“The more secular discourse hardens, the more Muslims become tense”

“The more secular discourse hardens, the more Muslims become tense”

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the law on religious symbols in public schools, promulgated on March 15, 2004, it is a question of what resulted two decades after its adoption. It is appropriate to first highlight an element that often goes unnoticed: the majority of Muslims quickly complied with the law prohibiting religious symbols in public schools, colleges and high schools, as well as the majority of Islamic organizations. And this, despite the reluctance, doubts and opposition of various kinds that arose before, during and in the weeks and months following the adoption of the said law. There has been no explosion in the number of private Muslim establishments.

We must remove certain misunderstandings and confusions read and heard about the relationships between Islam, Muslims and secularism. The intoxication of the polls, to paraphrase the political scientist Alain Garrigou, has crystallized in recent years on the Islam/Muslim couple. We could even speak of symptomatic inflation in this respect. Indeed, surveys create artifacts, which respond to a context of persistent suspicion. They feed it back. Above all, they reinforce the prejudice of a supposedly intrinsic and specific hostility of Islam to the secular principle, without always explicitly assuming it.

So it is with the last “opinion study on the perception of secularism in public services” of February 2024, carried out by the CSA in partnership with the Senate. It clearly goes in the direction of a reinforcement of said prejudice, that is to say of a presumed distrust of Muslims vis-à-vis secularism, and a significant one at that. This is why one of the items particularly caught our attention. This is broken down into three affirmative statements: “Secularism is a source of discrimination within French society” ; “The ban on wearing visible religious symbols at school is an attack on freedom of religion” ; “Secularism prevents me from practicing my religion as I wish”.

Amplifying separatism

For each of them, the Muslims surveyed come out on top. The temptation would therefore be to spontaneously read into it a characteristic hostility of Muslims to the secular principle. In reality, it is less secularism as a legal framework that is contested than the speeches of those who mobilize it to blacklist the French Muslim component. Moreover, from this point of view, the target is not only those who operate within the school grounds but also those who are visible in the public space and who possibly participate in associative activities, education, instruction, teaching, and the fight against Islamophobia.

The law of August 24, 2021 (also called “separatism law”) strengthening the principles of the Republic is clearly part of a policy of suspicion; Moreover, she is not without flirting with a kind of thought police. These are no longer really the actions Muslims who are publicly evaluated but intentions supposedly separatist or radical.

In a progress report from June 2013, the Secularism Observatory, which has since disappeared for political reasons, noted the effectiveness of the law of March 15, 2004. In that it would not only have enabled to quickly reduce reports, starting in 2004-2005, but also to reduce pressure on those who do not wear religious clothing. However, it is clear that this has not prevented the continuation of increasingly bitter controversies over the presence of Islam in France, against the backdrop of recurring Islamophobic remarks.

A religion perceived as exogenous

Furthermore, the law of March 15, 2004 has not extinguished the irrepressible desire among certain political actors and legislators to further extend its areas and places of application. We sense it when we listen to the extremely negative discourse on wearing the headscarf, even independently of the school issue. The said law has also not attenuated the desire among some Muslim women to find new ways of dressing, or to attempt subterfuge, in order to reconcile respect for the law and personal religious sensitivity.

The abaya, banned since the start of the 2023 school year, is an emblematic example. Because it is not in itself a religious garment, to prohibit its wearing at school, it also took all the imagination of political reason to invent a new offense: religious symbols “by destination”.

Collectively, we are prisoners of a vicious circle from which we do not see how we could escape in the medium term: the more secular discourse hardens, often in defiance of the liberal spirit which governed the law of 1905, nourished by continuous throws by the hard right, the extreme right and a certain left, and the more Muslims, observing or not, become tense, rightly or wrongly.

The more conciliatory and legalistic the latter appear, the less they seem to be reciprocated by the elites. It would therefore undoubtedly be time to worry about the basis of such a hiatus: the predominant perception, despite denials, of a religion perceived as exogenous, by nature proselytizing and political.

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