It’s always refreshing to read essays these days that are intelligent and genuinely engaging, principally because such essays are becoming fewer and farther between. One such, which I enjoyed reading even though I ultimately disagreed with it, was Paul Berman’s “Why the French Ban the Veil: The Secular Republic Debates How Best to Contain and Suppress the Islamist Movement.”
This essay discussed the prohibition in France of schoolgirls wearing Islamic dress at school and the banning by many coastal towns in France of the so-called Islamic “burkini,” the full-body female swimsuit, from their beaches. Mr. Berman complains that American political commentators are mistaken when they consider such measures to be racist. Furthermore, he berates American commentators for failing to understand the French concept of laïcité and for an inability to respect French concepts of “freedom” where they differ from an American understanding of the word. American commentators believe that “America is the home of the free, and France is not, and any desire to arrange things differently from how we Americans do can only be an aggression against common sense.” So says Mr. Berman—and so far, so good.
Mr. Berman then goes on to give a very informed and informative account of the Islamic presence in France since World War Two and describes the radicalization of France’s Muslim population. Even better, he summarizes the arguments for and against the wearing of the veil in a series of good and intelligent questions. Shouldn’t women and schoolgirls have the right to dress in accordance with their religious conscience? Isn’t faith-based attire a matter of individual rights and religious freedom? Shouldn’t the display of religious fidelity by Muslim schoolgirls be seen as an enrichment of the broader French culture? Shouldn’t the French welcome the arrival of this new kind of piety? Should they fail to do so, shouldn’t their refusal be seen as the real problem? Shouldn’t we see that the problem is not pious immigrant schoolgirls, but anti-immigrant bigots?
Showing commendable balance, he then lists the counter-arguments: The veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by radical Islamists to impose their dress code. It is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate Muslim schoolgirls into wearing the veil and as a means to claim a zone of Islamist power within the schools. Furthermore, the battle over the dress code is the beginning of an Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This campaign has led to students in suburban immigrant schools demanding that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; that France’s national curriculum on World War Two, with its emphasis on the lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of the veil in the schools is, therefore, in the view of those advocating its being banned, “the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way.” Thus, the proponents of a ban on the veil argue that it’s about defending French schools and the French education system, and about defending freedom and civilization in France, and has nothing to do with any anti-immigrant policy.
Mr. Berman’s point is that the French “have engaged in a very vigorous and nuanced public debate over these matters,” which American commentators do not seem able to grasp or which they studiously ignore. “In the reporting by American journalists and commentators,” Mr. Berman complains, “the nuances tend to disappear, and the dispute is almost always presented in its pro-veil version, as if it were an argument between individual religious freedom and anti-immigrant bigots, and not anything else.”
All of this is all very good. The problem is that one suspects that the whole discussion of the veil was only a thinly-veiled excuse, a long preamble, enabling Mr. Berman to get to the real point he wants to make. “What about laïcité, then—this French concept that gets invoked in the debate, yet cannot even be expressed in English?” This is the question that Mr. Berman has really been itching to ask, and more to the point to answer. “In reality, laïcité is entirely translatable,” he asserts. “It means secularism. There is no reason for English speakers to use the French word. And the concept is perfectly comprehensible.” It is, he continues, “the Jeffersonian principle of a wall between church and state, in its French version.”
It is now that Mr. Berman begins to show his true colours as an avid believer in laïcité, or secularism.
As soon as Mr. Berman’s true flag is unfurled, his reason begins to unravel. Take, for instance, this line of reasoning: “The Jeffersonian principle in America means that, regardless of what the churches may do or say, the American state will remain strictly nonreligious. The French version is the same. The public schools, for instance, must not become creatures of the churches—which, in our present situation, means the Islamist imams.” But when did Thomas Jefferson believe that all schools in America should be run by the state? When did he advocate that Christians should not be allowed to establish schools? When did he insist that only the state should decide what should be taught in the schools? No, Mr. Berman, French laïcité is not the same as anything Jeffersonian, which is not to say that everything Jeffersonian is good or desirable.
“It is true,” Mr. Berman concedes “that, in France, people take their secularism a little further than Americans tend to do, and this is partly on historical grounds.” It is now that he really lets rip and lets us know where he really stands:
In America, we worry about freedom of religion, but in France, where everyone remembers the Catholic past and the religious wars, people worry about freedom from religion. They do not want to be tyrannized by theological fanatics. The Islamist movement is, from this point of view, all too familiar to the French—one more clericalist current that wishes to imposes its theological doctrines on everyone else. And, in the face of the Islamist fanaticism, the French are grateful for their secularist traditions and laws.
Really, Mr. Berman? Really? Life in France prior to laïcité left much to be desired, to be sure, but is Mr. Berman really condoning the monstrous excesses of the French Revolution with its secular fundamentalism and its Reign of Terror? Does he defend the invention of the guillotine, the first weapon of mass execution invented by a political state to kill its own citizens with industrialized efficiency? Does he believe in the killing of people by the state on the grounds of their being aristocrats, or priests, or nuns, or merely political dissidents? Does he support the pillaging and plundering of churches, the stripping of the altars, and the smashing of statues? Does he support the ruthless butchering of the people of the Vendée for daring to resist the secular fundamentalism of the Revolution?
For that matter, since he is so proud of his secularism, does he condone secularism’s historical record since the Revolution? What about the secularism of the Soviet Union and the tens of millions killed under its jackboot? Or the secularism of communist China, which killed even more people than the Soviets? Or the secularism of the Nazis? We could go on but most people will have got the point. Mr. Berman is, however, not most people. Heedless of the lessons of history and its numerous warnings that secularism leads to big government and that big government metamorphoses pretty quickly into Big Brother, Mr. Berman wants us to follow the same disastrous secularist path all over again. Listen, for instance, to this idolization of intrusive government:
Then again, the French take their secularism a little further than we Americans do…because they are willing to grant government a larger administrative role than Americans tend to do. Americans are allergic to government regulation, or pretend to be, but the French do not even pretend to be…. And the French naturally look to the government to apply secularist principles even in areas of life that Americans might regard as outside the zone of government, local or national. The permissibility of religious attire, for instance. And the French see something attractive in their government regulations.
It is true that the debate over the problem of the Islamization of Europe is complicated and nuanced and fraught with problems, perhaps insoluble and insurmountable problems. This is the legacy of a wrong-headed and shortsighted multicultural naiveté which Europe has inherited from the idiocy of the recent past. There is, however, no need whatsoever to look to secularism and its bloody legacy for any solution to the problem. On the contrary, the idiocy of the recent past which has caused the problem was a secularist idiocy. Secularism is not the answer to the problem but its cause. It is always promising “final solutions” and sometimes trying to put them into practice. Its reign of terror has been tried and found wanting in every corner of the world. Please, Mr. Berman, can we begin to think outside this bloody box?
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.