The question you ask yourself when you see headlines like this is “Why?” And perhaps also, ‘Why France?’ According to an article from Le Monde published this February, of 22 known terrorists in France, 15 have been of French nationality and 13 have been French-born. To understand more than the English-speaking mass media can tell you about why this is happening, you need to be there, speak the language, read policy documents, listen to how people talk, and ‘get’ the inferences, the politics and the jokes. And you probably need to come from outside France. I am a protestant Christian from Britain, and having lived and worked in France for nearly 2 years, I see reason to believe that radical Islam’s beef with France is not random.
I’m a Christian Brit in France, and I have lived here just over a year and a half, with a 7 month stint nearly 10 years ago. I go to an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, although I don’t identify as Pentecostal. I know the way this country treats people of religion, and it has unsettled me. I know the way it justifies laws denying them some of the rights enjoyed by non-religious people. I know the way it builds mistrust of collective non-atheisms into its state schooling and encourages people to view suspensions of the right to freedom of expression as necessary when applied to religious people. I have seen the way it not only passes laws, but encourages citizens’ enthusiasm for these laws, which lobotomize the religious parts of people’s identities, and the beliefs and thinking that these identities produce, from the public spheres that matter. This sounds extreme and negative, but I’ve weighed my words.
“La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.”
This is the first article of the French Constitution of 1958. In English it reads, “France is a Republic that is indivisible, secular, democratic and social”. In practice, as I’ve seen with my own eyes, this implicates that France cannot be the aggregate total of its naturally heterogeneous, fragmented, coexisting parts as multicultural Britain is. It also implicates that no collective identities or ideas that acknowledge a God are allowed to shape the national concept of what it means to belong to the State, and that no form of identity must come before the State. The government has a special watchdog office dedicated to enforcing secularism called the ‘Secularism Observatory’, and it is acting in ways that seem to suppress the public identities of people of faith more than it liberates people who don’t have a faith – beyond sparing them the moral discomfort that they have been trained to feel upon seeing a sign of religion. The separation of church and state, appear not just to be a law in France, but an entire replacement for the Catholic religion, as pointed out in some (minority) media comment sources. There is talk of ‘secularspiritedness’ (l’esprit laïque) and ‘secular values’ (les valeurs laïques), to the extent that secularism in France is not a neutral absence of all opinions about religion, but an atheistic force silencing collective theisms. Now, a true neutrality of opinion about religion would include atheism and agnosticism and this would be impossible – this article calls it a ‘schizophrenia’ – for one cannot believe and not believe in God at the same time. In practice, French secularism, or laïcité, in the way it is applied and popularly understood by the masses, makes it easy to be an atheist or an agnostic and hard to be anything else. I have sat in work meetings battling my indignity and anger whilst listening to my colleagues’ anti-religious remarks and banter, and not being allowed to speak out to defend my God and my people. This went on until my manager mercifully tipped the others off that I was a Christian, and then it stopped. As for the media buzz over the burkini ban at French beaches, and the banning of headscarves in schools? Nobody pretended that it was merely a health and safety issue; nobody needed to.
For people whose identity is found first and foremost in their God, this nebulous concept of laïcité, and all that it is interpreted to prohibit and permit in practice, is a very hard pill to swallow.
Now to what France is. What France is, and what it means to be French, is defined not by the people who constitute it, faithfully paying their taxes and contributing to its community life, but by the civil servants of the state machine, and the bodies that it governs, telling the people what they are. The French State has a subtle influence on many things, including its subsidised transport, leisure, healthcare and arts and media facilities, and it exerts a credible moral force that the British state often cannot command without inviting skepticism. Now, I am usually very pro-state. I believe in a compassionate society that provides benefits to the disabled, the unemployed and the poor through our taxes, erring on the side of generosity rather than caution; I am pro-immigration, the migrant crisis is close to my heart, and I love our NHS very, very dearly; I owe both my parents’ lives to it after it brought my mum through cancer and my dad through a stroke. But unlike in Britain, which celebrates multiculturalism within limits (which I must admit are narrowing), the cultural agenda of the French state seems to dictate citizens’ thinking and beliefs according to this ostensible ideal of ‘Frenchness’ that does not tolerate God or gods. Engaging with ‘la culture’ in France does not mean ‘engaging with the sum of all the phenomena you natively see in the people around you wherever you are’, like it does in Britain. It means ‘engaging with works of art, literature, film and theatre that showcase a canon of themes, subjects and sentiments promoted by official organs and affiliated bodies of the State as being in keeping with national values’. ‘What it means to be French’, as we can see, is a controlled concept delivered in schools from an early age. Having worked in the French education system and looked at the books stocked in primary school libraries, I can confidently say that it includes a mistrust of the presence of any kind of collective non-atheism.
France is careful enough not to ‘persecute’ religious people, or to do anything that would produce a humanitarian red flag. It justifies everything in the name of counter-terrorism and prevention of inter-religious violence. Nonetheless, feelings of collective anger and vulnerability among people of religion are rife, so much to be a grounds for solidarity between religions. I know the smallest part of what it might be like to be a Muslim in this country, as a Christian. I also know that not everyone’s concept of God involves him coming to earth as a man and saying “turn the other cheek”, telling his followers to imitate him, allowing himself to be crucified by his enemies – and then rising from the dead to give the message “peace”. If this is not your God, then you do not perceive yourself as duty-bound to love your enemies, pray for your persecutors and live peacefully with all people as far as it depends on you. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that of 22 known terrorists in France, 15 are of French nationality and 13 are French-born. They are angry.
I love the video at the end of this paragraph, of an Anglican bishop talking about the passion for serving his community that he discovered in Christ. The freedom to have this kind of passion, and to exercise it to this kind of extent, and to expect it to be appreciated for what it is, is something that doesn’t happen in France. And I miss it. By this I do not just mean the state Anglican church. I mean all churches who work together with local communities and businesses to bring relief, care, service and community to our country, both in private and in public, in the name of the God they love.
If churches, mosques and synagogues in France were not marginalised from the public square by the rigid applications of the 1905 secularism law and prevented from contributing to society in meaningful ways by an overzealous Secularism Observatory, then I think terrorism would meet a force to be reckoned with. And we might see more of the contents of the video above manifesting themselves in daily life, thereby taking the pressure off the social services and national healthcare system (sorry – what national healthcare system?). At the end of the day, people want to be accepted and they want a chance to contribute to their broader communities without having to lobotomize their identity – which is what we are being asked to do.
Engaging in my own dialogues with people, I have never met a practising Christian or a Muslim in France who felt that France’s particular brand of secularism was solving more problems than it created. In my situation, in light of new regulations in my workplace, I could (potentially) face allegations from anyone if I wore a necklace with a non-religious symbol on it that someone else interpreted as ‘secret’ expression of my faith (I had to read the email twice before I could be sure I’d read that clause correctly), or if I said what I’m doing on Sunday, chatted about where most of my friends come from and what we do together, or said if I was going to Taizé, or contributed to those wonderfully rare conversations in the lunchrooms about our aspirations and values and views on this or that ethical issue. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re censoring your speech and your life and telling white lies to cover your back, you can’t help but feel like you have an enemy, you can’t help but club together with others of your ilk and commiserate together, and wish there was a way you could change things, and feel frustrated when the arm of the law and the public zeal about applying it are too strong.
For Muslims it is probably worse than it is for us. At least most protestant denominations in Britain are just regarded as shady cults in France, rather than potentially violent terrorist organisations. And it is easier for Christians to hide. You can be called Matthieu, Marc, Luc or Jean and nobody bats an eyelid. But Islamic names stand out as Islamic – Mohammed, Oussama… can you imagine how it must feel for your very name to inspire a state-endorsed mistrust? Why wouldn’t this result in the marginalisation of Muslim families for whom Islam is an important part of their identity? Irrespective of the word ‘France’ on my student Mohammed’s passport, could Mohammed ever embrace all he is told that it means to be French, without ceasing to embrace all that it means for him to be Mohammed? It seems clear to me that France’s secularist legislation and the zeal about it that it seems to encourage in its citizens, is encouraging the country’s unrest rather than resolving it.