mercoledì 10 maggio 2017

France’s new president is less stringent about secularism than some of his compatriots. America’s founding fathers, influenced by the French enlightenment, were determined not to let European-style religious wars tear their young republic apart. Although people still argue about what exactly those founders believed, historians agree that avoiding internal strife was one of their main concerns when they barred the establishment of any particular religion.
As educated people of European stock, they knew about the appalling Protestant-Catholic wars of the Old World. No less than eight rounds of denominational fighting had ravaged 16th-century France. Some founders, like the French-descended John Jay, had genetic memories of those horrors. Thomas Jefferson, a sceptical Anglican, boasted that religious liberty in his native Virginia was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden [sic], the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”
France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, seems to have a rather similar sensibility. In one of his most detailed pronouncements about history, religion and the state, a speech in Montpellier last October, he waxed eloquent on the subject of Protestant-Catholic warfare half a century ago:
France was given up to fire and bloodshed, she experienced famine, she experienced the worst of things, she was nearly chopped up in pieces forever because of the decision…to exclude, to brand one party as guilty and annihilate  them...
The “excluded” party to which he referred were the Protestants. Like many of his historically-minded compatriots, Mr Macron reveres the memory of King Henri IV, who was tactically flexible about his own religious identity and affirmed confessional tolerance. And he regards with horror the darker moments of French religious history, such as the mass expulsion of Protestants in 1685.
For all his cerebral intensity, Mr Macron was not giving a history lesson for its own sake. His aim was to warn his compatriots not to repeat the mistakes of the Middle Ages. Just as it was wrong and inexpedient for medieval France to demonise the Protestants, so too it would be wrong for today's politicians to demonise Islam or its followers.
Although he accepted that Islam was a unique subject of concern in today’s France, he was equally adamant that no religion was in itself a problem. The purpose of France’s regime of laïcité  (strict secularism) was not “to conduct a battle against this or that religion in particular, not to exclude, not to point a finger…” As he conceived it, the function of laïcité was not to curb religion but to affirm and underpin religious freedom, albeit strictly within the framework of the law. That last sentiment is more characteristic of American church-state separation than of French secularism in its most zealously anti-clerical form.
It is worth parsing Mr Macron’s ideas about religion because he has a particular interest in the subject. He was baptised into the Catholic faith at his own request at the age of 12, and schooled by Jesuits, brainy Catholics who often live on the border between their own religion and other faiths and cultures.
Mr Macron has likened the internal problems of the European Union and its monetary system to a religious conflict. The Protestant north had a rigid and moralistic attitude towards debt while the Catholic south, with its culture of confession and absolution, took a more happy-go-lucky view, he once said.
On the subject of Islam, some of what Mr Macron says is broadly what you would expect from a centrist politician in France. French Muslims must be encouraged to develop their own, enlightened reading of the faith, fully compatible with the laws of the republic. They must be helped to wean themselves off dubious sources of foreign funding. They must be part of the struggle against terrorism. Although the state can facilitate all these developments, the main responsibility must be borne by Muslims themselves.
Most of these sentiments have been expressed by other French office-holders, and they are worthy if difficult to put into practice. But in that Montpellier speech, Mr Macron said one thing which was highly contentious for Muslims and non-Muslims alike:
Our mission…it will be difficult, it will take time, it will be demanding for all men and women…will be to act in such a way that French people of the Muslim faith are always more proud of being French than of being Muslim…
Is that actually conceivable? Being a citizen of the French republic, with all its rights, obligations and ideological axioms, is a demanding business. For its most fervent adherents, French republicanism is supposed to supercede all previous loyalties, be they Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.
But being a Muslim, a member of the umma, the global community of believers, is pretty demanding too. In practice, people do find ways of negotiating their political and religious loyalties. Traditional Islam does not urge its followers to disobey the laws of well-organised states: on the contrary, it encourages a cautious and conservative way of life. But for many Muslims, asking them to be “less proud” of their faith than their passport will still be asking too much.
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