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Religion and Society

What is the Solution for France?

The national “values” that a certain consensus claims are impervious to terrorism now sound empty, and nobody knows what secularism means anymore

Since January 2015, France has been under threat, a threat made even more unsettling because it is incomprehensible. It is not merely a question of not knowing when and how the next attack will hit. The causes are unfathomable. The evil seems to come from nowhere and lead to nowhere. It is hard to imagine what benefits the instigators of terrorism gain from the attacks. To the contrary, the horror raises an otherwise nonexistent cohesion: nearly everyone proclaimed “Je suis Charlie.” The outpouring of emotions produces otherwise rare demonstrations of compassion and solidarity. The victimization reinforces the convictions that we are right and that we are on the side of History, of Progress, and of Good.



After the carnage of Charlie Hebdo we asked ourselves whether violence is not intrinsic to Islam: after all, it was for having mocked the Prophet that the iconoclasts of the satirical newspaper were savagely killed. The concurrent publication of the last novel by Michel Houellebecq could have fed this suspicion. In fact, Submission recounts the coming to power via electoral means of a so-called moderate Muslim, who soon after imposes sharia law in France, while the population allows it to happen, having nothing substantial to put in its place. But the condemnation of the massacres by imams from all backgrounds and by many immigrants and citizens of North African origin have deterred the incrimination of Islam in itself. The subsequent attacks murdered blindly, killing Muslims alongside non-Muslims.



Islamism was then blamed, adding “ism” to “Islam”, to design an enemy that is not a major religion, but rather its corruption in an ideology that rhymes with Nazism, Stalinism and all of the murderous utopias of the last century. The intelligence and the police are therefore tasked with identifying and monitoring the “radicalized” individuals who have been seduced by jihad and are prepared to leave for the Middle East to join ISIS, and, upon their return, aim to organize suicide attacks. The obscure, thankless, but necessary tasks which have already led to the foiling of numerous horrendous plots, are by no means the cure-all. Indeed, the man in Nice, who drove a truck like a battering ram through the crowd on July 14, had not been monitored, but the “Islamist” propaganda on the internet was likely enough to intensify his personal frustrations.



Therefore, the “radicalization” label stuck to the fight against evil does not provide the remedy that could contain and finally uproot it. One can also ask whether this identification, as reassuring and not ineffective as it is in the immediate future, doesn’t actually mask a much more serious problem: that raised by Houellebecq in his novel, which was quickly removed from the public debate. The “values” that a certain consensus proclaims impervious to terrorism now ring empty – as Pierre Manent noticed in his Situation de la France, this goes back to the Vichy regime and the Algerian War – while liberalism which, after 1968, first invaded morality and then the economy, has not solved anything.



The debate on secularism is illustrative of this collapse: no one knows exactly what secularism is anymore. For some it means freedom of conscience and worship, the neutrality of the state, tolerance with regards to public order, or cooperation in the fields of education, humanitarian aid, health and culture… For others, religion, whatever it may be, must be fiercely relegated to the private sphere, pending its unavoidable disappearance, because it corresponds to a past phase of humanity, in which it is supposed to have created and justified the worst abominations.



“Open Secularism” is realistic, but the ideal of respect and civility that timidly underpins it is minimal and does little to mobilize. Furthermore, this pragmatism faces the increasing visibility of Islam without being able to handle it, because its only reference is Christianity, which is less divided and much less theocratic. For its part, in its ideological dogmatism uncompromising “secularism” is obliged to only see in the affirmation of the Muslim identity an error that will not stand the test of time. On both sides there is a problem with history and therefore with truth: nobody wants to talk about the Christian roots of the West, for some in order to avoid offending anyone, and for others out of conviction that in order to move forward the past must be denied.



It is improbable that the 2017 elections will regulate the conflict or provide fresh impetus. Nevertheless, redefining secularism by internalizing the fact that not only do religions not die, but also that France must now take Islam into account and its specificity is a key issue. It is probably the best way to defuse the “radicalizations.” On the right just like on the left and in the populist galaxy there are simultaneously moderate but dodgy secularists as well as hardline secularists. The main candidates will avoid taking overly sharp positions, and there is the risk that everything is decided by their personalities. The winner then will be the one who is less rejected by the people.



But not everything will depend on politics, nor on the efforts to recognize Islam as an upcoming and indisputable reality, with contents that affect personal and social life. Because Muslims themselves must face the challenge: will they look in their tradition, which does not foresee anything remotely similar, in order to find the resources to internalize the position of an officially unoppressed minority? And will their religion be capable of passing the critical and scientific examination of its sources that modernity brings with itself, just as Christianity did?