Monday, November 21, 2005

Secularism - Religious Freedom or Religious Denial?

After the riots in France theres a lot of talk these days about secularism and whether it still works. In France, after the French Revolution there was a strict separation of Church (taken to mean all forms of religion) and state. Even now in France census surveys do not register religion, race, creed.

Now, heres the question. This 'colourblindness', does is serve to even everyone out, saying there is no difference between all people? Or is it just 'blindness' pretending that because you cant see the problem, it doesn't exist?

The recent riots certainly showed that problems of racism and discrimination (and, unavoidably, issues of religion) do in fact exist. Theres a fairly large Muslim underclass in areas of France, an underclass that is increasingly restless. But it may have more to do with simply poverty, lack of education and unemployment, as some commentators suggest.

Consider two cities in France: Marsielle and Nice. About 1/4 of Marsielle's 800 000 inhabitants are muslim. Unemplyment is high, at 14% more than 1/3 higher than the national average. Its a polarised society, with about 20% of the inhabitants supporting the right-wing, anti-immigration National Front. And yet Marsielle barely suffered from the riots that shook France. Nice, a much richer town with lower unemployment, was hit pretty hard.

The difference? Marsielle is more friendly towards other religions and nationalities, at least on a governmental level. The mayor supports religious groups and efforts of dialog and expression. Nice, on the otherhand, does not. The mayor of Nice once said in 2000 that, "Mosques, as places of worship, have no place in a secular republic". The mayor has repeatedly blocked efforts of Muslims to open mosques in the city. The Mayor of Marsielle, on the other hand, on hearing complaints that Marsielle had no Grand Mosque, offered to lease out an abandoned slaughterhouse for a token rent. Were it not for the laws of France banning the government giving away this kind of thing for groups that exlude others (i.e. not all people can use them), the Mayor would have given it away for free. Now the offer is 99 year lease for a token fee (it still has not been made a Mosque, however, because of arguing between different anti-immigrant groups, strict secularists, and some Islamic groups who believe the site is unclean because it was a slaughterhouse).

Even the language of secularism doesn't seem to be appropriate for todays sensitive world. Secularism attempts to defeat polarisation and differences between people. The 'melting pot' approach is supposed to mix all cultures and religions - a noble ideal, except that what it usually does is not mix all cultures and differences, but eliminate alien ones, replacing them with national standards. It treats differences, beliefs, ideologies as things that may be discarded with enough effort, and yet this is not the case. Religion, particularly to Muslims, is a key to identity, and can not be eliminated. In the past it could be suppressed or stifled, but nowadays the issue is so sensitive that that alternative is no longer possible.

What needs to be done is respect these differences, celebrate them, and protect them. The last part - protect them - is crucial. Both from themsellves and from each other. Many muslims blame the Palestinian situation not on the policies of a fascist regime, but on a religion (Judaism). They wrongfully take revenge on Judaism and Jews. Also, a number of muslims have particularly perverted views about women, and seek to enslave them. Other cultures and religions have their own issues too, as demonstrated by the 'witchdoctor' issues in Afro- Caribbean societies in the UK last year.

What is the government to do? Actively step-in, promote, protect? Maybe. Maybe not. I believe the government should not take an active role in promotion, but should provide legislation that protects religions and races, and gives them the freedom to practice and celebrate themselves. Not stifle them, as in the case of the French ban on headscarves, and pretend they do not exist.

It is indeed a sensitive issue, and very difficult to tackle. I offer no solutions because I have none, merely a first step, a step I believe is in the right direction, and that is to acknowledge that we are all different, and stop trying to fit everyone into the same mold. Because otherwise, inevitably, that mold will break.

Posted by illogicist at 5:11 AM


  1. Blogger PizzaQueen posted at 11/21/2005 07:53:00 PM  
    I don't think the main problem is to be secular or not but how and if a secular country welcomes a non secular and viceversa.
    In other words not only is inportant to see the compatibility of the two, but also which of the two fits better in the shoes of the other. What we see today is that is easier for a secular background individual to live in a non secular country than for a nonsecular citizen to live in a secular country. In both cases is the non secular system creating problems, so are you really sure that is secularism to have failed?
  2. Blogger illogicist posted at 11/22/2005 10:13:00 AM  
    I agree with you up to the point where you say its the non-secular system that causes problems. I'm not so sure about that - you could be right and you might be mistaken, I'll need to read more first. But I think you're definitely right when you say its easier for a secular background individual to live in a non-secular country. I wonder why that is?

    Thanks for stopping by!

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