Last month, the image of three police officers standing over a woman on the beach in Nice, supervising the removal of her “burkini” (a wetsuit-like swimming costume favored by some Muslim women), provoked great outrage over the bans of the garments in five French seaside towns. The criticisms have been several. The bans are conceived as a trespass against freedom of expression, guaranteed in that foundational document of the French political imagination, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). Others have seen the bans as manifestations of patriarchy or symptoms of Islamophobia in the West. In the United States, the bans have been labeled assaults on the freedom of religion. The debate over the burkini strongly evokes the 2010 debate over the niqab (the veil that conceals everything but the eyes) in French public spaces. That debate—itself related to France’s earlier debate about the hijab in public schools—issued in a national ban. The ban was implemented over and against the advice of the Conseil d’État, which advised the niqab could not be said to represent a sufficient threat to “public order” to justify it. When the burkini ban was challenged last week, the Conseil d’État overturned it, citing similar considerations. (The Conseil d’État has the power to nullify administrative actions but can only issue advisory opinions vis-à-vis legislation.) And yet the niqab ban persists: when it was challenged before the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, that Court allowed it to stand.
Original essays reflecting on current events, debates in the field, and other public matters relevant to scholarship in secularism and religion.
In a The Immanent Frame post on buffered selves, Charles Taylor commented that “The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings).” For Taylor, selves that have been sealed against currents of transcendence flowing through cosmos and community are symptoms of an epochal process of secularization that has rationalized or disenchanted both individuals and whole societies. While not being the only one on offer—Jürgen Habermas and Daniel Dennett provide rival Kantian and naturalist accounts—Taylor’s account of a “disembedding” of the transcendent brought about by a self-alienating religion is probably the dominant philosophical history of a “secular age.” Given that Taylor aligns secularization with “Reform Christianity” and dates it to the 1500s, however, what should we make of the fact that the term was not used to refer to an epochal process of rationalization until the early nineteenth century?
The right-wing Law and Justice Party victory in the 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections has opened a new chapter in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state in Poland. For the first time after the fall of communism, the governing party is openly instrumentalizing the Church for its own political ends. A central figure in this endeavor is Father Tadeusz Rydzyk—a businessman, priest and founder of the politically charged Radio Maryja station. Rydzyk is supported by a large part of episcopate, although there is a significant number of leaders who fear such entanglements could lead Polish Catholicism into a major spiritual crisis and a loss of respect for the Church.
Nations have different ways of talking about themselves. Americans tend to discuss their country in an idiom of national greatness, however radically they may disagree about the nature of this providential blessing. The French, on the contrary, make berating their country a national sport. Anyone who has recently spent time in France has heard the exasperation with which its citizens are prone to speak of their homeland, often describing it as “little country” whose glory days are behind it. Such talk is hardly new. In the 1930s, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline—a master in the genre—mused about his nation’s fate: “We’ll disappear body and soul from this place like the Gauls … They left us hardly twenty words of their own language. We’ll be lucky if anything more than ‘merde’ survives us.”[footnote]Louis-Ferdinand Céline, L’École des cadavres (Paris : Denoël, 1938).[/footnote]
Now that Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has permitted the prosecution of German satirist Jan Boehmermann the time has come to fully wade into the free speech debate and take it beyond the question of policing the boundaries of a democratic society. Commenting on this decision, The Guardian criticized Merkel for tarnishing “her country’s reputation for freedom.” While the familiar issues of Europe’s core values—learning by the minority to develop a culture of laughing at oneself; of intolerance, bigotry, and micro-aggression against Islamic communities; of a new idea of plural Europe, with new rules of living together differently, that is in the making—will be played out as the controversy develops, the case of the German satirist opens the door to new issues for deliberation.
In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attack, French president François Hollande decided to reinforce France’s security legislation. In addition to a raft of police and intelligence measures, he proposed two major constitutional revisions: the first was to “constitutionalize” the state of emergency, previously an ad hoc piece of legislation; the second was to formalize the conditions under which French citizens can be stripped of their nationality.
Claims made in the name of secularism vary greatly. At one extreme, self-described secularists in the United States portray their cause as the beleaguered defense of the separation of church and state. As their critics rightly point out, faith in naturalistic worldviews often bubbles up in the fuzzy definitions of secularism that underlie their advocacy. At the other extreme, political and critical theorists use the term as shorthand for a master theory of global modernity. They see secularism as a set of discourses, policies, and constitutional arrangements whereby modern states and liberal elites have sought to regulate religion and, in the process, have contributed to the “immanent frame” in which religion is now located. Rather than advocacy, they see their task as the demystification of secularism.
Journalists, politicians and even scholars in Europe commonly use the word “Muslim” to refer not to religion, but to a person’s national origin, ethnicity, migration background, and incomplete membership in the national imaginary. This slippage happens as religion is used as an overarching category to speak about Maghrebi and Turkish migrants, and as immigration, Islam, and delinquency are consistently mentioned in the same breath, even in governmental studies. The conflation of religious and racial categories is important to understand because it pertains to a wider tendency of veiling anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in a language of cultural critique. It also makes one wonder whether the secular ideal of separating religion, culture, and politics is unfulfilled, if not hypocritical. But how exactly does religion become akin to a racial category? And how can we unravel their association?