December 18, 2003The Guardian
A 13-year-old girl is an exemplary pupil in every way; she listens carefully to her teachers, does her homework and is a cheerful member of the class. But in one respect, according to President Jacques Chirac yesterday, her behaviour threatens nothing less than the social peace and national cohesion of the French nation - she insists on wearing a headscarf. All around her, pupils are wearing the kind of outlandish clothes and hairstyles one would expect of teenagers anywhere in Europe. But there is one garment that, the president has declared, challenges the secularity of republican France: the square metre or so of material that covers this girl's hair.
It seems preposterous: how can the clothing of schoolgirls become an issue of such enormous symbolic weight that for 14 years it has been the touchstone of a debate about the French constitution, about what it is to be French and how France should "integrate" its 3.7 million Muslims - the largest Muslim minority in Europe? (Significantly, France talks of integration, not multi-culturalism.) It is not just schoolgirls who will be affected but also public servants; a juror was even dismissed during a trial because she was wearing a headscarf. The French state must be seen to be entirely neutral in all its dealings, and Chirac yesterday endorsed the findings of an official commission and asked parliament to pass a law banning all "ostentatious religious symbols".
From this side of the Channel, one can easily pour scorn on Gallic arrogance. What lies ahead is many more years of confrontation between the French state and Muslims, and a dangerous reinforcement in the Muslim community of the perception of Islamophobia, of exclusion and persecution. One can reasonably ask, as David Drake at Middlesex University does after studying this issue, why so much political, intellectual and emotional energy has been spent on this subject rather than on far more pressing issues of integration such as the high rates of unemployment and deprivation in the Muslim community.
But any smug sense of British superiority is misplaced. The themes that underlie this vexed issue in France are as evident here: this is the latest chapter in a long and troubled history of how liberalism interacts with religion in Europe. Liberalism, with its cherished principles of rationality, individual rights and the rule of law, wanted religion to be a purely private matter, but such a concept makes no sense to a profoundly social faith such as Islam. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is over questions of belonging and identity: are you French or Muslim, or can you be both? We haven't resolved these questions here - note, for example, the questioning of the loyalty of the Muslim community by Denis MacShane, the Foreign Office minister. The difference is that while France has had an intense debate that has split every political allegiance, Britain has managed to dodge such a showdown.
The roots of France's secularism lie in the struggle against the overweening power of the Catholic church: how to cut it down to size and assert the primacy - and neutrality - of the state. France's schools were the vehicle to turn Catholic peasants into French republican citizens, points out Drake, and state education was how you built an integrated, cohesive nation. The French secularist tradition has its own coherent logic, but it was conceived in one set of historical circumstances, and is now being applied in another, vastly different set. The end result of this logic - a generation of angry Muslims - could be, quite literally, catastrophic.
The approach of British liberalism has been to "liberalise" religion over the past 200 years; trimming it into a "system of ethics, propped up by God", as the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh puts it. From John Locke onwards, Britain wanted its religion reasonable; in effect, it turned religion into a pale form of itself. The miracles and extraordinary events of the gospels were reduced to allegory and one was left with that very English type of faith: tolerant, accommodating Anglicanism.
At the heart of liberalism is a profound certainty of itself and of its own superiority, argues Parekh. That kind of certainty cannot but lead to some closure of the imagination, a limit to its understanding of whatever is profoundly different from it - such as Islam. He believes that the fear and certainty are born out of fear that liberalism is a "rare and delicate way of living that is out of accord with normal human behaviour", and thus always in danger from the forces of barbarianism. The two-sided tragedy of liberalism is that it doesn't know its own limits, and neither does it know its own strength. If it knew both of these, it would find the self-confidence and humility to understand and learn from those who challenge it.
Liberalism's impoverished imaginative resources are self-evident. It has no vocabulary for, or understanding of, a range of human experiences, and ends up borrowing the religious language of an earlier time. We talk of the "evil" of a murderer or the "vision" of a leader. Words such as "miracle", "mystery" and "reverence" are still used because they convey human experiences, even if the religious beliefs that once attempted to explain them no longer exist.
Take the celebrations of Christmas. They may have lost their theological underpinning, but they have not lost their narrative force. We still respond to this tale of wonder, innocence, reverence for the mystery of new life and the annual cycles of rebirth. Liberalism has nothing to say about any of this; it has no way of appealing to these intense, vivid emotions. It has, if you like, tidied up human nature by ignoring large chunks of its make-up - that way, it's more explicable and easier to organise.
Liberalism has always regarded religious faith as irrational and emotional, and as something that must be corralled into safe irrelevance. By the latter half of the 20th century, it was within sight of achieving its goal, as European Christianity crumbled. Nowhere was this more true than in France. That victory only reinforced the French liberal tradition's sense of its own superiority and historical inevitability; the assumption was that wealth and time would between them kill off the last vestiges of religious faith. But this has not proved true of France's Muslims, and now, disastrously, liberalism has resorted to the full force of the law to buttress its supremacy. France is providing an example par excellence of what the French would call a "dialogue de sourds " - a dialogue of the deaf.
From Afghanistan to the American south, religion is resurgent in more violent and assertive manifestations than at any time in history. Liberalism appears blind to its own forms of self-assertion and aggression (economic, military or cultural), and hence to its own part in the generation of this ghastly phenomenon.