Freedom and Secularism in France
In France, a week after Samuel Paty was decapitated by a Muslim extremist for showing cartoon drawings of the prophet Muhammed in a high school class, three others were killed in a church in Nice. One of the victims was decapitated in the knife attack and the attacker identified himself as a Muslim, screaming “Allahu Akbar” as he carried out the attack.
Emmanuel Macron doubled down on his commitment to protect France’s secular order and root out Islamic terrorism. This puts Macron in an interesting position. On one hand, he’s standing up against extremism of every kind, especially religious groups who would harm others, in the name of secularism - “laïcité in the French Republic means the freedom to believe or not believe, the possibility of practicing one’s religion as long as law and order is ensured. Laïcité means the neutrality of the State; in no way does it mean the removal of religion from society and the public arena.”
In practice, though, this amounts to imposing an almost religious commitment to having no religious commitments. In the long run, he has little hope for consistency. Who decides what is and isn’t in bounds? What is religious extremism? Any form of violence? Any belief that claims to be absolute? This system only works if religion and the state have no overlap. Macron makes this case, “I’m not asking any of our citizens to believe or not believe, or believe a little or moderately – that’s none of the Republic’s business. I’m asking every citizen, of all religions and none, to abide wholeheartedly by all the Republic’s laws.”
The problem is religious beliefs and laws do come into conflict, and when they do, someone has to make a choice. Christians have often chosen to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law. Muslim extremists believe in the imposition of Sharia Law on the rest of the world. This leaves the “secular” state with few options. In cases of religious belief against the state, state leaders are quick to assert coercive force against “separatists,” a category defined by Macron as any group that “claims that its own laws are superior to the Republic’s.” This is what Macron has announced he will be doing in the face of Muslim extremism.
On the other hand, though, Macron has distinguished himself as the only national leader in Europe willing to take such a hard line against Muslim extremism. Even in the US, leaders and media outlets on the left get queasy with this kind of rhetoric. Islamophobia is still used as a nebulous slur in America. Macron has received significant backlash for speaking out against Islam. In Canada, Justin Trudeau issued a statement saying, “freedom of expression has its limits.” The New York Times published an article questioning whether Macron was “inciting” these attacks by opposing radical Islam. Notice how the blame has shifted away from the terrorists who beheaded people to the ones trying to deter future attacks.
In the wake of these tragedies, fundamental questions of society have reared their heads. What are the logical limits to secularism and religious freedom? What do you do when religious claims contradict each other and contradict the law? It should be clear that all laws have an implicit morality, sometimes that’s in line with religious commitments and sometimes it isn’t. In federalist systems like the United States, religious freedom is preserved through a small and unobtrusive government, which, in an ideal world alleviates the conflict between different belief systems by letting them each operate in different localities with minimal overarching constraints. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has proposed something similar as a solution to counter radical Islam in her book, Heretic. In Europe, the governments are far more controlling, and Macron’s France is no exception. Sohrab Amari has written about this problem in the Wall Street Journal.
The upshot for Christians is that while we do not share any similarities to these Muslim terrorists, we should watch the way the world responds to extremism. How we oppose religious extremism is crucial. Laws have moral underpinnings, and many of them derive from a Christian worldview, but that is changing. We should support measures against terrorism and religious violence. Christians should condemn Muslim extremists on humanitarian, not just religious, grounds. We should be quick to defend free speech, freedom of expression, and the freedom of religion.
The American system is well-prepared to handle extremism, through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, if it really is extremism. The problem is this is a roving definition. It’s clear that killing people for showing pictorial representations of your prophet is terrorism and should be condemned in the strongest terms. But this is not because we have religious oppositions to Islam. Is saying that homosexuality is sin extremism? How about refusing to call a boy a girl? These questions are creeping up on us and these same rights we stand for against Islamic attacks will safeguard our freedoms against the tyranny of “secularity” in the future.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.