Olivier Roy: Religion and the state: unintended effects of anti-radicalisation policies

Thoughtful  commentary:

In most European countries, violent radicalisation is usually understood as a consequence of religious radicalisation.

Consequently, policies for countering or preventing radicalism assume that the key is to regulate the practice of Islam, in particular, either by promoting moderate or liberal interpretations of it or by pushing for secularisation in order to reduce faith to the private sphere.

The issue I would like to raise here is not so much whether such a policy stigmatises Muslims, rather whether such a policy is relevant.

First, from a purely statistical point of view, the link between religious and violent radicalisation is very weak. There have been some hundreds of terrorists in Western Europe in the last 25 years, while we can conclude that the number of believers in ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim schools of thought are in the hundreds of thousands if we consider the percentage of mosques defined as ‘Salafist’ or ‘Tablighi’ by the authorities (in France fewer than 300 out of a total of more than 2,000).

Moreover, if we look at the profile of the actual terrorists (people who committed deadly attacks in Europe during the last 25 years), few of them have belonged to a fundamentalist faith community or regularly attended a mosque considered fundamentalist.

More specifically, if we take into consideration the terrorist attacks perpetrated since the Bataclan attack in 2015 in Paris, we are confronted with lone wolves who have never been part of a fundamentalist network. That is not to say that these radicals have nothing to do with Islam: they consider themselves Muslims; they hope to become martyrs and go to paradise; they claim to avenge the sufferings of the Muslim Ummah. But they have almost never been trained for years in a fundamentalist theological school.

Nevertheless, in all countries involved in counter radicalisation efforts, the dominant doctrine has been to target religious practices, and, as I will demonstrate, this is not confined to Islam.

Secularisation vs liberalisation

This policy has been developed with two apparently opposed strategies. One promotes the reformation of Islam or the adoption of liberal forms of the religion, the other the extension of secularism. The apparent contradiction between the two approaches (the first acknowledging that religion has its place in social life and public space, the other confining religion to the private sphere) led to tensions between the so-called French model (laïcité) and the so called Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism. In fact, they both imply a reshaping of the traditional relationship between state and religion.

The first issue is how to define ‘religious radicalisation’? To do this you need a concept of ‘religious moderation’; but what is a ‘moderate religion’? The dominant religions in Europe are ‘revealed’ religions that believe in a transcendent God, creator and lawmaker. In this sense, the Abrahamic religions are not ‘moderate’ because they believe in an absolute truth and consider that the word of God is above human laws, even if the faithful citizen is supposed to obey and respect the laws of the state.

In any case, the debate is shifting from ‘truth’ to values, from ‘moderate’ to ‘liberal’: religions are requested to accept women and LGBTIQ+ rights, and this, of course, does not only apply to Islam. Should this move to promote liberal values go as far as to pressure the Catholic Church to have female priests, and ultra-orthodox Jews to adopt co-education in the yeshiva?

In addition, aside from its objectives, the simple move from the states to promote ‘good’ religion is upsetting the trend that has characterised the democratisation process since the 18th century: separation of church and state.

What remains of the mixing of both are just symbolic remnants (like the position of the British queen as head of the Anglican Church, for example). For the state, to interfere with religion means to ignore the separation principle and to run up against another pillar of the state of law: human rights. Freedom of religion is a human right and ensures the believer that the state will not interfere with faith and theology, even if it can limit some religious practices in the public space.

Far from ensuring religious freedom, any state intervention in the religious field will, on the contrary, contribute to the politicisation of the practice of religion and eviscerate the autonomy of religion, leading to a new form of state secularisation.

The French state steps in

Nevertheless, French policy is not shy about imposing secularisation on Islam. And this policy is popular in the country. But there is a side effect that is rarely perceived. The policy is more than an anti-Islam or Islamophobic stance: it is an anti-religious one. And the Catholic Church is feeling this cold wind, especially at a time when the scandal of paedophilia has undermined its prestige in society, with the trials of priests and cardinals widely covered by the media, and the pope being forced to acknowledge the issue.

A string of laws, from the 2004 act banning ‘religious signs’ in schools to the law against ‘separatism’ approved by the French parliament this February, have been passed to fight ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamist separatism’. Explicitly, they target religious practices across the board: all religious symbols are banned from schools; any kind of home schooling (practised by Catholics or progressive supporters of alternative education, but not by Muslims) is severely restricted; and associations that receive public funding are supposed to sign a ‘charter of republican values’ that bans any gender segregated activities or rejection of gay rights.

Curbing religious practices to undermine radicalisation simply does not work. On the contrary, it contributes to a process of strict secularisation of the religious space, targeting first of all mainstream, ordinary believers who are the best bulwark against any kind of radicalisation.

Source: Religion and the state: unintended effects of anti-radicalisation policies

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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