Between Euro-Impotence and Jihadism

Dramatic events often focus our minds on the dilemmas we would prefer to ignore. In writing Situation de la France to describe the predicament facing his native country and much of Western Europe, the French conservative philosopher Pierre Manent is unlikely to have anticipated the slaughter of 130 people in Paris by seven ISIS-aligned Muslims in November. But the timing of Manent’s short book on the political challenges associated with the presence of approximately 4.7 million Muslims in France (about 7.5 percent of its population) could not be more providential.

In a nation’s life, there are moments that decisively change its trajectory. One such event was the fall of France in June 1940—a humiliation from which, suggests Manent, it has never really recovered. There is no guarantee that a nation’s leaders will lead the people well in these moments: most of France followed Marshal Philippe Pétain rather than General Charles de Gaulle in that crisis. Nor are today’s leaders, Manent maintains, responding adequately to the problems violently thrust into public view by what he unabashedly describes as les actes de guerres committed by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in early 2015.

The reaction of France’s leaders to the murder of cartoonists and Jews by three French-born Muslims in Paris, Manent observes, was to preside over mass street marches and outpourings of grief while repeating, mantra-like, the same easily disprovable bromides that follow every act of Islamist terrorism (“This has nothing to do with Islam”) and obstinately declining to consider what must be done politically if France is to defend itself against jihadism. Yet such a refusal, according to Manent, is logical because to act appropriately would mean admitting that France’s present political arrangements cannot address the new realities. The point of the book is to identify the nature of the danger, explain why France’s present political regime cannot address it, and then sketch a reasonable way forward.

Central to Manent’s analysis is his claim that the West today (“nous”) understands society to be a question of organizing and guaranteeing individual rights whereas Islam (“eux”) regards society as the ensemble of habits and customs that provide concrete rules for the good life. He points out the strengths and weaknesses of both stances. The Western results in weakened social cohesion; the Muslim produces decidedly frail conceptions of liberty. In France’s case, the situation is further complicated by the Republic’s official stance of what is called laïcité regarding religious questions

In legal terms, “Le Republic laïque” was given its most formal expression with the passing of the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État. This was enacted by an anticlerical government during the Third Republic following the Dreyfus Affair but also amidst escalating conflict between the Catholic hierarchy and the French Left.

In practice, laïcité in France has taken two forms. One is state enforcement of secularism as a distinct worldview, entailing efforts to eliminate religion’s influence from the public square. At its silliest, this manifests itself in efforts to ban crèches from town squares during Christmas. At its worst, it brought the expulsion of Catholic religious orders from France at the beginning of the 20th century and anticlerical governments spying on, and impeding the promotion of, army officers who were practicing Catholics (most of the officer corps). The second interpretation of laïcité involves the Republic protecting people’s right to live according to their religious principles consistent with everyone else’s rights. This version is far more amenable to Christians in terms of their ability to be fully Christian while acting as citizens in the public square because it is reconcilable with Christianity’s longstanding spiritual-ecclesial/temporal-secular distinction.

Manent underscores, however, that in this and many other regards, Islam is—whether we like it or not—very different. The Muslim faith not only involves a common life expressed through a set of binding if not obligatory mœurs; from its very beginning, it has sought to establish a regime in which the realms of religion and politics are inseparable, if not synonymous. For all the theological and political disputes that divide Muslims, none of these fractures weaken this basic impulse. Here Manent points to the many surveys of opinion in Muslim countries underscoring high-majority approval for the idea that their nations should be subject to sharia law. In short, the actual beliefs of most Muslims in most Muslim countries appear to mirror Islamic theory.

Some Muslims certainly disagree with and disassociate themselves from this theological standpoint. That does not, however, diminish the fact that Islam’s self-understanding does not permit it to distinguish between the temporal and the spiritual in a way similar to Christianity. This creates a long-term problem for Western societies like France in which significant Muslim minorities now live.

In short, Manent insists that the French must face up to the fact that they need to rethink their entire approach to religion. One reason why neither version of laïcité is adequate is that both interpretations are silent about the historical fact that France is indelibly marked not simply by the early and late French Enlightenments but also, and for much longer, by Christianity and an even longer-standing Jewish presence. Official silence about this history amounts to a denial of a core truth about French national identity. The point is not that every French citizen must make an act of Christian faith, announce his or her Jewish heritage, or proclaim allegiance to Voltaire to be “really” French. Rather, Manent argues, recognition of these truths is needed if Christians, Jews, non-believers, and Muslims are to successfully coexist within the confines of a national identity that is recognizably French rather than, say, Saudi, Algerian, or Egyptian.

This, however, is only the first part of Manent’s proposal. The second is effectively to present France’s Muslims with a type of social contract. In summary form, the deal goes along the following lines: France, as a nation shaped profoundly by Christianity, Judaism, and the Enlightenments, will respect Muslim citizens’ right to maintain their way of life (with certain exceptions, such as polygamy) because they too are citizens of the Republic.

French Muslims, however, must undertake to do two things in return. First, they must accept complete liberty of thought and criticism by their fellow citizens—including with regard to the Islamic faith. Second, France’s Muslims must declare their political, economic, and cultural independence from their or their forbears’ Muslim countries-of-origin and disassociate themselves from the dream of Muslim empire associated with the idea of the ummah—the worldwide religious community of Muslim believers that also understands itself as a nation—that has always marked Muslim faith and practice.

Objections to Manent’s proposal are not difficult to marshal. Is it reasonable to expect theologically serious Muslims to repudiate some core tenets of Islamic faith? And which leaders would be regarded as legitimate representatives of Islam, possessing the requisite religious authority to assent to such arrangements, in such a way as to be accepted as mandatory by France’s Muslims? Islam does not, after all, have anything like the magisterium of the Catholic Church to rule authoritatively and in a binding manner on questions of faith and morals.

Moreover, does not Manent’s proposal skirt fundamental theological issues (courageously identified by Benedict XVI in his famous 2006 Regensburg address) that are surely contributing to jihadist violence: most prominently, a voluntarist conception of God that has long prevailed in Islam and which implies human reason’s submission to an untrammeled (even irrational) Divine Will?

Putting aside these and other criticisms, the strengths of Manent’s schema are many. It liberates France from many of its self-imposed restrictions as it tries to resolve a quandary that, for once, actually merits the adjective “existential.” Manent doesn’t, after all, make the mistake of calling for an “Islamic Reformation”—a notion that relies upon 1) easily refutable comparisons between Islam and the debates that marked 16th century Western Christianity, and 2) the imposition of Christian theological and ecclesiological assumptions upon a religion that diverges radically from core Christian beliefs on countless levels.

Another strength is that it underscores that neither Progressivism nor secularism has the internal resources to deal with these matters, precisely because they have enormous difficulty taking theological belief seriously. Progressives and secularists regularly fall into the trap of thinking that “all religions are basically the same” or imagining that religious belief will simply fade as people become more “enlightened.” Manent’s proposal is premised on the conviction that Western nations must acknowledge the speciousness of these assumptions and act accordingly.

Lastly, I would note that Manent’s attention to France’s need to address its dilemma through the lens of its distinct history and culture as a nation underscores the failure of European efforts to reduce social tensions through depoliticizing society and denying historical reality. In France’s case, this is manifested by the iron grip on the levers of power maintained by the French political class. This class, which transcends Left-Right differences, makes endless references to “the people” even as it does its best to lock the wider citizenry out of meaningful political participation. And that has led large segments of “the people” to turn in frustration to the extremes, whether of the Left or the Front National.

The same effort at depoliticization and historical denial, of course, is expressed in other European Union countries. The EU’s transnational governance structures seek to relieve individuals, communities, and nations of the need to make political choices. Yet such efforts to promote a Kantian Universal Peace through bureaucracy, multiculturalism, incessant rights-talk, and large (now faltering) welfare programs have proved impotent in terms of forestalling Islamist violence. These same transnational actors have made it their business to try and relativize the national identities into which Muslims in European nations would otherwise have been expected to assimilate. The result has not been the development of a pan-Europeanism based on what German social democrats call “constitutional patriotism,” let alone the “diversity,” “openness” and the usual ill-defined “democratic values” endlessly invoked by most EU politicians. Instead, one finds many Europeans, including some Muslims, rejecting this sentimental humanitarian dystopia and increasingly embracing identity-grievance-victim politics.

As a Catholic intellectual and perhaps today’s foremost exponent of Tocquevillian ideas, Manent has no difficulty grasping the political corollaries of theological claims. As a careful philosopher, he does not make the common error of projecting secular, Christian, or Jewish assumptions onto the various expressions of Islam. But as a political theorist, Manent understands that part of his responsibility is to sketch out positions with some chance of securing the most optimal political and constitutional conditions for a given political community within the limits of the context in which that community finds itself.

France’s present situation vis-à-vis its Muslim population is, as Manent illustrates, simply untenable. Equally flawed—and, in some instances, unjust—are many alternative propositions for addressing these issues. These could theoretically range from mass expulsions of French Muslims (Europeans being not unaccustomed to such measures at different points of their history) to the Islamist France portrayed in Michel Houellebecq’ dystopic novel Submission (recently reviewed by Jody Bottum for Law and Liberty). Such scenarios make it clear that, for all the legitimate criticism of his particular proposal, Manent has outlined a political path forward for France that more than merits serious consideration. The real question is whether any French politician of substance has the courage and imagination to embrace it.