Cultural and Ethnic Tension: Is Secularism France's New Religion?

August 17, 2009
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Early in August, a Muslim woman was prevented from taking a dip in a swimming pool in the town of Émerainville, in the eastern outskirts on Paris, for donning a “burquini” – a baggy head-to-toe swimsuit that resembles a hooded wetsuit and is regarded as an Islamic-friendly swimwear.

The pool management reportedly turned away the woman – a French convert to Islam – not out of religious intolerance, but for not complying with the public hygiene standards. The suit, it said, could be a carrier of germs and dirt particles, which could pose health risks to the other swimmers. Interestingly, however, the woman was allowed to swim in the same pool in July.

Émerainville Mayor Alain Kelyor told BBC News, “all this [had] nothing to do with Islam,” and added that the burquini was “not an Islamic swimsuit" and that "that type of suit does not exist in the Koran.”

Earlier in June, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an address to a joint session of the French Parliament in Versailles – the first French president to address the legislature in more than a century – did not shy from expressing outright disapproval of the burqa.

Calling it a “sign of enslavement and debasement of women,” he said the burqa was “not welcome on French territory.” “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” The same month, a group of 76 lawmakers put forth a legislation to ban the attire.

The controversy surrounding the burquini (a portmanteau of burqa and bikini) has sparked fresh debate over religious freedom versus secularism in France, smoldering since 2004, when the government outlawed the display of all religious symbols in public schools.

“Secularism” as a salient political doctrine of liberal democracies, implies the separation of state and religion. It demands that the state either (1) turn a blind eye to religion per se, (2) absorb all its religions equally, or (3) altogether exclude them from the political realm.

France is a devoutly secular nation. But so is the United States – but there’s a difference. Unlike France, the brand of secularism practiced in the world’s largest democracy with its multiplicity of religious minorities, is predicated on a concept of inclusiveness, which allows it to embrace all religious and ethnic minorities, each with its religious accoutrements – the Sikh turban, the Islamic niqab, the Jewish yarmulke, the Hindu sindhur, the Buddhist bead.

To get a snapshot of the American secular milieu, one need only take a ride in the New York City subway. A Jewish man wearing the Torah-prescribed long black coat, a Sudanese woman dressed in an abaya, a Spanish tourist with a cross pendant, may all travel together in the same car, without drawing the slightest attention to themselves.

By contrast, an American woman in Saudi Arabia, dressed in regular Western outfits, and with her head uncovered, will likely be whisked away by its religious police for immodest behavior. The sheikhdom is an oppressive theocratic state governed by shariah, the Islamic law based on the Quran.

What’s happening in France today has shades of the Saudi Arabian model. The French Republic’s almost fanatical adherence to laïcité goes against the very spirit of the secular state. When secularism begins to masquerade as a rigid religion, it can become just as repressive as religious fundamentalism. Any code – regardless of whether its roots are religious or extra-religious – that demands an individual to surrender his or her religious freedom is likely to engender discontent and further marginalize France’s Islamic population of 5 million, the largest in Western Europe.

George Orwell, an ardent enemy of fascism, once complained that the British Left’s anti-fascistic tirade had acquired the very same totalitarian attitude that they attacked in fascism. The British liberals were not only attacking fascism in the most banal of ways, but they were also advocating the installation of democracy as the global deity of choice.

Thus, one form of orthodoxy was supplanting another form of orthodoxy. Were he alive today, Orwell would’ve been appalled by the French reverence for secularism. He would’ve labeled it a French dogma, which has more to do with French nationalism and less to do with the desire to uphold the universal principle of secularism. By regulating the sartorial, and by extension, the moral freedom of its citizens, France is behaving like a Western mullah through mandating moral dictates in the reverse. While the Islamic mullahs of the Talibanic ilk command Muslim women to dress up, their French-secular counterpart is asking them to “dress down.”

The banishing of any visible markers of an individual’s cultural group’s religious identity from the French public sphere is perhaps, not just an affirmation of the French political virtues, but something greater. It’s the declaration of the pacific and egalitarian West’s victory over the misogynistic and terror-mongering segment of Islam.

About authors: Alakananda Mookerjee is the Associate Editor of USARiseUp. Sharmila Mukherjee is the Social Media Editor of USARiseUp and teaches at New York University.