Wednesday, December 17, 2003

No, Not Fraternity Either...

I was going to write on President Jacques Chirac's wrong-headed (and perhaps irrational as well; see below) decision to endorse a proposed ban on "blatant" religious garb or symbols in French schools (and perhaps hospitals and other venues as well) anyway, but Jacob T. Levy managed to find someone to hold his place in line for The Return of the King (which, alas, recent obligations prevent me from seeing opening night) long enough for him to thoroughly denounce it. Jacob and I have disagreed on more than a few things, but here I couldn't agree with him more. As he points out:

"The proposed law is really quite repressive. One item that hasn't been much mentioned in the English-language press is that it also prohibits wearing any visible political symbol (buttons and badges and so on). One article I read about that proposal in Le Monde last week made quite clear how arbitrarily that will be enforced, with school administrators drawing their distinctions between what is and what isn't political. An AIDS ribbon? An anarchist's A button? A button in support of SOS-Racisme? One administrator said that that wouldn't be prohibited, because anti-racism, isn't a political value but a republican value. But the ban clearly isn't restricted to a bright-line rule against partisan affiliations, either. It is going to leave tremendous discretion in the hands of principals to ban what they dislike and allow what they like."

You could really go on for a while in response to that, trying to figure out the best way to make sense of the claim that some position may be "republican" but isn't "political." (Clearly it has at least something to do with the current French desire, common to many Western Europeans, to see its polity as somehow "postnational," or even "postpolitical".) Regardless, Jacob has hit the nail on the head: the idea of liberty (personal as well as religious) will be profoundly harmed by the passage of this legislation. (His comments about the consequences of this law, in terms of the actual burdens it will place of faithful Muslims and Jews as opposed to Christians, as well as the dismissiveness its language shows towards real and presumably visible differences between varieties of Islam, are dead-on as well.)

But what about the other two values of the revolution: equality and fraternity? Jacob expresses dismay at what he takes to be the knee-jerk collectivism of both supporters and opponents of this legislation:

"People say, in all apparent good faith, things that I just can't imagine a reasonable person believing. [Their] understanding of separation and religious liberty is compatible with state action in support of Christianity, like public Christmas displays on government property. It's compatible with the creation of official government-sponsored governing and lobbying bodies for the major religious communities. But it's incompatible with individuals manifesting their religious faith in any noticeable way....It is, always, all about France and the French state, never about the conflicting obligations in conscience felt by committed religious believers."

As a religious communitarian who is willing to reflect on the point of (mild forms of) establishmentarianism, one might think that I would defend France here. And I do--up to a point. To President Chirac--and, apparently, a large majority of French citizens--an individual commitment to a certain kind of secularism is part of the nation's identity, it's "soul." The affective ties of Frenchness, in other words, have been historically constructed around personal anti-clericism: the idea that it is simply wrong to be able to, as Chirac put it, "immediately see what religious faith [a person] belong[s] to" by virtue of their appearance or actions. State involvement in, or even sponsorship of, religious organizations or rituals is perfectly compatible, and perhaps even forms a reasonable compromise with, such a personal ethic of assimilation. In that sense, should communitarians respect this decision as a proper defense of French fraternity?

No, for two reasons. First, because it may not even be reasonable; on the contrary, it may be a foolish way to shore up French identity. France is now about 8 percent Muslim, with probably over 6 million practicing Muslims in the country (and some observers believe the number is likely much higher than that). That is, the context within which individual French citizens may express and see reflected their identity has changed. Contexts always change, of course (which is why the better national communitarians, like Johann Gottfried Herder, refused to tie the idea of a people's "essence" to anything historically permanent), but this has been a especially dramatic one, and for better or worse it is the political reality of France. Chirac in his speech spoke of "equality of opportunity" being furthered by this recommitment to secularism, but he also denounced "communalism"--that is, that different communities might develop so that they become French in different ways. Since what is plainly at issue here is one very significant demographic and religious change in the context of French identity-formation, Chirac's refusal of communalistic approaches is hardly an equitable one; it is, on the contrary, one step away from simple majoritarianism, which as far as I'm concerned those who support the development of actual communal virtues should oppose. Perhaps there is more to the law than that; perhaps there is something there besides a desperate demographic response to the (legitimate) threat of Islamic fundamentalism. But I suspect not.

Second, even if the law is a reasonable articulation of French communitarian goals (which I doubt), their goals themselves are lousy. Simply put, secularism always has been a poor tool for solidarity. One could score cheap (though perhaps justifiable) points along these lines by pointing to the abysmal lack of "solidarity" manifest during last summer's heat wave in France, in comparison to other nations which haven't severed their ties to their religious heritage quite so firmly, but far more relevant (to my mind at least) is the simple truism that religious identity is almost inevitably communal: even mystics gather in groups. Of course rival groups can lead to Balkanization, but still: religion (even when the habits of faith are "merely" ethical or social, rather than pious, for any particular individual) directs the inner person outward, towards an engagement with others, and why would anyone want to premise their social existence on an ideal which rejects personal manifestations of that public fact? This is a lesson as old as Tocqueville's writings on civic religion, and the evidence in support of his old thesis is plentiful; it's remarkable that France, of all places, was so desperate to reject the Catholic establishment that they forgot all about the insights of their native son. No, religious communities are not necessarily "better" communities, but an aggressively irreligious community--especially one which actually goes so far as to label, as Chirac did, individual expressions of religious faith to themselves be "an aggression"!--is a dubious accomplishment, at best. So the fact that this particular response to one aspect of France's (and to a certain extent, all of Western Europe's) identity crisis is so popular among French citizens is doubly distressing: because it is likely a poor way to negotiate that crisis, and because it moves, I think, in the wrong direction entirely anyway.