Islam in France

Editor’s Note: Originally delivered as a lecture at Institut Thomas More on November 6, 2019, this article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of the French quarterly Commentaire and is republished here with permission, translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton.

The questions connected with Islam’s place in France are not only difficult to resolve, they are difficult to formulate. Islam is the most revealing case of our inability to come to agreement on the principles of our common life. If we don’t know what to do with Islam, this certainly has to do with the particular characteristics of this human association, but it is also because in general, as soon as it is a matter for common action, we simply don’t know what to do. The same problems therefore encyst and worsen, the same debates are repeated and drag on for decades in a demoralizing marasmus, whether the topic is Europe, education, or the place of Islam.

The paralysis that grips us owes to the fact that we approach these questions with divided minds and hearts. Instinctively or spontaneously, we desire to continue the trajectory of the old nation called “France” and therefore to vivify and consolidate the form of life that we can call our own. However, the increasingly imperious opinion that orients our words and our action presses us to go in a completely different direction, to reject the very idea of a common form of life that would be unique to us, and to bring it about that our country open itself impartially to all forms of life. The only common education would be an education in diversity.

Taking Islam Seriously

Now, Islam comes to us as a form of life, at once individual and collective, one that has strongly etched features, to be sure with its own internal diversity, but which by embracing in principle all the aspects of life and the entirety of the social body, largely ignores the separations which are so dear to us between the public and the private, the religious and the political.[1] While we oblige ourselves to relativize and present our “identities” (in the plural) with irony, Islam distinguishes itself among us by a compact identity that excludes irony and rejects all criticism. Confronted with this, we have decided that we will be ironists and relativists on their behalf. By boldly bringing Islam into the liberal secular arrangement, we gently, but irresistibly, will induce Muslims to take up toward their way of life and belief the distance that we congratulate ourselves for having taken toward our own way for such a long time now. In so doing, however, at the same time that we extol human equality and similarity, we look at Islam from above, not as a false religion or a less accomplished civilization, to be sure, but as a form of common life whose naive absolutism will soon be decisively moderated under the emancipatory effects of our liberty and our secularism (the much vaunted laicité in the case of France). This is the postulate that guides all of our dealings with Islam.

Therefore, desiring an Islam amenable to our secularism, we refuse to seriously consider Islam itself, to take the measure of the amplitude, profundity, vitality, and perseverance of this great religious, social and political fact.

We thus suppose that the liberal and secular arrangements that we subscribe to are both universal and irresistible. What we think that we must and can do, determines what we believe we see or can see. Therefore, desiring an Islam amenable to our secularism, we refuse to seriously consider Islam itself, to take the measure of the amplitude, profundity, vitality, and perseverance of this great religious, social and political fact. Analyzing it under the twin criteria of the archaic and the modern, criteria which Europeans present as the sole criterion of the true, the good, and the beautiful, from the outset we deprive the great Muslim fact of its specific force and power. We prefer to postulate that secularism, radically separating religion and politics, will guarantee that the presence of Muslims among us will change nothing substantial in our common life. In short, while we hold that Muslims are our fellow citizens and equals, they do not truly exist as social beings and as a political factor in our national life.

Now, an observation that is so elementary that it requires neither a telescope nor a microscrope allows one to see that Islam, in the diversity of its versions and expressions, has been animated the past fifty years by powerful movements that have transformed the Muslim world and exercise a rather forceful pressure on certain parts of the non-Muslim world. Whether one takes note of the Iranian revolution, Turkey’s ambitions, the Gulf countries’ ability to influence affairs, or the migratory waves headed toward Europe, everything indicates that Islam is in a period of expansion. Now, people will reproach me for unforgiveable naivété in bringing these different phenomena together and placing them under the common heading of “Islam.” However, the political perspective is indeed “naive,” because it believes what it sees, and what it sees is first of all the strength and direction of human associations. For the one with open eyes, it is impossible not to see that the Muslim world exercises an ever increasing pressure on a Europe that, for its part, is so weak that it makes it a point of honor of defining itself by indefinite openness to what is outside itself.

The specific character of the Muslim question for the French people, including of course our Muslim fellow citizens, owes first of all to the close intertwining and reciprocal dependence of the interior and the exterior, of what is inside and outside of France. The difficulties of what is so complacently called “co-existence” would obviously be much easier, and would stir fewer passions and anxieties, if the Muslims of France did not also, and at the same time, participate by their loyalties and a variety of ties in that much larger Muslim world whose number, youth, and restlessness are a major factor of the contemporary world. Established in Europe, or in the process of establishing themselves here, Muslims are not “human beings in general,” not simply Tocquevillian “fellow human beings,” but real and concrete human beings who have received a certain education, and who with greater or lesser conviction want to preserve their form of life in the society that receives them. Everyone knows that the Turkish president Erdogan has the habit of exhorting citizens of Turkish origin in Europe not to assimilate to European life. The effects of this exterior pressure and dependency can be measured, among other things, by the difficulty that the Muslims of France have in organizing themselves, divided as they are by their loyalties to different countries of origin or reference. These effects are also seen by the constant extension of the parts of our country where Muslim customs are established over the entirety, as it were, of the public space, since women are visibly excluded from it.

Secularism and Separation

What practical consequences can one derive from these very elementary observations? The first and principal one is not to task secularism with an impossible mission. I do not share the confidence a very active segment of opinion places in a strict application or strengthening of secularism. To my eyes, this confidence rests on a double error. On one hand, following the tendency of what one might call contemporary “governance,” one supposes that putting in order common life consists in imposing the right rule, that is, a general principle applicable to every social matter, whether it be “free and undistorted competition” or secularism itself. On the other hand, and as a consequence, one adds the argument that is intended to end the debate, namely, that secularism can and will accomplish with Islam what was accomplished with the Catholic church by the law of 1905.[2] This is an argument whose widespread acceptance astonishes me, given how much it misunderstands the differences not only of the religions in question (about which I will say nothing here), but, first of all, their quite different social and political contexts. In the original context of French secularism, it was a matter of separating as rigorously as possible two authorities, the political and the religious, which had been intertwined in a thousand ways over the course of centuries, and to sideline or circumscribe a religious influence that belonged to the most intimate core of French life. Today, on the contrary, the urgency is to associate in French life a human association, Islam, that remained external and foreign to it over the course of centuries, and whose relations with our country have often been marked by a mutual hostility whose traces are far from erased. In the past, it was a question of reforming the organization of a common life that was closely intertwined by means of an unprecedented separation; today it would be a matter of producing a common life by overcoming a very old separation that remains particularly strong—at least if one looks at things with a dose of candor and sincerity.

…an important part of the Muslims of France is established in separation from common life, and does not seriously wish to put an end to it. If they wanted to put an end to it, they would not see in the slightest criticism—in the slightest request, however reasonablea sign of “Islamophobia.”

At the beginning of this talk I noted that we begin from the hypothesis or postulate that, in order to welcome as well as possible our new citizens, Muslim or other, we must lighten as much as possible the weight and thickness of the common or public thing (la chose commune), we must avoid anything and everything that implied a particular attachment to what is distinctively ours, to abjure any preference for our form of life. In the new citizen we have only wanted to see “man in general,” “the one like us,” and therefore we have thought to display a welcoming indifference to his form of life, a way of life to which, after all, he had the right. The result was inevitable: to the extent that we emptied our common substance, allowed it to become a “wasteland,” it was filled with the form of life to which the new citizens were naturally attached. In the name of secularism, of laicité, interpreted quite strictly, courts removed or prohibited crosses, crèches, and other signs or expressions of the Christian religion in our country while, as I just recalled, entire swaths of national life took on a Muslim form in a most visible way. Far from bringing us closer together, each day we increasingly distanced ourselves from the common life shared in the equality we presumed to aim at.

It is true that many of our Muslim fellow citizens take part without any reticence in national life and they make a contribution that certainly compares with that of non-Muslims. This fact, however, which one must never forget, unfortunately changes nothing in this other fact, namely, that an important part of the Muslims of France is established in separation from common life, and does not seriously wish to put an end to it. If they wanted to put an end to it, they would not see in the slightest criticism—in the slightest request, however reasonablea sign of “Islamophobia.” It is sad to say, but we will not take the slightest step in the direction of civic friendship if Muslim opinion, at least that which is expressed in the name of Muslims, puts its energy in denouncing what it calls “Islamophobia” rather than effectively combating the excesses or pathologies of Islam that ought to repulse Muslims themselves.[3] Even the most murderous and brutal assaults have not stirred French Muslim opinion from its passivity or inertia.

A Common National Life

We are bogged down in a situation that offers little latitude for action, and which is tending to grow worse. “Liberal secular opinion,” the option for laicité, rests on an erroneous interpretation of our history, an inadequate analysis of the present situation, and an obvious overestimation of the powers of legal interdiction in a regime committed to the continual extension of authorizations and freedoms, including the most aberrant ones. One must take stock of the fact that an important part of our fellow citizens follows the Muslim form of life, and that the law has little direct power over this reality. I said this in 2015, I repeat it today.[4] This does not mean that one can let this Muslim part grow indefinitely. That is not possible. First of all, it would be to very unadvisedly encourage those who already consider us weak and cowardly, who think we only know how to retreat when fighting. Next, it would be the worst signal to send to the Muslims of France who do not entertain hostility toward European life, or who even find their flourishing in our country, who, I don’t doubt, are very numerous. It would be the worst signal to them to allow these areas to spread where the Muslim form of life reigns alone, and supreme. It would be to tell them that the country where, despite everything, they have chosen to live lacks the strength to give itself a form of common life, and that the future that awaits them runs the strong risk of returning them to the life that they have left behind.

If, in order to preserve the possibility of a peaceful and amicable life, one wants to prevent the extension of Islam, it is also indispensable to strictly limit the amount of immigration that is allowed. Muslim citizens and non-Muslim citizens cannot live in mutual confidence unless both are assured that our country, while making a just and honorable place for its Muslim citizens, does not become a Muslim country. The decisions to take in this regard are even more urgent as the immigation question has seen the most consequential application of the social philosophy that I sketched at the beginning. This philosophy says that political justice consists in impartially, or indifferently, opening the public space to all forms of life, without any limit. It is political decisions, more than “general rules,” that give form to common life. The political decisions I envisage, very important in themselves, will be even more so since they would be the first decisions taken in a long time in view of, and out of concern for, our common life as a people and nation.

By fixing the portion and place of French Islam to the limits that it has attained today, we can accomplish two goals that are equally important and urgent. Vis-à-vis the exterior, the outside, we can put an end to the pressure that, coming from States or the movements of populations, forces Europe to take decisions that are not its own; vis-à-vis the interior, our internal or common life, we regain the all-important awareness of the fact that the components of the republic are not only rights-bearing individuals, but groups or associations, temporal and spiritual, with distinct customs and ways of life, whose equilibrium one is obliged to preserve. Only in this way can we provide a form of common life in which all, including our fellow Muslim citizens, can recognize themselves.

Translators’ Notes

[1] For a luminous discussion of the crucial place of “separations” in the liberal order, see Pierre Manent, A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State, translated by Marc LePain (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 10-20.   

[2] For a fuller discussion of the limits of doing to Islam what the draconian French separation of Church and State did to Catholicism in 1905, see Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016), pp. 18, 60-62, 101. The book originally appeared in French in 2015 as Situation de la France.

[3] For more on the pernicious role played by the category of “Islamophobia,” see Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, pp. 51, 74-75.

[4] This is a central theme of Beyond Radical Secularism.