remove their turbans. Why are some religions under scrutiny and others not? I understand that the law applied to everyone in France, but I'm certain there would be ways to safeguard a nation without effectively targeting a huge number of French citizens. When I was looking over the 'Burqa Ban,' it seemed to me as though 'laïcité' was justifying religious intolerance and the predetermined suspicion towards people of the Muslim faith. This is not equality, this is not treating people the same.

In practice, banning burqas and forcing people to split their role as citizen and believer seems to be corroding the core French values. Who wants to live in a world where it is our state obligation to neglect a whole chunk of our identity? Who wants to live in a world where we do not try to work together, but destroy the traditions of others? No one should be asked to eliminate aspects of their faith to satisfy the state that preaches freedom of expression. It seems blindingly clear to me that ‘laïcité’ is not protecting the values of France, but undermining them.

So… what do you think? Do you love to hate ‘la laïcité? Do you agree that the purpose of secularism has been lost in translation? Do you think that it protects or corrodes French values? Let me know!

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