The Struggle With Religion in France

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Reporting on yesterday’ horrendous knife attack in Nice’s cathedral, Al Jazeera defined the context: “The incident comes amid growing tensions between France and the Muslim world over French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent speech wherein he said Islam was in ‘crisis’, and amid renewed public support in France for the right to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.”


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Earlier this week, Fair Observer’s founder, CEO and editor-in-chief, Atul Singh, teaming up with the great and respected scholar Ishtiaq Ahmed, published an article with the title, “Macron Claims Islam Is in ‘Crisis.’ Erdogan Disagrees.” Citing the public quarrel that recently broke out between the French and Turkish presidents, the authors review various moments of violence in the political history of Muslim expansion in Asia.

France finds itself undergoing a historical psychodrama with existential implications. At the beginning of October, Macron asserted that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis,” accusing it of the anti-republican crime of “separatism.” Commentators avoided noticing that this was a clever ploy on Macron’s part to distract attention from the fact that France and Europe have been in an existential crisis for some time. Pointing to someone else’s crisis is an efficient way of hiding one’s own.

Above all, Macron wants to convince voters in France that he, far better than the nationalist Marine Le Pen, has the stature to confront the consequences of Islam’s global crisis. The president has built a fragile center-right power base, and his main challengers in the 2022 election are on the right and the extreme right. He must at all costs occupy some of their terrain. The Muslim threat is the hot-button issue that has the most immediate impact.

Shortly after President Macron’s denunciation of the global crisis of Islam, the gruesome killing and beheading of Samuel Paty took place. The history teacher’s 18-year-old assassin, born in Chechnya, had been educated in French public schools from the age of 6. Paty’s crime had been to show his class the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons ridiculing Islam in a lesson about freedom of speech. Macron has since made a point of defending the “liberty of blasphemy” as a basic right, protesting that he would not “renounce the caricatures,” which for some may sound as if he is endorsing their content.

The article by Ahmed and Singh builds up to a fundamental question: “Does Islam lead to violence and terrorism?” After noting that “[m]any Islamic scholars and political analysts argue in the negative,” the authors boldly announce their “contrarian view that Islam can only be a religion of peace after it conquers the world and establishes a supremacy of sharia.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Religion of peace:

Every religion at its spiritual core, just as every religion as soon as it is appropriated or overtaken by political forces becomes a religion of war

Contextual Note

Throughout mankind’s history, there have been so many sects, cults, churches and spiritual philosophies that generalizing about religion itself can only be a futile exercise. Generalizing about any single religion, especially one shared by more than a billion people and that has lasted over a thousand years, is equally fraught with ambiguity. Attributing to a religion the ambition of conquering the world begs so many questions of history, economy, political organization and culture that no discussion, however rational, can hope to produce an acceptable general conclusion.

St. Augustine observed that if fire is used to produce warmth, we see it as good and peaceful, but if used to burn and destroy, it appears aggressive and evil. The same is true of any religion. History offers examples of both the good and evil uses of religion. Searching the sacred texts of any religion will provide examples of exhortations that may at times suggest aggressive inclinations and at others, peace and harmony.

It is not the task of a Devil’s Dictionary’s to defend any particular religion or religion in general, but rather to recognize those occasions when even secular thought — and more particularly political thought — hides the fact that it has its own dogmas, often as categoric and absolute as the most puritanical religion.

Most media commentators have refused to notice what is obvious about the situation in France. Laicité in the hands of French politicians has become a surrogate religion. It has produced a belief system with doctrines increasingly formulated as dogmas. Political scientist Olivier Roy wonders whether Macron isn’t seeking to abolish the separation of church and state, the foundation of laïcité, by focusing only on Islam. Macron’s stance implies that “the simple fact of placing God above men is a declaration of separatism.” Laïcité risks becoming a religion of war, not peace.

Emulating the Catholic Church, Macron’s government turned Paty into a republican saint and martyr when it instantly conferred upon him the Légion d’honneur. In the days following his killing, some had proposed to have him interred at the Pantheon, to be entombed with the “gods” of the republic. In contrast, the Vatican requires an elaborate procedure, the passage of time and the intervention of the devil’s advocate before canonizing its saints and martyrs.

One prominent voice in French politics has suggested a subtle but necessary distinction that Macron’s government and the media prefer to avoid. Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the head of the party La France Insoumise, has consistently militated in the past for severe punitive measures directed not at “Islam in crisis,” “radical Islam” or even fundamentalism, but at the actors of “political Islam,” a term Roy defines as “the contemporary movement that conceives of Islam as a political ideology.” For this crime, Macron’s minister of education calls Mélanchon a treasonousIslamo-gauchiste.”

Historical note

Though the characterization of Islam by Ishtiaq Ahmed and Atul Singh appears abusive in its generality, there is a very real sense in which is true. All systems of thought that claim to be universal are tempted by despotism. If we define secular peace as a state of shared understanding and harmonious interaction across an entire population, we must recognize that it implies some degree of submission and conformity to an order, usually a political order. It’s a question of degree and the means of enforcement available. France’s Reign of Terror was conceived by secular rationalists. Throughout history, submission and conformity have been achieved through fear and intimidation, conquest and slaughter.

Both Christianity and Islam claim to be universal. In the history of both religions, we have seen examples that tended toward two extremes: the generous belief that the religion is accessible to all people and the insistence that all people in a specific region embrace it. The determining factor has always been the political climate and social traditions within which the universality of the religion and its moral system have been applied or imposed.

The same is true of secular religions such as French republicanism and American exceptionalism. These non-religious cults play a determining role in the nations’ foreign policy. The US and France have each created a political religion that they believe is not only proper to their nation, but represents a universal model that other nations should emulate. In both cases, the separation of church and state plays an important role, clearing the way for universal adherence to the declared values of the republic and the civic religion.

Some point out that Islam differs from Christianity, whose founder insisted on rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but not what is God’s. They may argue that Islam has never taken the trouble to distinguish between religious and political authority and has, throughout history, consistently invited confusion between the two. But in the Muslim world, the tradition of Sufism dates back to the early Umayyad period. Though it never had any pretension of becoming dominant, its historical reality demonstrates the awareness of a radical distinction between the spiritual (faith) and the worldly (politics).

In short, religions play the role that history allows them to play. They also influence the politics we in the West, somewhat presumptuously, consider to be the unique basis of history. Moral philosophy always accompanies religion and can at times play a dominant role. But more often, political forces associated with religion manage to push it aside or mold it into something new. Whether any dominant religion becomes a religion of war or peace lies in the eyes of the beholder at a specific moment of history.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.



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