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The Charlie Hebdo massacre, followed by the murder of four hostages in a kosher grocer, came as a shock to all, not least those of us who had witnessed the 7/7 bombing of London in 2005. Then and now, it has been difficult to hold onto reason as the political violence we associate with the distant Middle East has “come home.”
After 7/7 some French commentators concluded that the bombers were “the children of British multiculturalism.” Yet comparisons between French republicanism and British multiculturalism are not helpful. No abstract ideal can provide the “right answer” for European liberal democracies struggling to integrate their Muslim minorities. John Bowen’s analysis is invaluable precisely because he mines the French political tradition itself for solutions.
Anti-Islam ideology has allowed the far right to reinvent itself as the defender of freedom.
Bowen finds these resources where that tradition tempers cultural homogeneity with a respect for free association and offers a model for compromise between secularity and religious practice. But these internal resources see little use today in the face of an increasingly diverse political community. Why? Anti-Islam ideology is one obstacle.
The European far right’s focus has shifted—away from Jews and racial minorities and toward Muslim religious culture. The National Front, for example, distinguishes between migrants from Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, and Poland and those from Turkey or North Africa. They claim that the Islamic religious culture of these migrants clashes with “European” and “Judeo-Christian” civilization and makes integration virtually impossible. This focus on differences of civilization—between Europe and Islam or Enlightenment reason and Islamic religion—has allowed the far right to reinvent itself as a defender of secularism, freedom, and gender equality against a barbaric, irrational faith. This reinvention—and the incorporation of Jews into that Judeo-Christian paradigm—in turn has allowed the National Front to distance itself from anti-Jewish and color racism at the roots of the European far right. Indeed all European far-right parties, from the Danish People’s Party to the English Defense League, have made this key ideological transition.
The National Front’s wholehearted embrace of anti-Islam ideology is not surprising; more unexpected is how rapidly its anti-Islam discourse has been legitimated by mainstream elites. Marine Le Pen’s statements may shock polite sensibilities, but they are a version of the crude representations of Islam and the religious culture of French Muslims that are now commonplace in ordinary French political discussion.
Anti-Islam ideology turns all visible Muslim religious difference—the veil, mosques, halal food—into proof of the Islamization of French public life. By focusing on religion rather than race, anti-Islam ideology masks itself as a political project in defense of secularism, liberalism, and feminism. The mere presence of Islam in the public realm thus constitutes a threat to French values and to the republic. Muslim objections to specific instances of free speech are presented as total rejection of freedom of speech. The veil is interpreted as a symbol of the wholesale rejection of gender equality.
But the new framing doesn’t change the nature of the far right’s anti-Islam ideology. It is a form of cultural racism that systematically excludes a minority group—Muslims—from their fair share of political, economic, and social power.
Moving toward Bowen’s inclusive French politics requires the renunciation of anti-Islam ideology and retrieving laïcité, equality, and freedom. The next step is a practical, not philosophical, task: renewing French republican values through a democratic engagement between the governors and the governed. During this phase, the British experience of engagement with Muslims might offer a helpful model. In Britain we have learned that speaking to Muslims with whom we agree or share values is less useful than engaging with those who are critical, independent of state control, and have deep roots in their communities. This wider, deeper conversation can be uncomfortable, even angry. But such political engagement, undertaken with civility and as a joint enterprise, can generate a deeper identification of all citizens with national and local institutions.
The post–Charlie Hebdo calls for republican messianism, and even the present strategy of imposing republican values, reflect the state’s unconditional demand for capitulation. French Muslims are being asked to accept life as defeated subjects rather than free citizens. A new political consensus has to be hammered out through contested public debates. The outcome is likely to be messy, and it will entail painful compromises—mainly for French Muslims but also for their non-Muslim compatriots. But this is what it means to decide, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
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