The American left seems to lionize most European governments as enviably democratic and socially just. And while Europe has progressively upstaged America in some areas — universal healthcare, legal tolerance toward refugees, parliamentary representation of minority parties and so on — Europeans too often hold discriminatory sentiments toward Muslims which, in many countries, have been codified into law. Germany, France, Austria, Belgium and Bulgaria have all enacted some type of ban on headscarves worn by Muslim women. Outlawing the religious expression of a minority group is possibly more damaging to European day-to-day social cohesion than Confederate statues are in the United States because the ban inserts itself unambiguously into day-to-day routine, backed by penalty of law. I will focus here on the policies of France, where discriminatory measures are backed by a hypocritical, quasi-rational idea of tradition.
In the same way that most Americans would say they value freedom despite the fact that all Americans are not equally free, most French people would profess their love for laïcité — the French conception of secularity — even though many Frenchmen do not have equal opportunity to believe. Laïcité, though now allegedly understood to refer to uncompromising secularity in the public sphere, comes from an extended Christian-centric tradition dating back to the French Revolution, when Frenchmen did not separate themselves from religious expression altogether, but simply resisted more centralized Catholic control. In the words of Marine Le Pen, runner-up in this year’s presidential election, “Principles we fight for are engraved in our national motto: liberty, equality, fraternity . . . that stem . . . from the principles of secularization resulting from a Christian heritage.”
Laïcité is often invoked by the French for political expedience, but discriminatory policies have been supported by almost all mainstream political parties, from socialists to conservatives. According to historian Jim Fraser, the French state funds myriad Christian schools with tax dollars in France, yet only one Islamic school is publicly-funded — even though around five million Muslims live in France. France also owns and runs most Christian churches with taxpayer money, but mosques must be self-funded. At the classroom level, Muslim schoolchildren are not given holidays off, and Muslim girls are expelled for wearing any form of head-covering.
Many proponents justify these laws as steps toward assimilation for newcomers, but forced abandonment of valued customs can only lead to resentment and the feeling of being second-class. Can French only mean white Christian? Few would ever say this explicitly, but those who proclaim their love for laïcité while overlooking or justifying this blatant discrimination are effectively doing the same thing. I am not accusing all French people of forthrightly believing in racism, but I am accusing the vast majority of moral negligence. Enlightenment values — though conceived in a white Christian vacuum — must now be applied equally to all people.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, Oct. 30 print edition. Email Theo Wayt at [email protected]