How French Secularism Became Fundamentalist

  • 2016-04-14
  • Foreign Policy

Last week, the headline of an editorial in the French satirical weeklyCharlie Hebdo asked a provocative question: “How did we end up here?” it read. By “here,” the weekly meant, of course, staring at the blood-stained rubble of airport terminals and metro stations. But by the end of the piece, “here” had also broadened into something bigger: “How the hell did I end up having to wander the streets all day with a big veil on my head?” they asked rhetorically. “How the hell did I end up having to say prayers five times a day?” “Here,” in other words, was some kind of unrecognizable, Islamized vision of France, where “the very notion of the secular” had been “forced into retreat.”

Seeking the reasons behind the Brussels terrorist attacks, the paper, which was itself the target last year of Islamic terrorists, offered an answer. It was neither the Keystone Cop antics of the Belgian police; nor the barriers, linguistic and territorial, which prevented European governments from sharing vital intelligence; nor the festering despair in places like Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that is home to scores of unemployed youths of mostly North African background.

Instead, Charlie Hebdo declared, we must look at the role played by liberal societies. Does not France’s passivity when faced with attacks on French culture — and specifically on laïcité, or secularism — pave the way for the extremists? Does not one’s acceptance of, say, the local Muslim baker — a very nice and fully integrated fellow, who nevertheless refuses to sell ham sandwiches — comprise a form of collusion with Islamism? In the end,Charlie Hebdo warns, the only defense against terrorism, the only defense against ending up in a France of veiled women and daily prayer, is a form of militant secularism: one that doesn’t flinch at making the leap from pious baker to radical bomb-maker.