We’ve been talking about the appalling murder of most of the staff at Charlie Hebdo, a “satirical weekly” published in France. A few days after the killings, three million French men and women took to the streets, shouting “Je suis Charlie!” and I was right there with them.

But then I began thinking about all this, and I came to a very different set of conclusions. To get a handle on how odd the French behavior has been, let’s return to our fictitious skinhead journal, Revenge! Weekly, which I invented in my last post.

Let’s imagine that one gray afternoon two radicalized brothers, possibly members of the Jewish Defense League, had burst into the editorial offices of Revenge! Weekly and murdered the entire staff. What would happen?

Well, everyone would be appalled, of course. There would be the usual editorials bemoaning the “epidemic of violence” in America, the usual calls for stricter gun controls. But life would go on.

What would not happen is the spectacle of 18 million Americans(1) taking to the streets shouting, “I am Revenge!!” (or, more accurately, “I am a scumbag, race-baiting, puerile scandal-sheet!”) It’s ludicrous even to imagine it. So what accounts for the French behavior? If Americans wouldn’t take to the streets in support of Revenge! Weekly, why would France do so in support of Charlie Hebdo? The answer, as I telegraphed in my last post, is laïcité.

The French word laïcité is usually translated as “secularism,” although, as I’ll show in a moment, it bears little relationship to what we think of as secularism in the US.

The term “secularism” itself wasn’t invented until the early-1850s(2) but its roots go back into the Age of Enlightenment, and especially the thinking of men like Voltaire.(3) Following centuries of religious violence in Europe, the notion of separating church and state arose. The idea was not to destroy or even undermine religion, but rather to enhance religious freedom by keeping the state out of it.

It was this tolerant, evenhanded version of secularism that took root in the US. When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the first two clauses of the First Amendment dealt with religion and provided that the government could neither create a state religion (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) nor interfere with religion or religious practices (“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).

But the French took a very different path. French kings had always been Catholic, and the crown and Catholicism had always been closely linked. It was therefore no surprise that, during and after the French Revolution, republicans in France would turn against Catholicism. But it wasn’t just aristocrats who were Catholic – many French peasants were ardent Catholics, as well as many prominent Frenchmen (Rousseau, for example).

As a result, the struggle between republicanism and Ultramontanism(4) continued for more than a century. However, by the turn of the 20th Century republicanism had won out, and in 1905 France enacted the loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État (the law of December 9, 1905 concerning the separation of church and state). This law had an antecedent in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which stated that, “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.”

The 1905 law is generally viewed as the beginning of laïcité, which in 1958 was enshrined in the French Constitution: “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion.” On its face laïcité seems similar to the American version of secularism, focusing on keeping the state out of religion. But the French detour into socialism and Communism took laïcité into a darker direction.(5)

Far from taking a tolerant, evenhanded view of religion, laïcité became outright hostile to it. When the original law was passed, all church property was confiscated by the state and most religious schools were closed. Later, laws were passed prohibiting the free expression of religion, laws that would clearly have been unconstitutional in the US.

For example, a few years ago a couple of French gangsters donned burqas and robbed a bank. The French promptly passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa or the niqab in any public place.(6) (If the gangsters had opted for a more traditional disguise, would the French have banned pantyhose?) If a woman is caught wearing such garments, she can be fined. If she claims her husband or father or brother forced her to wear it, the man can be jailed.

Since 2004 there have been laws in France banning the wearing of any religious garment or symbol in schools. A young Jewish boy wearing a skullcap is violating French law. A young girl wearing a cross on her necklace is violating French law. A girl wearing a headscarf is violating French law.

This isn’t separation of church and state, it is the state interfering directly with the free exercise of religious belief and practice. Laïcité isn’t secularism at all, if secularism means tolerance for religion and its expressions. So let’s call laïcité what it is: state-mandated and enforced religious bigotry. Any manifestation of religious belief that annoys the French or seems inconvenient is quickly banned.

And this isn’t just the attitude of the government. French society is profoundly irreligious, very unlike American society. Socialism/Communism may not have created the vaunted “New Man,” but they certainly created a profoundly anti-religious one. The French consider anyone who is devoutly religious to be sadly unsophisticated – a naïve, primitive, pre-historical form of the modern, unreligious man to whom the French have given birth.

Why does this matter? It matters because it utterly alters our understanding of the French response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. It’s not that the French are somehow more fervent in their dedication to free expression, or in their abhorrence of terrorist-related murder, than are Americans. In these matters France and the US stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

The reason the French took to the streets in support of a preposterously unworthy journal (and why Americans wouldn’t have) is that something utterly core to the soul of France – distaste for religion in all its forms – came under attack and is likely to continue to come under attack. France views itself, correctly, as being embattled by religious extremism. But it’s much worse than that. France, and much of Western Europe, is on a collision course not just with extreme religion, but with religion itself. There are more than 2 billion Christians in the world, nearly 2 billion Muslims, more than a billion Hindu, and hundreds of millions of members of other religions. There are only 60 million Frenchmen.

France’s – Western Europe’s – hostility to religion is a mistake both because it’s historically and culturally ignorant and because it endangers those societies unnecessarily. France is in the crosshairs because it belittles – obscenely belittles, in the case of Charlie Hebdo – religion and its expression in the face of a world that is massively and increasingly devout. We’ll go through this in my next – and, at last, final – post on this subject.

(1) Three million Frenchmen took to the streets, and America is roughly six times the size of France.

(2) By George Jacob Holyoake, who insisted that secularism, properly understood, implied no criticism of religion, but was simply an alternative system of belief.

(3) Though Voltaire often ridiculed religion (especially in Candide), and although late in life he became quite intolerant of religious belief, for most of his life he espoused tolerance. This is from his Treatise on Toleration: “”It does not require great art, or magnificently trained eloquence, to prove that Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”

(4) Ultramontane – literally, “over-the-mountains” – refers to the belief in the absolute infallibility of the Pope, that is, a belief adhered to by those weird people beyond the alps from France (i.e., Italians).

(5) We often forget that for most of the 20th Century France was a socialist nation, seizing thousands of private businesses – including, famously, the Rothschild Bank in 1959 – and putting the state in charge. The French seized the Rothschild family’s railroad holdings in 1930, the Nazis seized the bank in 1940, and, after the family got their bank back, Mitterrand’s socialist government seized it again in 1981.

(6) A niqab covers the face, leaving a slit for the eyes. A burqa covers the entire body, leaving a similar slit. These garments are common in Sunni areas of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They are less common elsewhere, and are unknown in Shia societies such as Iran. However, even where face-coverings are not common, the headscarf is often omnipresent, as in Egypt and Iran. As noted above, headscarves are also banned in French schools.

Next up: Am I Charlie? (Part 5)

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