Islam, Secularism, and the Culture Wars in France

May 13, 2021

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Minaret of the Grand Mosque in Paris

In March 2021, lawmakers in the French Senate began to debate a controversial new bill that claims to tackle rising “extremism” in the country. Supporters say the bill will bolster republic values—namely, laïcité, the French brand of secularism—while critics claim the government of President Emmanuel Macron has weaponized secularism to target Muslim communities in France. As a case in point, the anti-separatism bill was amended to ban women under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab, overlaying a longer history of controversy related to the regulation of headscarves in France. More broadly, policy and public debate on Islam in French public life can be said to reflect a growing culture wars in the country. Take, for instance, recent contention in French academia, sparked when Minister of Higher Education Frederique Vidal called for an investigation into so-called Islamo-gauchisme (Islamo-leftism). These and other moves by the government, made in response to terror attacks, are making French Muslims feel increasingly insecure in their country.

The Macron government has faced criticism from a wide variety of groups—both in France and abroad—for its treatment of French Muslims. In late 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke out against French policy toward Muslims, and the U.S. envoy on international religious freedom also raised concern. More recently, the anti-separatism bill has been the subject of international critique, with human rights organizations saying the bill risks discrimination. A number of Christian organizations in France have also critiqued the bill, saying it presents a serious threat to religious liberty for all in the country. As lawmakers continue to debate the controversial bill, the Berkley Forum invites scholars and practitioners to reflect on Islam, secularism, and the culture wars in France.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What social or political factors are driving ongoing policy and public debate on the role of Islam in French public life? How does laïcité relate to religious and cultural pluralism in France, as well as international human rights law? How does discourse on French Muslims intersect with broader questions surrounding gender, racial, and national identity? What are the historical roots of the current conflict surrounding laïcité in France? What ethical, religious, or legal resources could inform a path toward a more inclusive version of French secularism? What might the anti-separatism bill and related policies suggest about the broader relationship between populism and religion?

Editor's Note: This is an ongoing series, and more reflections from activists and scholars will be posted as they are received.

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