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Jacob Savage
Religion 235
Secularism in France
When you think about it, there isn’t much to fear from the headscarf. It’s just a piece of cloth,
after all. So why has France so vehemently opposed the wearing of this piece of clothing? Why has
France imposed bans and fines and jail sentences for displaying it in public? The official answers are that
it protects French values, liberates Muslim women, and stops Islamic Fundamentalism. But something
about these answers isn’t satisfying. What is the real reason behind the bans? Well, without mind
reading we will never truly know, but we can make an educated guess. I believe that while the stated
reasons for banning are actually believed by those who preach them, their motives are actually rooted
in xenophobia rather than liberation. I feel that in order to make my point, I must expand on the
founding ideals of the Republic, its difficulties in managing the foreign culture of Algeria, the history of
Islamic immigration in France and how that caused problems, the rise of Islamic extremism and that
affected Islam in France, and the threats the Republic faces today.
The French Republic is not like the other nations of Europe. Its identity is not based on ethnic
groups or pieces of land, but on the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. For centuries the French
peasantry languished under the corrupt rule of the monarchy. But there is only so much the people can
take, and in the latter part of the 18th century, the government was overthrown and a republic was
established. But some of the revolutionaries went further than overthrowing the monarchy. They
wanted to throw off the Catholic Church as well. The Church still held tremendous sway over the
population and that was an obstacle to power. The attempt at creating a Cult of Reason failed, as did the
Cult of the Supreme Being. Through the efforts of Napoleon, an agreement was made between the
French Republic and the Catholic Church. However, the Church and the state would clash throughout
the 19th century, fighting over the right to public space and religious education. In 1905, the state came
down on the church and banished it to the private realm, separating the church and state and sending
the nuns and priests to the religious realm. This led to the creation of lacaite, the unique form of
secularism in France. Lacaite recognizes people as individuals, not as members of a community. Or
rather, not a community that isn’t France. Lacaite strictly defines the boundaries of religion so that it
cannot interfere with the state. (Olivier Roy, xii) Catholicism is tolerated because it has been a part of
France for so long and it would be more trouble than it’s worth to get rid of it. France has made efforts
to integrate its Jews, especially since the Holocaust has made it unpopular to be anti-Semitic. The key
word there is “integrate”, not “accept”. Indeed a better word would be “assimilate”, getting rid of
cultural distinctions and becoming part of the greater whole. In a sense, French culture is like the Borg
to America’s Federation. Resistance is futile. Indeed, as far back as 1792, the National Assembly granted
full rights to French Jews as individuals, not as a community. “They shall be granted everything as
individuals and nothing as a nation.” (Roy, x) You will be assimilated. Why is it so important that people
must be made part of the whole? I suppose the answer is a dark mirror to France’s values: loyalty,
obedience, and subservience. It is important for a nation’s citizens to feel as though they are part of that
nation, and that they belong to that nation. If they belong to a nation, then they are obliged to pay their
taxes, join the army, and do their civic duty. It expands one’s empathy from that of his friends and family
to anyone in his nation. It prevents civil war from breaking out. So if France’s identity is based on its
ideals, then it is important for its citizens to hold those ideals. It is important that they belong to the
culture of those ideals. But the thing is, religion carries a culture of its own. Christianity and Judaism
were made part of French culture, but if a new religion comes, with its own culture, how do you deal
with that? Do you accept that culture? Do you mold that culture? Or do you try to ban it? We’ll deal
with that question later, but for now we need to talk about how France got involved in Islam.
In 1830, France invaded Algeria and seized the country for itself. By 1847, the majority of local
resistance had been suppressed. However, rather than being ruled as a colony, Algeria was administered
as a part of France. The problem was that the natives were obviously not French. The majority religion in
Algeria was Islam, which up to that point had been a religion of foreigners and barbarians. Now France
had to deal with Islam within France’s borders. France’s opinions were no different from the rest of the
West’s opinions on non-western peoples. The Arabs were stereotyped as being lazy and disobedient,
and curiously, rampantly homosexual. The French blamed this outbreak of homosexuality on the
practice of veiling women in Islam. Veiling was a source of fascination to the French, who thought the
veil was a form of sexual provocation rather than a form of modesty. More broadly, it became a symbol
of the separation between Islam and France. It was also the symbol of backwardness. However, it was
hoped that the non-French people of the empire would give up their backwards ways and embrace
Frenchness. Perhaps to speed this along, in the 1870s, a two-tier system was set up in Algeria in regards
to getting citizenship. Catholics and Jews could become French citizens, but Muslims could not. (Elver,
111) This new religion could not get along with French culture, or so it looked to the French. Fortunately
for the French, they wouldn’t have to worry about Algerians affecting French culture, seeing as the
Algerians were in Algeria and not in France proper. That is, until World War I.
With the dawn of the First World War, the French government needed workers to fill the gaps in
industry left vacant by the fighting and possibly dying French soldiers. Luckily for France, a large number
of Algerians, left unemployed by French settlers taking their land, were available for work. However, this
meant that France had to deal with Muslims in its own borders. Normally, a large group of immigrants
who are in competition for jobs with the natives will cause resentment on the part of the natives, and
the French were no different. According to Joan Wallach Scott, the Algerians were forced to live in
squalid conditions, separated from the rest of society. In addition, the French government created
separate graveyards (which were all unmarked graves) and hospitals for the immigrants. Even as
immigrants were able to gain better housing, they were only able to live in government housing projects
in the industrial zones. These neighborhoods would be known as the banlieues and are more or less the
French equivalent to the American ghetto. Moreover, while it is estimated that 7-8% of France’s
population is Muslim, about half of the prisoners in France are Muslims. (Elver, 114) According to Hilal
Elver, 50% of Algerian youths in France were unemployed in the 1990s. In addition, many Muslims
report that they are the victims of racial discrimination, to which Elver adds may mean that religion is
the fault line in France that race is in America. (Elver 114-115) So we have the combination of a poor,
marginalized group of people and a society that doesn’t want them. Naturally, when people are in the
middle of a hostile environment, they want to create their own little group for protection. But under
lacaite, that kind of community building is forbidden.
In addition to their economic troubles, the Algerians and other Muslim immigrants have other
things to worry about. In the 1970’s, the people of Iran, tired of the reign of the Shah, overthrew him
and created an Islamic theocracy. This new theocracy would turn out to be extremely conservative and
anything Iran did would tar the rest of the Islamic world. At the same time during the 70’s and the 80’s,
Iran and Iraq would wage war against each other. The mujahedeen would engage in a fierce guerilla war
against the Soviet Union. Indeed, it seemed as though the Middle East was constantly in one form of
turmoil or another. In 1989, Iranian authorities issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the author of the
Satanic Verses. If that weren’t enough, on September 11th, 2001, hijackers in the employ of Wahhabi
terrorist group Al-Qaeda crashed two planes into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon. Islam
immediately became a worldwide concern. Al-Qaeda and groups proclaimed themselves the true
followers of Islam, and the Western media has been happy to oblige their claim. France itself
experienced problems in the riots of 2005, when two Muslim teenagers were killed during a chase with
police. So now we have a group that is marginalized, disliked, and associated with terrorist
So the headscarf affair takes place amongst this unpleasant backdrop. I don’t think the
presentation did a good job of why all that background information was important. But the reason the
information is important is that it says why a secular liberal republic would react so strongly to a piece of
cloth that isn’t even worn that often in France. The headscarf (which in French discourse was frequently
confused with the face covering) became a symbol of being part of a culture that was alien to that of the
French. More than one French commentator compared the veil to a physical barrier separating the
Muslim woman from French society. Given comments like Nicolas Sarkozy’s “We cannot accept in our
country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity”, it
seems that the French government believes that the veil is forced upon women. (Elver, 111) Thus the
French government can act like a white knight on a horse and liberate those women from the
patriarchal system of Islam. Islam, to them, is a threat to good French values and it is the role of the
French government to impose those values on the people, whether they like it or not. To be fair to the
French, it’s not like the French government is rounding up Muslims and putting them in concentration
camps. For one thing, the French government has to deal with people like Jean Marie Le Pen, who wants
to get rid of all the Muslims in France. In order to keep their votes, the ruling French authorities must
look tough on Islamic extremism. Not to mention that the French government has made efforts to reach
out to its Muslim population, but I feel this is more about easily managing Muslims rather than
tolerance. While it is true that only a small number of women have been affected, an examination of
online media shows that Muslims feel like it is an attack on their beliefs and on their freedom. As Abeer
from put it “I wear Niqaab, (and it’s a personal choice). So I’m definitely pro-Niqab
and believe that women should not have this freedom taken away by a secularist law (ironically – a law
that claims to give women freedom).” ( But to the French government, freedom of
religion means freedom from religion. It seems that the French government believes that it can justify
cracking down on a religion by calling it freedom, it will. But in the end France is just protecting its
values, but the way it is being down is questionable.
In conclusion, the reasons for France’s crackdown on the headscarf is due its unique duty of
defining religious boundaries, its problems with ruling Algeria, its problems with Islamic immigrants, and
its problems with Islamic extremism. Time will tell if the government tries to go further in cracking down
on religion.
Elver, Hilal. The Headscarf Controversy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Fernando, Mayanthi L. “Reconfiguring freedom: Muslim piety and the limits of secular law and
public discourse in France.” American Ethnologist. 37.1 (2010): 19-35. Web 5 December 2013.
Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. New York Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Scott, Joan Wallach. Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.
Zuberi, Hena. Web. 7 December 2013.