France has apparently overturned its “burkini ban.”  This happened after images surfaced of French police forcing a woman to undress on a beach.

It’s worth pausing to consider what secularism even means at this point.

Secularism, at the level of the state, means setting public institutions and laws on a universalist footing rather than a parochial one.  Thus secularism includes, for example, extending citizenship and civil rights to all those born in a country, regardless of their religion.  Or it means allowing citizens to practice their religion of choice, without state interference.

Historically, state secularism has never meant the eradication of religion from society. Such an undertaking, even if possible, would go well beyond the purview of the modern state.  In fact, the very idea behind secularism is for the state to remain indifferent to (private) religious belief and behavior, like what you eat or how you dress.

Here’s the thing: you cannot implement something like a secular society, using the tools of the state (laws and public institutions), while simultaneously upholding civil rights. You cannot promote freedom of dress by banning the burkini. That’s a contradiction on its face.

This is what a lot of the defenders of “secularism” and “universalism” miss. If the French state weighs in on what should be on the menu in French schools, then the state is no longer serving the interests of secularism. No matter which decision it makes.

France has arguably never been a secular society, though it has had a secular state for a few hundred years. It’s a society in which people practice religion, for one thing, but moreover one in which religious customs still permeate general public life. Many of France’s “congés” (statutory holidays) are Christian in origin.  For that matter, it’s not easy to keep the boundary between (secular) state and (religious) society distinct. The state makes decisions which impact different worshippers differently — the Jewish high holidays are either statutory or they are not. This was simply rendered invisible for a long time by the relatively homogenous nature of French society. 

Now France is grappling with a level of “multiculturalism” it has never before experienced.  And it is possible that no matter what the state does in a tense, multi-religious society — banning this, making an exception for that — it will always stoke tensions. But one thing is clear: it is not as though the state can neutrally deliver secularism. That will only ever be a secularism for the other.

6 thoughts on “A Burkini Removed and Secularism Exposed

  1. There is a number of points you make with which I take issue. For one thing, you discuss the actions of the State in relation to the burkini ban, questioning, as I understand, their consistency with a secularist point of view. But, to start with, these are local city ordinances. There never was any State ban or State direct involvement. The first intervention of the State as such was the “Conseil d’Etat” ruling one of these ordinances illegal and a violation of fundamental liberties–in my view, rightly so. This is likely to set precedent and take care of the remaining ordinances relatively quickly.

    But this is a technicality and it seems that your larger point is that “you cannot implement something like a secular society, using the tools of the state (laws and public institutions), while simultaneously upholding civil rights” implying that any regulation by the State that impact personal preferences is in direct contradiction with secularist values–a contention that seems to me to be unsupported in your article, and hard to defend in general.

    You give as an example that “if the French state weighs in on what should be on the menu in French schools, then the state is no longer serving the interests of secularism. No matter which decision it makes.”

    This leaves me rather perplexed. Do you mean that any interference with a local entity, or any rule somehow construed as infringing on personal liberty would be in contradiction with secular values? If so, then you have a very peculiar–quite unique indeed– understanding of the secular state. Secularism does not mean that anything flies, and people are free to do whatever they want without State interference. On the contrary. Granting freedom of religion does not mean granting freedom to take your religious practices anywhere anytime and, most importantly, in anybody’s face.

    Secularism is first and foremost about an organization of the public space that minimizes religious influence–and there are very good reasons to minimize it. Hence, secularism is precisely about setting limits to personal liberty, particularly religious liberty, when by infringing on public space, the personal is seen as imposing undue religious influence on others.

    So to come back to the school menu example, it is perfectly consistent with secular values for the State to intervene in such disputes: when there is a call to change school menus for all on the basis of the religious rules of a few, the personal impacts the collective. A secular society is one in which, despite your extensive freedom within the private sphere, your freedom, particularly religious freedom, are restricted when they impact others. It is perfectly reasonable for the State to intervene and prevent a blanket ban on pork in school menus, for instance, for we cannot ban spinach because some people do not like spinach, or nuts and dairy products because some people are allergic. Those who do not like spinach leave them and eat the rest of the meal, those who are lactose intolerant know not to eat dairy products. Similarly, if you cannot eat pork, you just do not eat it. It’s not like there is pork every day.

    Individuals are unique, and this is recognized by the State in the private sphere. But secularism is precisely about restricting the claim to uniqueness in the public sphere. Individual needs are not to be catered to. Public needs prevail.

    You may or may not agree with a secularist approach, but in clarifying this, the State is perfectly consistent with secular values. I do not see how you claim some kind of contradiction here. Of course, the State has no business telling you what to eat at home. But it is perfectly consistent with a secularist approach for the State to tell you that at school, your individual dietary needs will have to adapt to the collective and not the other way around. If the school lunch doesn’t work out for you, you bring your own…

    Another aspect of your article that I completely disagree with is your contention that France has never been a secular society, simply because there are religious people in France and that religious references and heritage permeates society. This is again a puzzling statement. Of course, France has a catholic cultural heritage, and has had large populations of jewish and muslim cultural heritage for decades. As you state yourself, secularism does not mean the eradication of religion and the erasure of religious references. It is about preventing religion from acquiring political power, to flex muscle in the public sphere. You state that religion permeating culture “was simply rendered invisible for a long time by the relatively homogenous nature of French society.” But there was nothing invisible about this: it always has been a matter of fact for all. Of course, the secular State did not erase centuries of cultural heritage, and nobody would ever have questioned the weight of religions in this culture heritage. The political influence of the religious, however, has been extremely limited. The recent tensions about the place of religion in society are not simply a question of recent change in the “relatively homogenous nature of French society”. France has had a large population of muslim cultural heritage for decades, and this has not generated this kind of tensions, because this population largely embraced secular values and did not revendicate religious exceptions. The ethnic make up has not changed significantly. The renewed claim to Islam as part of one’s identity is what is new. Sociologically, there is a lot to say about the failings of the french State that led to this situation, but to claim that France is somehow discovering what a multicultural makeup means is simply inaccurate.

    As for your conclusion that “it is not as though the state can neutrally deliver secularism. That will only ever be a secularism for the other”, I simply do not understand what you mean. Could you clarify?

    1. “these are local city ordinances”
      I mean “the state” at all its levels.

      “France…has had large populations of jewish and muslim cultural heritage for decades”
      issues arise now, not because there are only now Muslims and Jews in
      French society, but because they are more socially significant, publicly
      visible, and impactful on the public sphere — bathing on beaches,
      opening boulangeries that don’t serve porc, etc.

      “An organizations of public space that minimizes religious influence” — for example, French schools serving fish on Fridays?

      political influence of the religious, however, has been extremely
      limited.” I wonder what Althusser was on about when he spoke of the
      Ideological State Apparatus, then.

      “‘That will only ever be a secularism for the other’, I simply do not understand what you mean. Could you clarify?”
      I mean serving fish in schools on Fridays but banning pork.

      1. ” more socially significant, publicly visible, and impactful on the public sphere”. I would rather say more revendicative when it comes to religion. Again, why this change is the important story, but a different one. Immigrants have been significant, visible and impactful well before all these requests for exceptions on a religious basis…

        Let’s talk more about the school menu issue. The fact that many school cafeterias serve fish on Fridays corresponds to a cultural heritage–a catholic cultural heritage indeed. Many french families eat fish on Friday, without being religious themselves. Hence this is more of a custom than a religious rule. More importantly, even though this is a widespread custom, there is no legal obligation for school cafeterias to serve fish on Fridays. This is not state mandated. There is wide latitude for individual schools to prepare menu, and they have no legal obligation to serve fish on Fridays or to propose an alternative when pork is on the menu. They can do neither, both or only one of them. That is a pragmatic local decision, but no blanket rule is to be made based on religious needs. The only constraints mandated by the State are of nutritional nature. Hence, that many schools serve fish on Fridays is hardly a symptom of the failure of the State to curb undue religious influence…

        Re: your remark on Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus, I have to admit that my Althusser is a little rusty and thus I may just miss an obvious point, but at first glance, I fail to see the relevance. Maybe you can illustrate more clearly how Althusser’s theory illustrates that the political influence of the religious in France has not been limited during most of the 20th century. Note that I have said “extremely limited” for it cannot be erased. Do you really pretend that the secular state has not drastically limited the political influence of religion in France during the 20th century, or that Althusser would question that?

        To address your conclusion–as I understand, that the State can only deliver “secularism for the other”, in the sense that religious customs are accommodated for the locals (e.g., fish on Fridays), but not for “the other” (e.g., no halal meat), that is, the non-dominant religions–I find the conclusion rather disingenuous based solely on this example. Maybe I fail to see that there are many more. But there is in my view very little illustrative power of such a statement (“only secularism for the other”) in the school menu “controversy”, that was only made a controversy for the sake of it. That practices in this respect of a couple of municipalities controlled at the time by the Front National could “take cover” invoking principles of “laïcité” while probably motivated by sheer racism is unfortunate, but it hardly shows that ” it is not as though the state can neutrally deliver secularism. That will only ever be a secularism for the other.” That there can be anomalies is one thing. That secularism itself is essentially self-contradictory, as you seem to claim, is quite another. You focus on the controversies that arose in a couple of FN cities–where we should keep in mind that the FN flourish on provocation and always seeks ways to provoke–but the general case is that there is no such controversy. In fact the french ministry of education recommends, since the 80’s, that school cafeteria take into account the customs and dietary habits of the population they serve, notably for pupils of foreign origin (Note de service n°82-598 du 21 décembre 1982). This is a recommendation, regularly re-issued (e.g, Question écrite n° 15623 publiée au JORF le 20/01/2005 ; réponse publiée au JORF le 17/03/2005). There is no obligation or strict guidelines, and, in my view, there shouldn’t be. The legal framework here is that cafeterias are an auxiliary non-compulsory service of a school. Pupils have no obligation to use it, which makes it impossible to legally characterize the refusal to propose alternatives to accommodate religious dietary needs as discriminatory against a religion or another. This is precisely this optional status that justifies the wide latitude of individual schools in composing menus. Hence there is no legal obligation, but a recommendation by the ministry of education, to take into account diverse religious practices (Réponse du Ministère de l’éducation nationale, de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche publiée dans le JO Sénat du 31/08/2006 – page 2280.). Hence, in my view, the school menu issue, wiped up at the time into a controversy for the purpose of attacking secularism with little basis, is certainly not illustrative of your point.

        1. The fish in school menus is evidence against your point that secularism is about removing religious influence from the public sphere. I notice that you slide to using the word “culture” whenever you are discussing the influence of Catholicism, as though this is merely French culture. Apparently exceptions are made for Catholicism, then. This is what I mean by secularism being for the other.

          You also continue to take refuge in the idea that those who are dissatisfied with the public sphere – say, school menus, or beach dress codes – can simply remove themselves from it. Indeed, that is a perfect illustration of how France feels about its Muslim population, and shows the spirit behind its allegedly “secular” interventions.

          1. Sigh… It seems useless to give you evidence when you don’t want to hear it. I have tried hard enough. As I pointed out, there is no mandate to serve fish on Fridays. For cultural reasons–yes, cultural reasons! It seems you cannot process the idea that many non-catholic people in France observe some catholic customs for, you guessed it, cultural reasons! I would know, I am one of them…– fish is served more on Fridays than other days. But I showed you that it is sometimes fish, sometimes not, and that this “cultural habit” is increasingly falling in disuse.
            As for the supposed “taking refuge in the idea that those who are dissatisfied with the public sphere can simply remove themselves from it”, this is twisting my words to the extreme. You conflate the school menu issue with the beach dress code issue. They are very different and I never presented them as comparable. The “Conseil D’Etat” stroke down the burkini ban, and I fully agree with their decision–I have made that clear. In that sense, trying to condemn the secular state for this unfortunate controversy wiped up by a few rightwing municipalities is rather cavalier, but you seem to double down on it. I never supported the burkini ban, and in this instance, the rationalization invoking secular principles are only a cover for racist ordinances setup by local politicians wanting to cater to the far-right (never seen that somewhere else? You don’t need to be in a secular state to see this kind of political dynamic….). I already pointed out that, similarly, the isolated incidents where radical declarations were made by city officials about school menus were in my view racists individuals trying to take cover by invoking secular values. But there is no controversy whatsoever in 99.99% of schools, and as I pointed out, the State even encourages to take into account the cultural origin of its pupils in making menus. Many schools do propose halal meat, alternative menus when pork is on the menu,etc. That schools have no obligation to do so is perfectly reasonable.
            At any rate, your original point that secularism is contradictory on its face remains to be articulated in any kind of meaningful way. I still fail to see what you are talking about–whether one supports or deplores the secular state. You are free to disagree with the secular viewpoint, but your claims are bordering the absurd. As for the “perfect illustration of how France feels about its Muslim population”, this is just gratuitously vicious, and simply illustrates your apparent personal irritation with everything french. You think you can make a statement about how “France feels” about part of its population?! Who speaks for France? Do all french people feel threaten by their muslim countrymen and countrywomen? Certainly not. Is the State after the muslim population? This is largely a fiction, and I think I debunked your examples. Sure, there is racism in France (where is there not?), sometimes institutional–but the victims are more largely people of arabic descent rather than specifically muslims, a distinction that is important in the french context, where a large part of the population of north african descent is not religious. Sure the far-right is getting way too powerful and this can become dangerous, and it is scary for many immigrants and people of arabic descent, but how does Trump fare in the US? Are these dynamics specifically french? Are they a consequence of secularism? As far as I can see, we observe very similar dynamics where the state does not invoke secularism. So for you to condemn secularism on the basis of a fictitious school menu discrimination story and conclude about how “France feels” (really?!) is both absurd and offensive.

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