Wednesday, December 17, 2003

C’est magnifique – but is it politics?
I’ve got very mixed feelings about the French ban on religious symbols, which should be confirmed by Chirac today. Reuters reports:

Chirac is trying to revive his popularity after an angry national debate over integrating Muslims into France's traditionally Catholic society, and wants to prevent a new surge by the far-right National Front in regional elections in March.

This is wrong on a number of levels. France is not a Catholic society. It’s a secular republic whose main religion is Catholicism. It ceased to be a Catholic society at the time of the French revolution, since when one of the main political fault lines running through the country has been the divide between clerical and reactionary forces and republicans of both right and left. DeGaulle tried to resolve this issue finally by creating a conservative republican movement, which people like Chirac currently represent. This isn’t about bashing Muslims to appease catholic right wingers. It’s about reaffirming the secular Republic in the face of a surge in support for anti-republican, neo-Vichyite forces represented by Le Pen. It puts Islamic extremists and neofascists in the same place – outside the mainstream of political discourse.

Alexander Cockburn gives a good account of the French secular tradition in The Golden Age is in Us.

“The de-Christianization campaign was pushed along by such men as Joseph Fouche, a former teacher from the South of France and one of the few principals of the revolution to die in bed. He ended up as Napoleon’s chief of police. During the revolution he ordered the words ‘death is nothing but eternal sleep’ to be put by the gates of every cemetery in France.

In Strasbourg’s Feast of Reason on 30 Brumaire, Year II of the revolution, citizens led by girls dressed in white carried a bust of Marat into the Cathedral, renamed the Temple of Reason and over whose doors were placed a tricolour and a placard reading Light after Darkness. In the nave was a symbolic mountain with statues of Nature and Liberty on top and on the sides, monsters with human faces half buried in rock, symbolizing the frustrated powers of superstition. The 10,000 strong gathering sang a hymn to Reason and then there was a bonfire on the altar of the remains of saints beatified by the court of Rome…”

Death is nothing but eternal sleep – stick that in your interfaith community and smoke it. Here in anglo-saxondom, the atheist, agnostic or simply apathetic majority are impaled on the fork of their own tolerance, forced to take seriously or at least politely the special claims to moral superiority of people with spirit guides from bronze age Palestine, believers in the hallucinations of epileptic Arabs, kneelers before magical cows and elephants. Sometimes, France seems like a spiritual home. Or at least a place that stimulates the intricate biochemical response in the brain which expresses itself as admiration.

And yet, and yet…was this a fight that France really needed to pick right now? At its best, the secular tradition claims human liberty as its own, and that necessarily includes the freedom to indulge the superstitious part of ones character. And picking on the way kids dress hardly shows secularism in its best light. It attacks the symbols of superstition, rather than the reality. The aim of a secular education should be to encourage people to want leave their crucifixes and headscarves at home, rather than to use the power of the state to remove them. And of course, there's the overall risk of pushing people who are simply stubborn about thgeir faith into the hands of the extremists.

But at least there’s a consistent principle involved. In the UK, the government veers between indulgence and spite – making insulting Islam an aggravating factor in racist assaults on the one hand and barking orders to Muslims to speak English in their own homes on the other.