[Blog] When it comes to the future of our multi-cultural, multi-faith societies we are at a crossroads

Rabbi René Pfertzel
22 August 2016
Le Blog Français, The Jewish Chronicle

The views of a group of French Jews who are now living in London

As you know, French people love a good controversy. Sometimes, it is funny, sometimes tiring, but it is also sometimes worrying. The latest in France is about the burkini, a contraction of “burka” and “bikini”. The mayor of the southern city of Cannes has decided to ban burkinis from the beach, followed by other mayors. He triggered a heated debate, which is unfortunately almost always the same. On one side, some argue that “laïcité” or secularity is in danger. On the other, some argue that religious freedom is in danger in France.

Let us go back to the roots of this debate. In 1905, the French Assembly passed a law called “Séparation des Églises et de l’État” (Separation of Churches and State – note the plural form). This law recognises and protects religion, but the State does not finance ministers or places of worship. This law came after a long conflict between the Catholic Church and the French Republic about who has the moral leadership over the country.

For the main religious minorities in France at the time – the Jews and the Protestants – this law meant freedom of religion in the face of an overwhelming Catholic Church. After this law, France enjoyed a century of civil peace based on one key principle: religion is a private matter.

Things have changed in the last 15 or 20 years. France hosts a large Muslim community – some say up to six million – which has kept a low profile for a long time. More recently, there have been suggestions that Islam should be perceived as an integral and legitimate part of French society. This makes sense and should not be a matter of contention. However, this is when negotiations started. How flexible is “laïcité” to allow a new religion to have its legitimate place in the country? Is this law still relevant, or a relic of the past? How flexible is Islam to adjust and to adapt itself to a society that is largely non-Muslim? Is Islam capable of changing, evolving, and is French society capable of integrating a non-European minority?

Unfortunately, the current context is not conducive to a calm discussion. France has been hit by major attacks led by people claiming to adhere to a radical version of Islam. The number of islamophobic attacks is rising, as well as the number of antisemitic attacks. In addition to that, the same people who are victims of anti-Muslim assaults are responsible for most of the antisemitic acts in France. It is very difficult to keep a cool head. However, we cannot avoid having this conversation, lest we risk civil unrest in the country.

I am worried about the state of my country. France has always loved controversies. Since 1789, we have had three monarchies, two Empires, and five Republics, not counting the Fascist regime of Vichy during the war. We are used to divisive debates, and it is not surprising that the controversy over Islam is so heated. Maybe it is time now to lower the temperature of the debate, and to seek the common good. Islam is a reality in French – and indeed European – society. Denying it would be delusional and dangerous. Some difficult questions have to be asked; some compromises have to be made. I believe we are at a crossroads in terms of the future of our multi-cultural, multi-faith societies, and not only in France. It is up to us to decide what world we want to leave to our children. Violence has always been the easiest and preferred answer. Is it really what we want?
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