The Tenuous Relationship between Laïcité and Islam in France

Image By Ji-Elle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

Written by Ella Watharow

France is home to over 5 million Muslims, which is the largest Islamic minority in Europe. It also has a uniquely strict policy of secularism, referred to as “laïcité”. Drenched in centuries of conflict, the policy has highlighted the friction between public neutrality and religious freedom. First put into law in 1905, the term refers to the uncompromising separation of religion and state, ensuring that religious expression remains purely private. In practice, this means that government employees  may not overtly express affiliation with any faith. Although the law applies equally to all religions, its impact on the Islamic community has been the main point of contention in recent years. 

The policy has led to the prohibition of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including large crosses, kippahs and headscarves. Furthermore, in 2010 the Senate passed a law banning the wearing of face coverings in all public spaces, which has been subject to particular criticism. Many, including the government, argue that the law is essential in order to enforce gender equality as well as to alleviate the disconnect that frequently exists between muslim women and the rest of society. However, to impose  neutrality upon individual citizens in such a way may ultimately remove womens’ freedom of choice, further alienating them from society and infringing upon the very religious pluralism that laïcité exists to protect.

Concerns surrounding the intentions of the ban have been substantiated by the current pandemic. France, a country that Nicolas Sarkozy once insisted “lives with its face uncovered”, has swiftly adapted to the ubiquity of face masks, undermining the assertion that face coverings infringe upon the “minimum requirements of life in society”. What was once deemed “incompatible with the rule of law” is now being legally enforced, an irony that Fatima Khemilat from the Political Science Institute of Aix-en Provence, describes to the Washington Post as “arbitrary at best, discriminatory at worst”. 

The disillusionment felt by many French Muslims towards their government has, amongst a small minority, manifested as violence. Extremism is a prominent issue in France, and in the last 10 years there have been dozens of terrorist attacks in the country. Perhaps the most notable attack was the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015, where 12 journalists were killed after the satirical magazine published a cartoon depiction of Mohammed. The peril of the situation was exacerbated by an incident days later, when over 80% of students at a school in Saint-Denis refused to take part in a commematory minute’s silence, with several children insisting the victims “deserved what they got” for disrespecting the Muslim faith. The incident indicates a possible prevalence of extremism amongst the next generation, that is compounded by a growing number of children being homeschooled, potentially creating echo chambers where harmful political ideals are reinforced.

The issue has been addressed in the recently released charter of republican values, which was agreed to by the French Council of Muslims (CFCM) in January. As well as affirmations of equality and freedom of conscience, the charter puts an end to homeschooling and places tighter controls on foreign funds given to religious groups, in order to prevent influences from abroad creating pockets of extremism. The overarching aim of the agreement is to regulate Islamic organisations through a unifying set of ideals aligned with those of the republic, improving social cohesion and reducing Islamic separatism. 

The real question however, is whether a country can claim to have true religious freedom if a religion must be modified by the government before it can be practiced freely. Despite receiving backlash from certain Muslim groups over its “accusatory and marginalising tone”, the measures laid out in the charter are fairly uncontroversial, with the vast majority of muslims already adhering to its key principles. However, other restrictions on the religion, namely the ban on veils, impact muslims in a far more profound way, hindering their ability to fully practice their faith. Compared to the real and severe threat of extremism, criminalising such benign aspects of the religion detracts from the gravity of the situation whilst also generating unnecessary anger, perpetuating the cycle of violence that the government is simultaneously part of and trying to end

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