France has long embraced secularism. After beheading, will it be used to oppress?

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CONFLANS-SAINTE-HONORINE, France – Dozens of teenagers were shaking in the dark and damp streets near their school hours after hearing what should have been unthinkable: A Chechen refugee had beheaded their teacher for showing students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Martial Lusiela, 15, who was among them, said he was dismayed by the murder but added that he had warned his instructor, Samuel Paty, that nothing good would come from showing the footage.

“It is not a caricature that you should show the students, because there are Muslims in the class,” Martial told Paty at the time. “We are in a” secular “establishment. It could cause problems. “

Martial may have thought that secularism – the state-imposed secularism in France – meant that his teacher should have avoided such polarizing religious discussions. But in the days following the murder, French politicians took the opposite interpretation, offering secularism as a justification for both the teacher’s actions and a radical crackdown on France’s Muslim minority.

For more than a century, “secularism”, which aimed to separate the French state from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, was seen as a central sacred pillar of French liberal consciousness. But some political theorists say its meaning has recently been corrupted and militarized by the political right.

“The new secularism… it is no longer a legal and philosophical principle”, declared the philosopher and sociologist Raphaël Liogier, professor at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence. “It has become a tool for targeting the people we see as the enemies of our culture. “

The government’s official tribute to Paty was a solemn spectacle staged in an ornate courtyard on Wednesday evening at the Sorbonne University. Paty’s coffin was carried in the ceremony to the tune of U2’s “One” – the first of several bittersweet pop songs performed among elegies, poems and prayers recited by family, friends and colleagues. of the murdered professor.

Some of the most powerful leaders of the French government sat in the front rows. French President Emmanuel Macron paid a moving tribute to Paty – a mixture of gratitude for the murdered professor, defiance of the violence and, once again, devotion secularism.

“We will defend the freedom you have taught so well and we will increase secularism,” Macron said. “We will not give up caricatures, drawings, even if others are backing down. We will offer all the chances that the Republic owes to all its youth without any discrimination.

Politicians and commentators of all stripes quickly called Paty’s murder an attack on French secularism. The word filled French airwaves and newspapers, becoming a rallying cry to suppress Islamic extremism, even though it was originally aimed at keeping the state as far away from religious concerns as possible. (Muslims are a large minority in France, making up just under 10% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.)

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The television talk shows animated debates lasting several hours on the theme of secularism. Newspaper columnists have published long treatises on “the attack on secularism” by “radical Islam”. In an interview on France BFM TV, the Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin praised secularism while criticizing the separate sale of halal food in grocery stores as a seed of religious separatism.

Crowds gather on Place de la République in Paris in homage to teacher Samuel Paty.Bertrand Guay / AFP – Getty Images

“Secularism, the backbone of the republic, has been targeted by this despicable act,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told a group of teachers the day after the attack.

Macron, who has long championed minority rights, recently took a tougher line.

“Islamists will not sleep peacefully in France,” he declared after the beheading.

Hard on terrorism or on the xenophobes?

The repeated invocation of secularism has enabled Macron to claim a political kinship between the terrorist attack and his recent legislative proposals aimed at strengthening the secular character of the state in the face of perceived “Islamist separatism”. Many on the left see this as Macron’s complacency to the xenophobic right just before next year’s elections.

Macron introduced the law, which is due to be voted on next year, just days before the attack. If passed, it would give the state considerable power to shut down religious groups, associations and schools that are said to be spreading extremist ideology. This would lead to the kind of political control over religious institutions that historically would have been anathema to defenders of secularism.

Police on Monday targeted people on terrorist watchlists and organizations that had expressed support for the beheading, shut down several Muslim welfare groups and threatened to deport known Islamists, many of whom are already in prison . Darmanin even proposed to dissolve the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France, a non-governmental organization which monitors attacks against Muslims.

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The government justified the crackdown as not only necessary but also late. France is still reeling from a series of horrific terrorist attacks, including the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theaters in 2015, which left nearly 200 dead. A trial for suspects suspected of aiding the assassins continues, and the government has continued to examine threats from Islamic radicals targeting people and places associated with Charlie Hebdo.

Earlier this month, two people were injured when a young man who claimed to be defending Islam attacked them with a knife outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices.

The different meanings of secularism have followed the evolution of the anxieties and concerns of French society. The concept is often attributed to the French law of 1905 on the separation of churches and state, which exposes the modern understanding of secularism, although the word is never mentioned in the text.

At the time, the law was seen as a brake on the power of the Catholic Church over government. And for most of the next century secularism was seen as a progressive left-wing cause that went even further than America’s First Amendment.

The concept contrasts somewhat with “freedom of religion” in the United States. In France, any reference to religion in public and political life can lead to avoidance or even legal action.

French flags half-flutter at the Elysee Palace in Paris to pay tribute to murdered history professor Samuel Paty.Ludovic Marin / AFP – Getty Images

The concept touches everyone, from the most modest civil servants to elected officials. Public teachers and postal workers are prohibited from wearing Islamic hijabs or large crosses, while right-wing politician Christine Boutin has found herself politically marginalized after holding up a Bible during her speech against gay civil unions at the National Assembly in 1998.

But the change of definition began in the 1980s, when right-wing Catholics succeeded in defeating attempts by the French socialist government to end public funding of Catholic schools in the name of secularism.

With the concept of the left defeated, it was easily re-appropriated by a new generation of right-wing populist politicians in the early 2000s, said Éric Fassin, professor of sociology at the University of Paris 8 St-Denis.

“The word ‘secularism’ had meaning, and the political defeat of this type of secularism made it available for something entirely different,” he said.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the wave of terrorist attacks in France in 2015, Fassin and Liogier said, secularism now aims almost entirely to cleanse society of immigrants and Islam.

The “new secularism” perverts a founding French liberal ideal while using it to ostracize a vulnerable minority, Fassin said, which he says is exactly what Islamist terrorists want.

“Terrorists want a black and white world. They don’t want a gray area, ”he said. “They want all Muslims to feel they have to take sides. The way to do it is to take sides against the West. “

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