Douglas Todd: Secularism surges in Cascadia, for good and ill

Interesting study cited:

It was not long ago the logo for British Columbia was “The Best Place on Earth,” emblazoned across an idyllic image of mountain peaks.

The “Best Place” slogan outdid even “Beautiful British Columbia” and “Super, Natural British Columbia” for boasting, for linking the evergreen-covered West Coast to a sense of sacred specialness.

Now a highly researched book delves into just how much residents of B.C., Washington, Oregon — a bio-region known as Cascadia — lean toward “reverential naturalism,” in large part because they live in what could also be called “the most secular place on Earth” (or at least in North America.)

Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest (UBC Press) explains that Cascadia is at the forefront of cultural shifts across the continent. The book details how non-religion is more embedded here than anywhere else in North America — and how that powerful secularism comes with sharp political inclinations, to the liberal-left.

The scholarly papers in Religion at the Edge probe the kind of theories that an eclectic team of Canadian and U.S. writers dug into in the book I edited in 2008, titled Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Ronsdale Press). The upshot is secularism has grown even more intense in Cascadia in the past decade, especially in B.C.

A public-opinion survey done for Religion at the Edge shows half of B.C. residents (49 per cent) now have no religious affiliation, while 44 per cent of the people in Washington and Oregon make the same claim. That contrasts with other polls showing, across North America, only about one in five say they have “no religion.”

Religion at the Edge is edited by professor Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Victoria (who muses about “The Best Place on Earth” marketing); Pacific Lutheran University religion professor emerita Patricia O’Connell Killen (who contributed to Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia) and University of Waterloo sociologist Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme.

The book’s focus groups show how Cascadia’s non-religious come in many guises — from those who are increasingly hostile to church, mosque and synagogue, to those who still harbour some private spiritual sentiments toward things like yoga and nature reverence.

Religion at the Edge spells out the political implications of a population that is half secular. The non-religious, for instance, are more likely to support access to abortion, same-sex marriage and fervently protecting the natural realm.

However, there can be a darker side to intense secularism, including loneliness, excessive libertarianism and a tendency to “homophily,” which is a technical word for being attracted only to those who are similar to oneself.

Why are Cascadians so non-religious?

I was struck by the insight that the white working-classes of the Pacific Northwest have since the 19th century been passing on: a tradition of irreligiosity, as described by Tina Block of Thompson Rivers University and the University of Victoria’s Lynn Marks.

That captures my upbringing, in which my resolutely atheist Metro Vancouver family taught that religion was for kooks. I like to think I’ve outgrown that world view, with more understanding of philosophy, religion and spirituality.

Even though immigrants are generally more religious than North America’s native born, Trinity College, Hartford, professor Mark Silk (who also contributed to Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia) makes the important point the Pacific Northwest is more secular because certain ethnic subgroups have different attitudes to faith.

Black people are much more religious than the overall U.S. population. But Silk points out that, compared to the rest of the continent, there are far fewer Black people in Cascadia, especially in B.C. (only one per cent).

B.C., compared to the rest of North America, also has far more people of Asian origin (28 per cent versus 15 per cent across Canada and 2.8 per cent in the U.S.). And Pew Research polls show Asian people, particularly East Asians, are more likely to reject formal religion.

When it comes to politics, Wilkins-Laflamme’s confirms Cascadians who are non-religious are far less inclined to support the Canadian Conservative Party or the American Republican party. That helps explain why the Liberals and NDP tend to do well in B.C. and Democrats mostly hold sway in Washington and Oregon, especially in cities.

Along with a fervent libertarianism that sees little use for traditions or institutions, residents of Cascadia have been leading supporters of assisted suicide and many, because they find sacredness in the natural world, have turned into fiery activists against climate change.

Despite Cascadians’ many similarities across the Canada-U.S. border, one stark difference lies in Canadian and American attitudes to Indigenous affairs. First Nations and Metis issues have been near-ubiquitous in Canada for two decades, including in many churches, while in Washington and Oregon interest continues to be negligible.

Key findings of Religion on the Edge are summarized in five points by Bramadat and O’Connell Killen, who observe that in Cascadia:

• A “powerful story” is emerging “that frames the region not just as the best but as the most secular place on Earth”

• Certain forms of Christianity have been “relegated to the periphery”

• Some kinds of spirituality (Indigenous, Buddhist, Hindu) are romanticized

• Practitioners of yoga, evangelicalism and mindfulness are evolving creatively

• There is a “pervasive, distinctive and reverential approach to the natural world”

A lot of this may sound good to many North Americans, particularly those on the liberal-left.

But as the book points out, visitors to the “Best Place on Earth” have been known to remark, “It’s hard to see the sky in the summer because of all the smug.” And Cascadians’ openness to the spiritual, but not religious, could harden into a flat secularism “without any reference to the metaphysical.”

The contributors also found many residents of Cascadia, especially the increasingly non-religious young, feel burdened by consumer culture, high degrees of loneliness, tenuous social bonds, weak institutions, a reluctance to commit and a restless state of “searching.”

Even Cascadians’ emphasis on the sacred wonders of nature may come with ethical blind spots. As some authors ask, “Can the population care as much for people as it cares for orcas, trees and pets?”

Finally, while a highly secular, low-cohesion culture has rapidly become the status quo in the Pacific Northwest, contributors to Religion on the Edge suggest convincingly (as did the writers in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia) that we are a bellwether for what will happen to the rest of the continent.

Source: Douglas Todd: Secularism surges in Cascadia, for good and ill

How the New Atheists Hijacked Secularism After 9/11

Of note:

In the English-speaking world today, it is very common for the words “atheism” and “secularism” to be used interchangeably. This is unfortunate because far from being synonyms, the two terms have very different intellectual lineages and refer to very different things. The confusion, as we shall see, has been debilitating for those who yearn for secular governance (among whom are atheists and believers alike).

The most recent knotting of “secularism” and “atheism” can be explained by reference to the history, technology, and intellectuals of the new millennium. Historically, the attacks of 9/11 forced many writers to ponder religious extremism with new urgency. Technologically, this was the moment that digital media was coming into its own. Each passing year of the 21st century exponentially magnified the ability of new social movements to spread their message, mobilize members, and grow their ranks.

Which brings us to the new class of atheist intellectuals that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. These figures were outraged by the violence of militant Islam. They were also stunned by the growing political stature of conservative Christian political movements in the United States. One important voice was the independent scholar Susan Jacoby. Her 2004 book—notice the subtitle—Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was among a slew of texts that casually tied the knot mentioned above.

Then there were the New Atheists, i.e., Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The so-called “Four Horsemen” published fierce smackdowns of religion—and not just the Fundamentalist variants. In the early aughts, they quickly became digital media sensations. Their books not only sold millions of physical copies around the world, but energized a growing nonbelief community on the internet.

Two themes emerge in New Atheist interventions. First, much of their prose was devoted to proving how senseless, illogical, and violent all forms of religion were. Second, they embraced science as an alternative to faith. Their training in fields like evolutionary biology (Dawkins), neuroscience (Harris), and cognitive science (Dennett) made them worthy ambassadors of one of secularism’s core principles. Namely, the idea that public policy decisions should be based on science, rationality, and data.

Curiously, the New Atheists seldom reflected on political secularism and its many variants. When they did, they showed themselves to be proponents of what is known as “separationism.” As Dawkins approvingly observed in The God Delusion: “The [American] founders most certainly were secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics.”

The accuracy of that statement notwithstanding, the New Atheists portrayed their activism as defending aggrieved secular people everywhere. “I think it’s us, plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st,” exclaimed Christopher Hitchens, “who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy.” Joining the fight were countless other nonbelievers, many with digital platforms and training in STEM disciplines.

The result of this intervention, now 20 years on, is that a good deal of the conversation about secularism has been dominated by New Atheist views. This is unfortunate because accusations of Islamophobia, sexism, transphobia, and even a general drift to the alt-right have dogged followers of The Four Horsemen. Yet it is their unyielding animus towards people of faith that has elicited the most anger among religious people across the spectrum. Situated on that spectrum are religious moderates and religious minorities who have traditionally been proponents of secular governance.

The dividend of this all is that, for many, the word “secularism” has become linked with forms of extreme atheism that are hostile to all forms of religion.

How different this is from classical definitions of secularism which center on how a government is to interact with the religious groups under its jurisdiction. In this more traditional understanding, secularism isn’t about metaphysics or anti-metaphysics or God or gods. It’s about how a state is to judiciously govern a polity of diverse believers and, increasingly, non-believers.

Then again, there is no Vatican of secularism. No institution exists which retains the power to decide who is, and who is not, a secularist. If some atheists call themselves secularists, I think there is a moral imperative to respect that self-designation. Media outlets routinely draw this connection, as do conservative religious activists. Accordingly, the equation that prevails in public discourse is “all atheists are secularists,” and vice versa.

For me, the New Atheist embrace of secularism raises an interesting theoretical question: Is there such a thing as a non-secular atheist? I mention this because extreme atheists sometimes advocate ideas that undermine the very secular principles they claimed to be championing.

Toleration has been a staple of secular discourse since the Enlightenment. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris viewed “the very ideal of religious tolerance,” as “one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss.” The impression that the New Atheists—and hence secularists—were deeply intolerant was widespread among their critics. It led many to wonder what they might do if their “secular” state came into being.

The sharpest contradiction between New Atheism and political secularism had to do with basic beliefs about religion’s legitimacy. Hitchens’ catchphrase in his 2007 polemic, God is Not Great, was “religion poisons everything.” He warned his readers that “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction.” Harris averred that religious moderates were every bit as dangerous as a suicide bomber. Moderate religious faith, he insisted, posed a “threat” to our survival.

Few observers of the New Atheists, pro or con, believe that their true intent was to eliminate religion. Yet their rhetoric, performative as it may have been, strongly intimated that goal. This put these champions of secularism in a rather tense relation with the political secularism they claimed to be defending.

The latter has always accorded religion a legitimate place within the social body. Political secularism takes the existence of religion as a given. If there were no religion, there would be no need for secularism!

True, there is no Vatican of Secularism. But there are ways for social scientists to define their terms precisely. Given the New Atheists’ rejection of so many secular principles, they might conceivably be referred to as “non-secular atheists.”

What must be stressed, though, is that their position is extreme among atheists. Most non-believers are not bent on the liquidation of religion even in their rhetoric. They request something entirely different from the secular state. And what they request is basically what religious moderates and religious minorities request as well. All seek freedom from a religion that is not their own.

The secular state is tasked with balancing its citizens’ competing desires for freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The New Atheists had a very different conception of secular governance in mind. That conception disillusioned and even frightened the vast religious mainstream–the very constituency whose support is essential for secularism to persevere in a liberal democracy.

Source: How the New Atheists Hijacked Secularism After 9/11

Erna Paris: A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy

Complements the NYTimes interview (

When my children were young, derisive “Newfie” jokes were all the rage. I didn’t allow them in my house; I’d lived in France as a student and learned enough about pre-war history to know that plural societies can exist peacefully only within an ethos of mutual respect.

Which is why both France and the United States have evolved into tragic political entities. Both their foundational ideologies are dangerously anachronistic.

Take the recent atrocities in France following the conduct of a teacher who pulled out the same caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked major violence in the past. There is no possible excuse for his monstrous medieval-style murder, or for the others that occurred after. But to understand circumstance is neither to assign blame nor to condone violence, a fact historians must constantly emphasize. That France houses almost six million Muslims, the largest population in the West, makes it critical to understand the impact of the Prophet Mohammed caricatures in that country.

The contemporary world will remain a mix of ethnicities and religions as migrations increasingly reshape societies, but when it comes to pluralism, France has a twofold problem. First is its commitment to rigid secularism – a foundational ideology that dates back to the French Revolution of 1789. Second is an absolutist view of free speech that is detrimental to society.

French secularism, which mandates that the public sphere be religiously homogeneous or “neutral,” effectively nullifies one’s right to be accepted for who one is. If you wear a hijab, for example, you cannot be a teacher of children, among other public professions. Your religious obligation to dress in certain ways may “offend” the majority. If you do follow your spiritual beliefs, you will be considered an unassimilated “other” – a second-rate faux citizen who rejects the values of the French Republic.

Complicating this problematic ideology is the aggressive abuse of free speech – a foundation of democracy – to incite social tensions. A teacher who relies on unfettered free speech to teach about Islam through ugly caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed is being knowingly provocative, especially when he facetiously suggests that anyone who might be offended leave the room. This is not an innocent moment. Let us imagine Berlin in 1934, for example. Hitler is in power, but Jewish children still attend school. In the name of free speech and high-level permission, the teacher pulls out examples of Julius Streicher’s caricatures of Jews and suggests that anyone who might be offended leave the room. Such scenarios risk toxic consequences.

There are limits to free speech, as we acknowledge in Canada. In 1990, in the case of James Keegstra, an Alberta teacher who propagated anti-Semitism in his classroom, the Supreme Court upheld the Criminal Code provision prohibiting the wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group. And for good reason. Plural societies are inherently fragile.

Like the French, many Americans hold rigid commitments to absolute free speech – and to freedom in general. But it is precisely this foundational ideology of libertarian freedom that is propelling what was the world’s most admired nation into tragedy.

The trigger has been COVID-19 and the politicization of mask-wearing. In a recent study at Stanford University that quantified infections stemming from Donald Trump’s maskless campaign rallies, it was estimated that there were at least 30,000 coronavirus infections and 700 deaths as a result of 18 rallies the President held between June and September.

American “rugged individualism” was first popularized by Herbert Hoover in 1928 when he compared his compatriots to a European philosophy of “paternalism and state socialism,” but the ideology can likely be traced back to the 1776 War of Independence from the British, followed by the cowboy ethos of opening up the West, coupled with a distrust of government oversight. But the downside of libertarian freedom has been a lack of commitment to the public good.

Foreheads furrowed when former San Francisco baseball hero, Aubrey Huff, announced in June that he would “rather die from the coronavirus than wear a damn mask,” and in May when a guard in a store in Flint, Mich., was shot dead after telling a woman that her child had to wear a mask. Both these events expose the tragedy of freedom paired with a weak concept of commonality.

In Canada, our national narrative has shifted over the past century from xenophobia to multiculturalism. How fortunate we are. Sadly, rigid foundational ideologies are likely to continue to threaten social peace as the 21st century progresses.


The French President vs. the American Media

Of note along with Erna Paris’ critique (A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy). Universalism is a convenient way to avoid addressing systemic issues and discrimination:

The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

Legitimizing violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.

More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Mr. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.

In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Mr. Macron appears likely to face the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.

When Mr. Paty was murdered, Mr. Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Some French grievances with the U.S. media are familiar from the U.S. culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Mr. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov. 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Mr. Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.

“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Mr. Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Mr. Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokeswoman, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Mr. Macron attacking the deleted article.

In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor in chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.

But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A skeptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Mr. Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”

And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an articleexplaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.

“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Mr. Macron’s spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.

As any observer of American politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Mr. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s longstanding insistence that its citizens not be categorized by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

Some of the coverage Mr. Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Mr. Macron’s talk of head scarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Mr. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoization” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.

Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Mr. Macron in attacking the U.S. media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in the French magazine Marianne blasted U.S. coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”

But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #metoo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known pedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Mr. Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Mr. Matzneff is now facing charges.

And Mr. Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the day before our conversation.

I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.

Mr. Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted The Times’s Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)

And he recoiled at the comparison to Mr. Trump.

“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.

As France mourns slain teacher Samuel Paty, some question secular values

Needed discussion:

In January 2015, millions of people flooded the streets of Paris and other French cities to denounce the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks. An angry nation brandished brightly colored pencils and banners, defending free expression and France’s staunchly secular ideology.

Five years later, and after another terrorist attack, there’s a sense of deja vu. Today’s protests are smaller. But the horror is the same, following the brutal decapitation of Samuel Paty, a middle school history teacher, after he displayed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech.

The same mocking cartoons which inspired the Charlie Hebdo attacks — and last month’s stabbing of two people in Paris — are again testing the limits of France’s vaunted secularism, or laïcité. Clashing views of faith and free speech are on the line. Feeding the tensions, some experts say, is a broader sense of stigmatization and disenfranchisement felt by many French Muslims, who represent Western Europe’s largest Islamic community.

Now, as President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist government have vowed an all-out war against radical Islam, critics have said the strong defense of secularism is only exacerbating the problem. Instead of providing a neutral space for the country’s melting pot of beliefs, as it’s intended, secularismenshrined in a 1905 law separating church and state — has become a flashpoint.

“There’s a political culture that has problems with Islam,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a prominent sociologist and expert on radical Islam. “And this political culture, laïcité, is a problem.”

Paty was posthumously awarded with France’s highest civilian award, the Legion d’Honneur

Secularism has become ‘a civil religion’

Authorities insist there is no disharmony between moderate Islam and French values. They instead fault communitarianism, a term used in France to suggest an inward-looking view of society that is often, although not exclusively, linked to conservative Islam. More recently, Macron has replaced communitarianism with separatism in his lexicon.

Some observers have said that same inward view helped fuel Paty’s murder, with authorities citing an online hate campaign launched by a disgruntled parent of a student in Paty’s class. That campaign, they say, motivated 18-year-old Chechen refugee Abdoullakh Anzorov to kill Paty.

In its fight against communitarianism over the years, the French government has introduced bans on religious symbols in public schools and offices and outlawed full-body Islamic swimsuits, or burkinis, in public swimming pools and beaches, the latter cast as a hygienic measure.

In September some lawmakers, including from Macron’s own party, recently walked out of a session of the National Assembly during a speech by a veiled student leader — although she had broken no laws with her hijab.

Laïcité was once a way to manage the relationship between government and society,” said Khosrokhavar. “But it has become a kind of civil religion, with its codes, its prescriptions.”

As he paid homage to Paty at a national memorial in Paris on Wednesday, Macron offered up an emotional defense of France’s secular values. He said they provided the space for free and critical thinking, and even the right to mock a religion — although not a person.

“We will not give up cartoons,” the president vowed at the ceremony in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University.

Macron’s government has responded to Paty’s murder with muscular action, carrying out dozens of raids against suspected Islamist networks early this week, temporarily shutting down a mosque in a Paris suburb for relaying a denunciation against the teacher and vowing to expel radicalized foreigners and dissolve organizations with extremist ties. It also plans to unveil legislation in early December to fight separatism, with Islamist extremism in its crosshairs.

Government ‘needs a scapegoat’

But France’s largest opposition party, the far-right National Rally, believes Macron’s government hasn’t gone far enough.

Calling radical Islam a “warlike ideology,” National Rally leader Marine Le Pen — considered for now as the president’s top opponent in the April 2022 presidential election — has called for “war legislation” to match it, including an immediate halt to immigration.

Others, however, fear the authorities have gone too far. Among the most prominent groups targeted for dissolution is the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). Hard-line Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has described the NGO that offers legal aid for Muslims as a “threat to the Republic.”

Darmanin has linked the CCIF to Paty’s killing, ostensibly because the disgruntled father behind the hate campaign against the teacher sought the group’s help. CCIF head Jawad Bachare has rejected such accusations, and several rights groups have protested the group’s possible dissolution.

“The government was unable to protect its citizens and it needs a scapegoat,” Bachare said in an interview earlier this week. “And that’s the CCIF.”

Stirring up the debate is a government plan to “renew” the Secularism Observatory, a government advisory body, to reportedly bring it more “in line” with the fight against separatism. The body has sometimes gone against state and local authorities on matters like the burkini ban on beaches, which it said was illegal.

Remarks made Tuesday by Darmanin during a TV interview also haven’t helped matters. Speaking with broadcaster BFM TV, he suggested “separatism” extended even to supermarkets.

“I do not criticize the consumers but those who sell them something. I understand very well that halal meat is sold in a supermarket, what I regret is the aisles,” he said. “So you have the aisle for Muslims, the kosher aisle and then all the others … why specific aisles?”

French worry secular values are in danger

Such moves may resonate with French voters, shaken by a string of Islamic terror attacks in recent years that have left more than 250 dead. But some may question their timing, coming 18 months ahead of the presidential election.

A survey this week by the Ifop polling firm found an overwhelming majority of respondents considered France’s secular values were in danger, and that radical Islam was at war with the country.

Laïcité is not against religion but allows everyone to live his religion or be atheist,” said Elisabeth Gandin, who joined thousands at Paris’ Place de la Republique to protest the attack against Paty. “I don’t agree with the Charlie cartoons, but I’m on the streets to defend the right to say things some may not like.”

Bolstering those views may be another recent Ifop survey suggesting that 40% of Muslims, including more than three-quarters of those under 25, put their religious convictions ahead of the country. Those figures were far higher than for non-Muslims, although skeptics have questioned how the survey’s questions were framed.

Muslims feel targeted by secularism

Mainstream Muslim leaders have expressed outrage at Paty’s killing, echoing arguments about the dangers of radical Islam while also warning against stigmatizing the Muslim community as a whole.

“We cannot allow on French territory words, activities, actions, calls for hate without punishing them,” Tareq Oubrou, the imam of Bordeaux mosque, told France Info radio. Still, he said, ordinary Muslims are doubly hit, “as both French citizens and Muslims.”

Analyst Khosrokhavar believes France’s fierce interpretation of secularism has paradoxically helped fuel radicalization. He notes the country became Western Europe’s biggest exporter of jihadi fighters to Syria, even though others, like Germany and Britain, also have large Muslim populations. Intolerant views about headscarves, he claims, have helped push some conservative Muslim women toward fundamentalism.

“The majority feel they are targeted by this laïcité, which becomes a kind of symbol of neo-colonial rule and for them, a denial of their dignity,” Khosrokhavar said, referring also to his interviews with multiple middle-class Muslim men, many not particularly religious, for an upcoming book.

Teaching tolerance, secularism demands patience

Teachers, especially in France’s immigrant-heavy suburbs, say they must also tread carefully in dealing with secularism as they are on the front lines of explaining its principles.

“There is a penetration of a religiosity that increasingly structures students and feeds a radical vision,” said Iannis Roder, a history teacher in the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris, which is home to one of the country’s largest populations of North African and Black immigrants. “It manifests itself in really basic things, like some students refusing to listen to music during Ramadan,” he told French radio.

Teaching tolerance and secularism to her class, another Paris-area high school teacher said, demands patience.

“Tackling free expression by showing caricatures of the Prophet [Muhammad] — you have to weigh the consequences,” she said, declining to be identified as she had not received her school’s authorization to speak to the media.

The teacher has spent years on projects to explain the Holocaust and other sensitive events, taking her often skeptical students on field trips to see history up close.

“You have to fight,” she said, “but it’s a long fight.”

Source: As France mourns slain teacher Samuel Paty, some question secular values

France’s Real Crisis Is About More Than Just Refugees | TIME

More on the French integration challenges and how laïcité has not helped:

“France is a diverse open minded society, but France also as a collective country has a dark history that they have to acknowledge. But not it’s really just about looking at the past, but facing up to the past in order to claim a common future. That’s still missing in France,” says Amel Boubekeur, a researcher on European Islamic issues at Grenoble University. “I believe that it is something that the U.K. has dealt with much more successfully than France, though it wasn’t the same experience—it was a less violent one. “

France utterly rejected the notion that being French included women covering their heads. Enshrined in its laws is the concept of laicité, or secularization. France moved to protect its culture and in the years since has, for the most part, banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to school. To level the playing field, they also banned Christian and Jewish symbols, including yarmulkes. Almost every year since there have been French-Muslim protests to allow their girls to wear foulards to school. The protests ebbed and flowed with the news: after the invasion of Iraq they found new life and have only grown since.

But this enforced secularism isn’t unique to France. In 2009, Antwerp in Belgium moved to ban foulards in schools, a move that spread across Belgium, though not uniformly. At the same time, a new Islamist group, Sharia4Belgium, flourished by opposing the prohibitions on head scarves in the name of religious and civil liberties. The ban “was a major rally point for organizations like Sharia4Belgium,” says Guy Van Vlierden, editor of a blog on Belgian foreign fighters. “A lot of spontaneous action started for that. That has driven a lot of young people into the arms of terrorism, that’s very clear.”

Sharia4Belgium, like many French extremist recruiters and imams, preyed on the immigrants’ sense of not belonging—of unsuccessful assimilation—even when those immigrants were second or third generation. It was the sense of being robbed of their “roots” that set the Kouachi brothers down their destructive path toward Al-Qaeda, that would prove fatal for the employees of Charlie Hebdo.

Europe is a society still grappling with its minority groups, even thousands of years later; just look at the Catalonian and Scottish pushes for independence. It’s also a continent of ancient, beautiful cultures that are fighting to survive within the bigger entity of the European Union; many of the things that make a nation a nation have been subsumed: currency, borders, even to some degree, military action. One means of resistance for France is to protect, at all costs, what makes French people French at a time when its cultural traditions seem under threat — both from the top, with the economic necessity of the European Union, and from the bottom, with the waves of immigrants, and the foulards in the schools. In an increasingly existential crisis, France is attempting to assimilate by force: no foulards, expel radical imams, speak French not Arabic, learn the Marseillaise. But the more they win, the more they lose.

“There has to be some nurturing otherwise people feel like second class citizens, when they’re only invited to speak out against terrorism but say nothing else,” says Boubekeur. “They will say: ‘I have other opinions, other voices and I have the right to express opinions that aren’t loyal to France if I want to do so.’ When you can’t speak to the mainstream, you withdraw from the mainstream.” Culture wars have no winners.

Source: France’s Real Crisis Is About More Than Just Refugees | TIME

La laïcité à la française se cherche: Abdennour Bidar

Reflections on the French model of laïcité, of importance given its reflection is some Quebec discourse:

Beaucoup de Québécois vouent un culte quasi religieux à la laïcité à la française. Allons-y voir. Comment se porte-t-elle ? « Mal », répond Abdennour Bidar, lui-même pur produit de la république laïque, docteur en philosophie, enseignant (2004-2012), membre de l’Observatoire de la laïcité et chargé de mission pour la « pédagogie de la laïcité » à la direction de l’enseignement scolaire du ministère de l’Éducation nationale.

Mais encore ? « La laïcité en France se porte mal au sens où on ne trouve pas un consensus national sur la façon d’appliquer son principe, de telle sorte qu’il nous serve dans une société multiculturelle, qu’il prouve son efficacité à nous faire vivre ensemble, à la fois avec et au-delà de nos différences, autour d’un certain nombre de valeurs partagées. Il n’y a pas du tout consensus autour de cette question qui nous divise sans arrêt. »

M. Bidar était à Montréal la semaine dernière à l’invitation de l’organisme Pour les droits des femmes du Québec. Il a donné des conférences et participé à des débats dans le cadre du Festival du monde arabe, notamment sur le thème du blasphème, de la censure et de l’autocensure.

« Notre modèle est en crise, poursuit-il. On tient toujours au principe qui permet, selon la formule, à ceux qui croient au ciel et ceux qui n’y croient pas de vivre ensemble avec les mêmes droits et devoirs. Seulement, on n’arrive pas à l’appliquer et ça tire de tous les côtés. »

Pour lui, deux extrêmes « phagocytent » le champ du débat public. Il y a d’un côté les tenants d’une laïcité extrêmement dure qui voudraient chasser toute expression du religieux hors des espaces publics. De l’autre côté, il y a un certain nombre de mouvements religieux qui voudraient faire de la laïcité un principe de neutralité laissant s’exprimer dans l’espace public à peu près n’importe quelles revendications religieuses.

Résultat : la laïcité qu’il dit « équilibrée » se retrouve coincée entre les deux extrêmes. Cette option « ferait justice à l’unité et la multiplicité », selon la formule du philosophe. L’équilibre idéalisé reconnaîtrait le droit à la différence et se soucierait en même temps de fabriquer du commun.

N’est-ce pas l’option multi ou interculturaliste développée ici, au Canada et au Québec ? « C’est vraiment la recherche de l’équilibre qui m’importe, répond le Français. Je ne sais pas si ici vous y arrivez. Mais je peux dire qu’en France on n’y arrive pas du tout. Ce n’est pas seulement une question d’organisation spatiale, de ghettos ou pas. Est-ce qu’on vit vraiment les uns avec les autres ? Après Charlie [Hebdo], on s’est rendu compte qu’on n’arrivait plus à fabriquer du commun. »

Source: La laïcité à la française se cherche | Le Devoir

After attacks, France walks narrow line on Islam in schools

Secularism as religion – not providing pork alternatives:

This was the week that schoolchildren in one Paris suburb got a stark choice at the cafeteria: pork or nothing at all.

Chilly-Mazarin joined a handful of towns run by right-leaning mayors which have ended a practice of offering a substitute for students forbidden by their religion from eating pork.

The decisions have come amid increased discussions in France about its secularist ideals following the terror attacks in January that were blamed on French Islamic extremists — a discussion critics say has been hijacked by anti-Muslim forces on the far right.

On Wednesday, the Socialist government issued unusually direct criticism against the schools that have ended the pork substitutes as it was training dozens of appointees to mediate tense questions about the role of religion in schools and in public life.

In back-to-back speeches, the education and interior ministers walked the country’s increasingly narrow line on religion in schools, with the unspoken threat of Islamic extremism hovering over the auditorium in Paris’ tony 16th arrondissement.

Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said teachers at schools have to impart the secularist ideal, but “not a secularism that is a declaration of war against a religion, as we see when a mayor here or there decides that in the name of a so-called secular ideal, children will be forced to eat pork or skip school lunch.”

France forbids “ostentatious” symbols of religion in schools and government buildings, a mandate generally interpreted to mean Muslim head scarves and one that includes parents who accompany school outings wearing them. Schools take seriously their mission to educate the next generation of secular French citizens, never more so than since the January terror attacks.

Source: After attacks, France walks narrow line on Islam in schools – US News

Des Québécois haïssent la religion religieusement | Le Devoir

Not surprising given the greater intolerance of religious symbols and more negative attitudes towards religion in Quebec in all polling I have seen. But the marked difference in attitude between Christianity and minority religions  stands out:

La Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse possède sur l’intolérance religieuse au Québec un document si inquiétant qu’elle n’a pas osé le rendre public lors de l’examen du projet de loi 59 (sur le discours haineux et sur l’incitation à la violence). Ni non plus pendant l’élection fédérale (où l’affaire du niqab a défrayé la chronique des semaines durant). Qu’avait donc trouvé cette enquête pour que le président de la CDPDJ, Me Jacques Frémont, ait été réticent à en publier alors les résultats ?

Le juriste s’en est expliqué, vendredi, à l’ouverture d’un symposium international de trois jours tenu à l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) sur l’islamophobie. L’enquête avait interrogé 1500 personnes de tous âges, hommes et femmes à travers la province, et nées au Québec ou à l’étranger. On ne leur demandait pas si le niqab les dérangeait, a dit Me Frémont, mais le portrait de la situation est très clair. « Au Québec, il y a des gens qui haïssent la religion religieusement. »

Les résultats complets seront diffusés prochainement. Déjà, les extraits rapportés samedi par la Gazette de Montréal sont qualifiés de « troublants » quant à la « tolérance religieuse ». Ainsi, pas moins de 43 % des gens interrogés trouveraient « suspect » quiconque exprime ouvertement sa religion. Et 45 % disaient avoir une perception négative de la religion. Cela nous dérangerait-il d’être servi par une femme portant un hidjab (à ne pas confondre avec un niqab) ? Pour près de la moitié (48,9 %), oui.

Par contre, si 5,5 % se disaient dérangés par le port d’une croix (chrétienne), 25 % l’étaient pour la kippa (juive), et 30,5 % pour le turban (sikh). La CDPDJ n’a pas reçu beaucoup de plaintes à la suite de controverses ou d’incidents lors des débats sur la charte des valeurs au Québec ou de l’affaire du niqab à l’élection du 19 octobre. Chaque année, 1500 plaintes sont portées pour discrimination. Depuis 2013, on en a enregistré seulement 64 en matière de religion, mais 65 % d’entre elles provenaient de musulmans.

Lors du débat sur la charte des valeurs, la Commission s’attendait à un déluge de plaintes, a raconté le président. Mais elle n’en a pas eu. « Les victimes choisissent de ne pas porter plainte, a-t-il dit, et c’est très inquiétant. » Elles préféreraient, croit-il, « se refermer sur elles-mêmes ». (Dans les cas de discours haineux ou d’incitation à la violence, la CDPDJ n’aurait pas à attendre des plaintes pour intervenir, un changement proposé qui soulève une forte opposition parmi les défenseurs de la liberté d’expression.)

Source: Des Québécois haïssent la religion religieusement | Le Devoir

India, France and Secularism – The New York Times

Interesting comparison between Indian and French secularism by Sylvie Kauffmann:

Hindu fundamentalists have a more radical view of beef consumption and the slaughtering of cows. Some states, like Maharashtra, have banned the sale of beef, and calls for a national beef ban are growing. The fact that Muslims and Christians are traditional beef eaters is not an obstacle. The B.J.P.’s Tarun Vijay, expressing a more stringent interpretation of secularism on the opinion website Daily 0, sees “beef eating as a challenge to India, its public display as an act of bravado,” adding, “It is a political act that has nothing to do with culinary practice or religion.”

In both countries Muslim minorities complain about discrimination — and with reason. But while many French Muslims, who make up about 7.5 percent of the population, feel targeted by “laïcité,” Indian Muslims see secularism as their best protection. One important difference is that radicalization is an almost nonexistent phenomenon in Indian Islam, while it is a dangerous (but limited) trend among European Muslims. Only 30 Indian citizens are known to have joined the Islamic State so far, out of 176 million Muslims; in France, the number of home-grown jihadists is close to 2,000, out of 4 to 5 million. So while in France, fundamentalism comes from the Muslim minority, in India it comes from the Hindu majority.

India has been home to Muslims since the 8th century; Mughals ruled most of India and Pakistan 400 years ago. In contrast, Islam’s implantation in Europe is only a few decades old; France’s law on laïcité predates their arrival. Today, as minorities, Muslims feel vulnerable. In France, the January terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket deepened the malaise, as many Muslims stayed away from the #JeSuisCharlie movement. When 4 million French people took to the streets in support of freedom of expression right after the attacks, they assumed that French Muslims would make a point to be part of this show of unity. Only a small number did. For many of those who did not show up, laïcité has gone too far. Allowing cartoonists to make fun of religious figures, including their Prophet, may be a French tradition; it is not their idea of secularism.

In India, the threat against secularism goes even deeper, down to the values dear to its founding fathers, Gandhi and Nehru. “This is an India which is crying out for a Mahatma who puts compassion and tolerance above all else,” wrote the well-known journalist Rajdeep Sardesai after the recent attacks. An India that could rally behind #JeSuisIkhlaq.

Source: India, France and Secularism – The New York Times