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Religion and Society

If Neutrality Means Neutralization


Preface: S. Romano


Afterword: E. Bianchi


Title: Rapporto sulla laicità.


Il testo della commissione


francese Stasi


Editor: Libri Scheiwiller, Milano



«The Commission proposes to insert» a provision for schools «in a law relating to secularity». This provision reads: «it is hereby prohibited to wear any clothing or symbol which makes apparent one's belonging to a religious or political group», «ostentatious clothing or symbols, such as large crosses, the Islamic veil and the kippà». «Discreet» symbols however, are permitted, «medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima or small Korans». «This proposal must be understood as a promotion of integration. It is not the imposition of a ban, but the establishment of a rule of communal life» (pp. 75-76). The content and fundamental motivation which inspired the new law on the use of religious symbols in schools can be drawn from these quotations, written by the Commission for reflection on the principle of secularity in the Republic, formed by President Chirac, and then approved by the French Parliament in 2004.



At stake is the process of integration between cultures and religions, which the Commission recognises as passing through a difficult phase characterised by the prevalence of communitarian forms which tend to close in on themselves. The decisive principle invoked by the Commission is «secularity», «as a founding value of the republican pact» (p. 87) and «founding principle of the school system» (p. 67). Secularity is in fact the connecting thread that runs through the post-revolutionary French tradition's relationship between Church and State, culminating in the law of separation in 1905. Secularity «is based on three inseparable values: freedom of conscience, equality of rights to spiritual and religious options, neutrality of political power» (p. 19).



The Report's position is characterised by profound ambiguity. The central question is concentrated on the use of the idea of "neutrality", which on one hand signifies impartiality and non-interference in the field of religion, but on the other hand tends to neutralize religion in the social sphere, as a (supposed) way of achieving the "common good" (cf. p. 19) and as a guarantee of republican national unity. But «society is not secular», as the Grand Rabbi of France J. Sitruk observed in his excellent observations sent to President Chirac and published here as an appendix to the volume: «secularity is a commitment to pluralism», not to the neutralization of society. Even if the state should not assume a particular religious identification in order to carry out its functions, this does not mean that it has cause for indifference towards the recognised religious situation, both in the form of help given for the concrete exercise of religious freedom and its historical expressions, as well as recognition and even support for the works which religions carry out that result in obvious advantages for the common good: «the State», writes Sitruk, «is in the position to know quite well which advantages it derives, for example, from the charity works undertaken by religious organizations», and it knows that «religion promotes objective values, those considered essential and of first priority for the development of the whole society» (pp. 103-4). Therefore it is not by reducing religious differences to invisibility - almost reducing the problem to a question of "public order" - that one sensibly manages the relations between religious plurality and social unity. How not to notice the surprising Enlightenment faith which characterises the cultural horizons of the Report? As if the Frankfurt school's Dialectic of the Enlightenment had never been written, as if the more recent debate between neo-liberalism and neo-communitarianism had never happened.