13 February 2015

Secularism, laicity and multiculturalism

More think pieces keep appearing in the wake of the Paris massacre. One of the latest, in print at least, is Mark Lilla's article in the current New York Review of Books. I can't link you to it because the online version is subscribers-only, but there are two points in it worth noting. First, writing from Paris, Lilla tries to clarify the distinction between the liberal concept of secularism and the French principle of laicity as it shapes the debate over Islam in that country. The ideas are similar in that both require the state to be neutral towards the plurality of religions, but French laicity doesn't stop there. Laicity is an outgrowth of small-r French republicanism as it has evolved since the Revolution of 1789.  Let Lilla explain:

Laicity does not require or even imply toleration in society at large. And the idea of republicanism has historically been suspicious of it....It is one [idea] that guarantees rights but also envisages a strong state to provide for the public welfare and control the economy, and is proudly national -- and therefore hostile to outside influences like Catholicism, international communism, the United States and now the global economy and Islamism. Classic republicanism is not libertarian or communitarian; it presumes that rights come with public obligations, and that fraternity must be built through a common, quasi-sacred education in those rights and duties. One is not born a French republican citizen, one becomes one in school by being initiated into the republican ideal.

We could describe laicity as a kind of nationalist secularism, premised on a stronger insistence than in more liberal secular states that one is a citizen first and foremost rather than a believer or perhaps even a member of "civil society." I'd have little problem with that as long as public education doesn't teach a whitewashed version of national history in which your country has done no wrong. Of course, like any western power, France has been accused of doing just that in the past, and as Lilla notes, in the post-colonial, postmodern era "republicanism was charged by the left with being a cover for political, economic, sexual and colonial domination." Laicity presumably came to be seen as hegemonic, something the powerful imposed on people who had an innate human right to see things differently. This is part of the overall global backlash against the progressivism of the 20th century, which was deemed nearly inextricable from imperialism. It was one thing for radicals to tell their own people to abandon old ways, another, and now less acceptable, for one people to tell another to do so, even if global progress requires everyone to abandon old ways. Now, however, the major challenge to laicity comes not from leftish philosophes but from Muslims who, like many American Christians, don't want their kids indoctrinated with ideas that challenge faith and tradition. French society, or the French economy, has failed to integrate all the waves of immigration from Muslim countries, and France now seems to have a Muslim underclass. As the poor and the apparent victims of bias and discrimination, this underclass has the sympathies of many on the left, especially when French Muslims as a whole seem threatened by the rise of an avowedly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party, the National Front. Lilla worries that the left's natural defensive stance against bigotry may blind leftists toward real problems of violence and radicalism that exist in Muslim communities and must be addressed and corrected by Muslims themselves. He offers an American analogy: liberal refusal to acknowledge "cultural factors in persistent poverty" played into Republican hands in the late 1970s as liberals were portrayed as being "out of touch with reality" while Republicans talked straight about such things. In France, Lilla warns that the left must not be constrained by fear of benefiting the National Front from confronting domestic Muslim crime and radicalism, or else they'll play into the bigots' hands the same way American liberals did. Easier said than done, since this recommendation runs into the leftist hangup about telling the Other what to do or how to think. But it should always be possible to confront and defeat bigotry on all sides, whether from reactionary French natives or surly immigrants or their children. So long as the sort of racism presumably practiced by the National Front is seen as contrary to the classical republican ideal, it seems that France could really stand an almost Jacobinical revival of revolutionary hostility to all forms of ignorance and superstition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, a part of the problem is the refusal of immigrants to assimilate into mainstream culture. People come into France (or the US for that matter) for a better life, but not necessarily to bathe in French culture. Every nation should have a right, a responsibility to ensure that anyone immigrating to their nation does so out of a love and desire for the culture of their newly adopted homeland. Anyone who wishes to maintain their old culture should be shown the quickest way back to their nation of origin.