For many today, French secularism is an anti-human rights ideology, a kind of moral deformity close to racism.
How can a free country, they ask, even think of doing such a thing as trying to ban a veil or a burkini -- the full body covering for women to wear on the beach? How, they ask, can the French Republic call itself free and remain free when many of its citizens would like to rob Muslim women, peacefully obeying their own religion, of the freedom to choose their own clothes?
The current radicalization in France is not like that of the recent migration of Muslims to other European countries. Muslims have been coming to France in large numbers since the French left Algeria in 1962. The French never made any distinction between the French of "Gaul" and the French of North Africa. The current radicalization is not of those who came then, but of the younger generation -- of French Muslims. They were born in France, speak French, were schooled in France -- but they are not at ease with the values of France.
Islamic fundamentalism in France has been imported from the outside -- by avenues such as Al Jazeera and Muslim wars in the Middle East. Now, therefore, these young French Muslim citizens have a real wish for secession from the rest of the population -- like the wish of the Confederate states for secession from the United States, before and during the U.S. Civil War. These young French Muslims apparently do not want to live in the same country anymore. They seem to want a separate country, or a different country.
For more than 25 years, the French Republic, right and left, has been trying to disentangle the country from the "Muslim textile problem" (hijab, niqab, burka, burkini and so on). When the problem began back in 1989, the head of Creil College expelled three Muslim girls for wearing the Muslim veil, the hijab. A strong debate followed: pro-veil vs. anti-veil. Same arguments: as usual, tolerance, freedom of choice, and freedom of religion were on one side, secularism and respect for rules on the other side.
Rules? What rules?
Central to the history of France, is that, in the republic, state schools were built to fight the grip of the Catholic church on the whole of French society. At the end of 19th century, until the First World War, republican teachers worked hard to build schools separated from the Pope and the church. The thinking was that Darwin is better at explaining the origin of the human race than the Bible's crediting God with creating the world in seven days. To build a country of free citizens: knowledge first; belief only if you insist, and even then, only by yourself.
The Islamic veil at school, or the burkini at the beach, seems an attempt to "re-religiousize" France and break the French consensus for secularism. For a hundred years, the consensus has been accepted by everyone -- Catholics, Jews, Protestants -- except for Muslims.
Four policemen in Nice, France, are pictured forcing a woman to remove part of her clothes because her outfit violated the city's "burkini ban," on August 23. They also fined her for the violation. (Image source: NBC News video screenshot)
The consensus can be summarized like this: Religious beliefs cannot belong to the public sphere without risking tyranny or civil war. If French citizens want to live in peace democratically, all disturbing subjects -- especially faith in a country of multiple faiths -- must remain strictly private.
For almost 30 years now, Muslims organizations in France have been telling everyone they do not accept this old private-public rule. Even at public schools, there are constant attempts to remodel the curriculum to align with religious faith.
In 2002, a group of teachers published a book, The Lost Territories of the Republic ("Les territoires perdus de la République"), about daily life in school classrooms where Muslims were numerically the dominant group. The general environment, according to the book, was violence, sexism, anti-Semitism and Islamism. The book was such a shock that everyone in the media boycotted it.
In June 2004, Jean-Pierre Obin, General Inspector of the National Education, gave the Minister of Education a written report, entitled, "The signs and manifestations of religious beliefs in schools of the Republic". The report was mostly about the behavior of Muslim secondary school students. In every school where Muslims were dominant in number, according to the report, boys refused to mix with girls in the classroom and at sports. The Muslim students understandably refused non-halal food at school cafeterias, did not come to school when there were Muslim holidays, such as Eid el Kebir, Eid el Fitr, Ramadan -- and virtually all of the students displayed a virulent anti-Semitism.
More problematic was that many of the Muslims in secondary schools began objecting to the school curriculum, according what is halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden):
"Very frequently there is a refusal or an objection to certain kinds of literary works. Philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, especially Voltaire and Rousseau, and all the philosophical works who submit religion to rational examination. 'Rousseau is contrary to my religion,' explained one student while leaving the class before the end. Molière and especially "Le Tartuffe" -- a satire of religious bigotry -- were the most popular targets: there was refusal to study, refusal to play, refusal to attend or else disturbances when actors were on stage. The same rejection applied to literary works that many considered licentious, (example, "Cyrano de Bergerac"), free-thinking or in favor of the freedom of women (Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert). They also refuse to study authors such as Chretien de Troyes because they believe the goal of that teaching is to promote Catholicism... There is every indication that students are encouraged from the outside to distrust everything the teacher can teach them, and to distrust any food proposed to them at school's cafeteria. They are encouraged to select what they want to learn according the religious categories of halal and haram".
In trying to teach history, the problems -- perhaps not for everyone but for many -- were worse:
"On a general matter, everything that is connected to history of Christianity and Judaism is a matter to be contested. There are many examples, some surprising: refusal to learn about the construction of cathedrals, or to open the history book on a page where there is a reproduction of Byzantine church. They also refuse to learn about pre-Islamic religions in Egypt or the Sumerian origin of writing. Sacred history is continuously opposed to factual history. The objection becomes the norm and can escalate to radicalization when the program addresses sensitive issues such as the Crusades, the genocide of the Jews (they negate the reality of the Holocaust), Israeli-Arab wars and the Palestinian problem. In civic education, secularism is considered anti-religious".
The Obin report was so frightening for politicians that it was buried for many months and put online as discreetly as possible on the website of the ministry of education. In an interview given to the French magazine l'Express in 2015 , Jean-Pierre Obin said:
"Many of the young people are conducting a secession from the French nation. This secession expresses itself in clothes (the veil, or full Islamic dress), the requirement of halal food, and absenteeism for religious reasons. In certain schools, some students were introducing carpets for praying, or protesting noisily to have a mosque inside the school. (...) More than ten years later, we can say the situation is worse. Our education system is unable to integrate people from different origins, and this difficulty is bigger for low income families"
What is the connection between the burkini at the beach and Islamism at school?
What seems to stand out is that although many of the burkini women may, of course, just be enjoying the beach in accordance with the precepts of their religion, many others appear to be Islamist militants who want to plant Islamic markings on all levels of society. The problem, as the philosopher Catherine Kintzler writes in Marianne, is that:
"The tolerance level is decreasing inside the country. The collective condemnation of the burkini is so fast and so unanimous that it becomes a problem of public order... Public opinion accepts less and less a closed religious affiliation, the marking of bodies and territories, the control of values, campaigns to make preferred practices uniform on behalf of a religion, which is in reality a policy".
Hala Arafa, writing in The Hill, describes Muslim women's attire more or less as a tool of war:
"... no one is denying them the right to practice their religion in private. They don't have the right, however, to invade the public space and impose their ideology and belief system represented by their dress. ... If the hijab or burkini had anything to do with modesty or piety, the Islamic fundamentalists would have sought private beaches, not insisted on forcing themselves on the public. But as they did before, they want to become part of the accepted social scene and part of the new norm of the society. ... If the hijab becomes an accepted public phenomenon, a modern society cannot teach its future generations that a woman's dress is not an excuse for rape".
In the process of a Muslim secession, the burkini is just another opportunity to mark bodies and territories. A French Muslim society that often seems to feel as if it still belongs to its country of origin, appears to have decided that the game of secularism and "living together" should be over. With veils, burkinis and guns, various Islamists groups seem to be trying to embed the same message: We remain Muslims first and have decided to pay no attention to the culture of countries in which we are living.
The problem is that politicians in France -- and in other countries -- do not want to analyze these questions properly. They remain persuaded that an "Islam of France," supposedly compatible with French society, remains an option. The politicians will not protest this attempt to carve a religion into France once again: the people doing that also vote.
Yves Mamou, based in France, worked for two decades as a journalist for Le Monde.