France’s secularism and the historic amendment

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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The proposed amendments to the French Secularism law of 1905 have raised a lot of debate between the intellectual elite and Islamic institutions in the country.

A group of intellectuals perceive the proposed amendment to the law as supportive of the concept of secularism, instead of being opposed to it. They support amending it after more than 113 years when the Muslim community was not part of the French fabric.

On the other hand, others object to this amendment considering it a violation of the battle which the French society fought to achieve a secular system. The government leaked the planned amendments to the media and they are summarized in three items:

1. Expand the scope of religious associations to include all places of worship
2. Define the criteria of the religious association to distinguish between what is religious and what is cultural
3. Tighten the supervision over financial resources, especially those coming from abroad

Fear has been creeping within the hearts of Muslims as these amendments serve them, which in turn would naturally make the French people hold Muslims responsible for being the cause of this unprecedented historic change.

According to these items, despite the third one, Islamic associations can invest and this will create problems on the social and intellectual levels.

Secularism requires society’s pluralism, where there is a kind of neutrality or “principled distance”

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Understanding secularism

A large percentage of Muslims, even the ones who are living in Europe, America and Canada, oppose and fight secularism.

This is even more problematic, despite Gilles Kepel, François Burgat, Alain Gresh, Olivier Roy and other intellectuals’ defense of Muslims considering them to have become a societal constituent that can hence be dealt with outside the context of hegemony. This is totally refuted by intellectuals like Ali Harb and Adonis.

On the other hand, Mohammed Arkoun distinguishes himself as he calls for the development of secularism so that it harmonizes with the liberal attitude and reconciles with the “study of religions” in high schools according to what he calls “Reconciling with the Study of Comparative Religion” in his book “Islam: Europe and the West.” Arkoun has actually engaged in a long debate on this matter with intellectuals and clerics.

A recent book Beyond the Secular West supervised by Akeel Bilgrami, the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, and co-authored with a group of thinkers, discusses the nature of secularism among countries in which Christianity has not been widespread, such as China, India and the Middle East.

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It also explores how local religious cultures work together in Africa and the extent to which modern secularism has developed. The book is quite special for two main reasons. First, it is an extension of prominent philosopher Charles Taylor’s extensive discussions about secularization and in which he engaged in rich debates with German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

The second aspect is Taylor’s participation in a paper titled: A Secular Age. Perhaps the book itself compels us to go back to Taylor’s original theory.

Taylor once asked why we need a radical definition of secularism? In the book “The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere” which he wrote in collaboration with Habermas, Judith Butler and Cornel West, he states: “It’s generally agreed that modern democracies have to be ‘secular.’ There is perhaps a problem, a certain ethnocentricity, involved in this term.

But even in the Western context the term is not limpid.” Secularism requires society’s pluralism, where there is a kind of neutrality or “principled distance.” The latter is a notion established by Rajeev Bhargava (an expert in Indian secularism and its distinction and a contributor to the book “Beyond the Secular West” previously referred to).

Yet, Taylor’s particularity is his opposition of “instrumental secularism” in its shallow definition of “separating religion from state” or linking it to the writing of a particular constitution. He believes it’s complete with these three bases:

1. Coercion shall not be exercised in the field of religion
2. Equality of people in faiths
3. All spiritual families have the right to find a listening ear

French and German versions

Certainly, there exist differences between German and French secularism and so Taylor uses the example of the headscarf as an example to further illustrate this point. The headscarf is banned in France but it’s partly banned in Germany (only for female students and not the teachers).

Meanwhile, every school in Britain is free to decide upon the matter. These differences are due to the different criterion used to explain the equality between religions.

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Habermas explains the roots of this criterion and calls for epistemological rupture between the secular mind and the religious thought, with a preference given to the former and that is enough to provide the standard results of establishing democratic legitimacy or specifying political ethics.

Ultimately, the debate in France is due to limiting fairness that justice is part of the revolutionary renewal of the social contract as in John Rawls’ profound book “Justice as Fairness.”

The basis can be explained by these quotes from Rawls’ book: “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to office and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.”

Rawls also emphasized that his theory is not metaphysical or utilitarian and does not aim to define what is moral but is a “political theory.” And to this, there are further lengthy discussions.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat,, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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