Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Don't celebrate too much

This year is the centennial of France's law of separation of Church and State. The 1905 law created a political culture that was hostile to almost all involvement of religion in political life. Secularism is be seen as a pillar of the republic. Some politicians have even argued that the law was a fulfillment of republicanism, a logical consequence of the Revolution (specifically the Civil Constitution of the Clergy).

The centennial could not have come at a worse time. As girls are being suspended from schools for wearing headscarves, Muslims are clinging to religion in its most traditional form as a form of resistance. Nikolas Sarkozy, perhaps the next president of the republic, has suggested that the law must be revisited to give Muslims the ability to assimilate and France the ability to assimilate them. Chirac, mindful of the tensions, has recommended that commemoration of the law be kept to a minimum.

Philosopher Guy Coq is outraged, not because he thinks that the law is perfect, but because France should use the commemoration to reconnect with secularism, to rediscover its purpose and spirit.
This situation is abnormal. It is based on a grave incomprehension of the sense of the term "‘commemoration."’ It is not at all a question of nostalgia. To commemorate is an important act in which the present re-examines its relations with the past. ... To revive memory? Certainly. But we forget that this gesture consists also of constructingng a relationship with the event ... .

The consequence is immediate. It'’s absence from memory drives those in power to an ignorance of laïcité (secularism). ....

Everyone know, except [Sarkozy], that to [amend] the 1905 law is to open a Pandora's box. It will end inevitably in an unmanageable conflict between two extremes. On the one side, those who would profit from re-raising the question of secularism, on the other, those who would make it more stringent in the sense of a battle against religions.

[This crappy translation is my own.]

Rediscovering the context of the law of separation would yield context. The republic was still reeling from the political battle over Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was accused of passing military secrets to Berlin. The Catholic clergy, still largely monarchist, fiercely supported his court martial and the officers who manufactured the charges against him. The affaire raised questions about the role of religion in politics and the compatibility of Catholicism and republicanism.

The long view, however, show a more complex picture. Separation emerged from a juxtaposition of historical process. If secularism was a long term project, so was the assimilation of the Jews. Since Napoleon the French governments engaged with Jewish leaders and institutions, establishing consistoire as semi-governmental organization to administer to Jewish communities. Practices were reformed so that Jewish subjects could become French citizens of the Jewish faith. Under the 1905 law this process probably could not have occurred.

Moreover, the notion that the republic became secular is bunk. Catholicism remained, at least implicitly, an important part of French identity: naturalization required conversion. Even Leopold Sedar Senghor converted to gain his citizenship.

The Roman Catholic Church is not the same anti-democratic institution that it was in 1905. In fact, it has become a vehicle, albeit imperfect, of interfaith communication.

"To construct a relationship with the event", as Coq suggests, reveals a law of separation that was very much a product to its time. It was the work of a nation that had already spent decades reforming popular culture. Excavating the memory might well prove the need to modify the government's position on religion, especially if it is trying to "Gallicize" Muslims. Would France have defended a long-bearded, kippot-wearing Jew who spoke a Judeo-German dialect? Would it have trusted a traditional, non-Christian African in Dakar? The otherness of the Muslims whom France must assimilate is as strong as that of the Dreyfus or the Senghor who might have been.

History : France

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