France Is In A Secularism Paradox

Is equality jeopardizing religious freedom?

What is the zone of religion? Does religion have a zone? Living in economies with a diverse mix of cultures and religions, everyone assimilates the other one’s points of view with ease. Or so, one thinks. But if secularism is the answer and end-all to all problems of the sovereign nation, then why does such animosity exist in today’s world?

With 5 million Muslims, France represents one of the biggest Muslim communities in Western Europe. However, the attitude towards the community does not exactly seem avant-garde. Although France is a secular state, it does not seem that it applies to Muslims who wear and act religiously on different occasions.

There is a paradox of sorts here. The French emphasize neutrality in the public realm. And Muslims openly show their religion in its manner of dress and behaviour, which is in contrast with this French principle. Wearing of beards and veils, or breaking work times for prayers, is certainly not in line with the neutrality in the public realm.

The 1905 law on secularism of France was the basis for the controversial law in 2004 that put the ban on wearing veils, crosses, and yarmulkes in schools. This was in line with principle against public declarations of religiosity. The biggest debate was about Muslim women and their veils. Frenchmen argued that, in this way, they expressed themselves towards core French values of equality and universalism, while Muslim community claimed that the veils are the core principle of a Muslim religion. The debate hit the wall, and there was no solution.

In 2010, a ban was executed against a public wearing of face coverings, including the Muslim face veil (niqab) and in 2013, the rule that every school must have guidelines on secularism in order to disconnect religions from schools, was adopted. This time, there is another such ban for the work places.

Although France just followed its basic principle of equality, the Muslim community has seen such regulations as an attack on its religion and as stigmatization of their community. This characterises a deeper problem.

The situation is now even more abstruse because of terrorist attacks. After the recent terrorist attacks claiming a large number of victims, not just in France but in different parts of the world, and an open invitation of the Muslim fundamentalists to the jihad, against all non-Muslims, no one no longer feels safe. Precisely to avoid stigmatization, France now, insists more than before, on assimilation and equality of all citizens, while a growing number of Muslims are gaining strength to fight for their rights. Secondly, the influx of Muslim refugees into the EU cannot be ignored.

On the one side are the democratically oriented citizens of France who want to restrict religious freedom in order to follow their national principle of equality. On the other side are also citizens of France, who want to behave and look like they are not Frenchmen, but are supporters of religious freedom. However, it is quite an elemental difference in their perspectives. The former lot do not want to discriminate people based on their religion, and do not want them to publicly demonstrate religiosity. This is what triggers the whole debate between religious freedom and religious right. From a democratic point of view, there is always a tiff between these two aspects, because it must also be understood that people do not want to part with their religious traditions and consistency.

However, they also must be aware that they no longer live in their religiously intense countries and they have to adapt to new conditions. For secularism to prevail, France must reach a middle-ground between extreme religiosity exhibitionism and religious freedom.

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