French religious leaders warn against planned Islam debate

One week before a parliamentary session on secularism and the role of Islam in France, French religious leaders have written an editorial casting doubt on a debate they say could fuel prejudice.


Ahead of a scheduled April 5 parliamentary session on secularism in French society, religious figures representing the six major faiths in France have co-signed a sweeping editorial denouncing the debate as a potential source of discrimination and confusion.

The initiative urged by French President Nicolas Sarkozy was originally framed, as ruling centre-right UMP party secretary Jean-François Copé stated last month, as a national conversation on “how to organise religious practice so that it is compatible in our country with the rules of our secular republics”.

But following a February TV appearance in which Sarkozy wondered aloud what kind of “limits” needed to be placed on Islam in France, the debate has been increasingly viewed as specifically targeting the roughly 6 million Muslims residing in France. Indeed, the debate is now expected to address Islam-specific issues such as the financing of mosques and the ideological backgrounds of imams leading services.

If it ain’t broke…

In the editorial published by French daily Le Parisien, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders warned against “squandering the precious practice” of laïcité, France’s particularly unflinching brand of secularism enshrined in a 1905 law officially separating the Catholic Church and the state.

According to French religious historian Odon Vallet, French religious insitutions – which were in the past “hostile” toward a policy they viewed as an official refusal to recognise God’s existence – are “satisfied with the rather liberal way secularism is applied today”. But in the context of recent French laws reinforcing secularism (a ban on headscarves, Jewish kippahs, and conspicuous crosses in public schools in 2004 and a ban of the head-to-toe burqa in public just last year), their opposition to the parliamentary debate is likely motivated, in part, by “a fear of a more rigorous application of laws affecting religious garb or religious dietary restrictions”.

Sticking up for Islam, distancing themselves from the Right

Given the fact that the debate about secularism in France has largely centred around Islam, the editorial also implicitly suggests what Vallet called “a solidarity with the Muslim community of France”. The religious leaders who signed the text indeed advise “during this pre-electoral period to stay the course by avoiding lumping things together and risking stigmatisation”.

Sarkozy and far-right leader - and potential 2012 presidential rival - Marine Le Pen have recently been placing significant emphasis on issues of Islam and immigration, and the letter indicates what Vallet referred to as “a distancing of the religious leaders from these two politicians”.

Socialists have accused Sarkozy of launching a debate that amounts to a veiled crackdown on Muslims in France in a bid to win back right-wing voters who drifted to the National Front in last week’s local elections.

But even within Sarkozy’s own party, the debate has stirred controversy. Prime Minister François Fillon, considered a moderate, has questioned the wisdom of engaging in a debate that could result in the stigmatisation of French Muslims.

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