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French secularism and the rise of terror

Image credit: Alisdair Russell (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Again on the news has been yet another attack in France, this time on soldiers in Levallois-Perret, a suburb to the north of Paris. That brings the total number of attacks against the French military to five since January 2015. On the morning of the 9 August, in a small street open only to military vehicles, a BMW accelerated towards a group of six soldiers who were boarding a vehicle to change shifts for the day. All six soldiers were hit, but there were no fatalities.

Since January 2015, France has seen attacks on civilians, police and the military, including the deadly massacres that occurred in January 2015 at Charlie Hebdo, the coordinated November 2015 “Bataclan” attacks and the Bastille Day catastrophe in 2016. There is an element of terrorism that is random and unpredictable (which is what makes it so horrific), but why has France become such a target for terrorism? Many have been left pondering this question, baffled by how one country can experience so many acts of violence in such a short period time.

Since the 1980s, France has experienced extreme social and political tensions concerning the impacts of migration on French social cohesion, Islam in France and Muslims’ place in French society. Due to French colonisation of North Africa, many Moroccans and Algerians now call France home, and many of those former migrants have been French citizens for two to three generations. In the late 80s, France began to see a rise in discourse surrounding Islam’s compatibility with laïcité, or secularism, as we would say in English. Arguably, this debate was fuelled by the “the headscarf affair” in 1989, when a French-Muslim middle schooler was expelled from school for refusing to remove her headscarf.

It seems that since this moment, the place of Islam in France has been at the forefront of debates surrounding French national identity, and the tensions resulting from those debates have given weight to the arguments of right wing groups such as the Front National, headed by the extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen. Since the headscarf affair, France has seen major law and policy reform, including a law preventing students from wearing ostentatious signs of religion at school and the infamous “burqa ban”.

The basis of these reforms was a consideration of the meaning of laïcité in France, and how that policy would be applied in the wake of new debate on the place of religion in French society. When first enacted into law in 1905, laïcité was simply defined as the separation of the Church and the State. As the French population lost their connections to their Catholic roots over time, however, attachment to a religion has become somewhat taboo. And as a result of policy and law reform, the meaning of laïcité is now more closely understood to mean the separation of religion from public life.

The intention of the policy is no doubt honourable. Its purpose is to ensure that all French men and women are free to practice their religion, and that no one can be persecuted on the basis of their religion, or atheism, for that matter. However, considering the context in which recent debates on laïcité have occurred—namely terrorism in the name of Islam and the French national identity crisis—France has associated laïcité as a solution to “Islam’s threat to French national identity”, which infers that Islam is incompatible with laïcité, while confirming laïcité as the cornerstone of French identity.

So where does this leave French-Muslims? Are they not as French as everyone else because of their religion? No doubt these are questions that many French-Muslims have been struggling to answer.

Against this backdrop of increasing social isolation due to the problematisation of Islam, it’s unsurprising that some members of the French-Muslim community have become withdrawn from mainstream society, feeling that their identity is incompatible with what it means to be truly French, i.e. laïque. This has undoubtedly caused some to look elsewhere for an identity that accepts and embraces them for who they are.

With Islam remaining at the forefront of political debates around the world, France will only see an increase in terrorism unless some serious internal reflection occurs on how it defines what it means to be French. While an increase in terrorism is never linked to just one cause, France needs to ask itself the question on everyone’s mind: what is it about France that is fuelling so much hate? Hopefully such internal reflection will lead to the realisation that laïcité is not incompatible with Islam in France.

Elena Christaki-Hedrick is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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