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A New Secularism?

[Cover of Mayanthi L. Fernando, [Cover of Mayanthi L. Fernando, "The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism"]

[This is the third of three responses to Muriam Haleh Davis’ review essay of books by Joan W. Scott, Naomi Davidson, and Mayanthi Fernando. For Joan W. Scott’s response, “More on Laïcité in Historical Context," click here; for Naomi Davidson’s response, “The Vagaries of Laïcité,” click here.]

In bringing the work of Joan Scott and Naomi Davidson together with mine, Muriam Haleh Davis demonstrates the importance of undertaking a history of the present. This history enables us to identify some of the structuring logics of French republicanism and French secularism, as well as to track both continuities and discontinuities between past and present, something that Scott and Davidson continue to do in their responses to Davis. I follow suit here.

Over the past few decades, the French state has undertaken increasingly punitive measures against its Muslim population, most famously the 2004 law banning headscarves in public schools and the 2010 law banning face-veils in all public spaces. In analyzing this phenomenon, a number of scholars distinguish between a culturally identitarian, interventionist, and often Islamophobic laïcité—termed la laïcité nouvelle, or new secularism—and la laïcité historique. This “historical secularism,” anchored by a 1905 law officially separating church and state, guarantees both individual religious freedom and the state’s neutrality with regard to religion. According to historians Jean Baubérot and Micheline Milot, the law of 1905 marks the transition from what they call the “emancipatory republic” of antireligious republicans obsessed with liberating France from the grip of the Catholic Church to a “neutral state.”[1] La laïcité nouvelle, they argue, is a far cry from that neutral state: whereas historical secularism guaranteed religious freedom, the new version constrains it, for Muslims in particular.

It is politically advantageous to invoke a history of non-interventionist secularism to combat prevailing discourses about French national identity that, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo crisis, propose even more of the new secularism (presented, of course, as part of a long French tradition). But doing so may blind us to the continuities between old and new, take for granted the concept of neutrality, and underestimate the regulatory force of secularism, whatever its various modes. After all, the post-1905 neutral state depended on a centuries-long transformation of religious and political life in France. After the French Revolution, the Catholic Church had to confine itself to “religious” activities that were henceforth clearly differentiated from profane activities, for which the state assumed responsibility. Rather than two different models of secularism, then, intervention and neutrality work together, since intervention produces the kinds of religions and religious subjects toward whom the state can be neutral.

For Jews, this process of secularization—called Emancipation—was even more pronounced than it was for Catholics, and it fundamentally transformed Jewish life. Jews’ incorporation as citizens into the French nation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries depended on their becoming incorporable, which in turn depended on a radical transformation of Jews’ relationship to community, self, and the divine. Like Muslims (then and now), Jews in France were long thought incapable of being citizens because they were too communalist. Emancipation attempted to de-communalize Jews and remake Jewish life by dismantling Jewish law (halacha), which had heretofore constituted the legal, political, and ethical basis of Jewishness.[2] The secular state denied authority to those elements of Jewish law that overlapped with the domain of civil law and turned the rest into a matter of optional, individual, private practice—that is, religion. It thereby became possible to remain Jewish without following any Jewish laws or submitting to any rabbinical authorities. As a result, writes the historian Esther Benbassa, “Jews were no longer tied to the community…nor were they required to submit to its religious obligations, themselves the foundation of the very notion of community…[A]s citizens of a universalist France, they differed in no way from other Frenchmen and women, their religion being a private matter.”[3] I will return to this last point in a moment, but what I want to highlight is that Emancipation turned Judaism into a religion—voluntary, private, and separable from law and politics. Indeed, the very term “Judaism” already signals the transformation and circumscription of Jewish life into a discrete entity comparable to Catholicism, Protestantism, and any other “world religion.”

As a religion, Judaism was recognized and regulated like other religions in order to further integrate Jews into post-Emancipation France. In 1808, for example, Napoleon created the Central Consistory (Consistoire Central Israéilite)—which exists to this day—to serve as the official representative of Judaism and Jews in France. The Consistory was composed of three rabbis and two lay Jews, all appointed by the government. Its responsibilities initially concerned the administration of Jewish affairs, the so-called regeneration of Jewish life, and the maintenance of social order. Over time, those responsibilities were expanded to include the protection of Jewish personal and political interests, the exclusive control of all Jewish institutions, and the training of rabbis.

These various transformations produced the post-Emancipation Jew as an ambiguous figure and muddled the relationship between Jews and Judaism. On one hand, Jewish law had been abolished to de-communalize Jews and turn Judaism into a religion, and the Consistory’s purview was ostensibly the discrete domain of religion. On the other hand, the Consistory was supposed to represent not just Judaism but all Jews in France, even the secular ones, thereby configuring Jewishness as more than religious. Secularization was supposed to turn Judaism into a religion, but the long concatenation of race and religion in the figure of the Jew troubled that separation, and continues to do so.[4] Jewish Emancipation split the Jew across the categories of race and religion while simultaneously blurring the boundaries between those categories.

Why, you may ask, this long foray into the history of Jewish Emancipation in France? First, I want to emphasize the transformative nature of secularism as a political project, and the remaking of Jewish life that had to occur before the secular state could, finally, be neutral towards Jews and Judaism. Second, I want to bring these two figures—the Jew and the Muslim—together, to refuse their continual opposition. After all, according to Gil Anidjar, the positing of that opposition—that very art of separation—helps to constitute Europe: “The Jew is the theological (and internal) enemy, whereas the Muslim is the political (and external) enemy.”[5] What Anidjar helps us see is that keeping these figures apart blinds us to the nature of Christian-cum-secular Europe.

Third, and finally, anyone with a passing familiarity with the French state’s interventions into Muslim life, first in colonial Algeria and now in contemporary France, will be struck by the parallels between the transformation of Jewish life and that of Muslim life. The French Council on the Muslim Religion (CFCM), for example, established in 2003 by the French state, resembles the early Consistory, and its mission is similarly confused. The CFCM was put in place to centralize and bureaucratize the doctrinal diversity of the Islamic tradition and to serve as the state’s representative for Islam, akin to other representative bodies for Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism. But the scope of the CFCM extends far beyond the conventionally religious. The government has demanded an opinion from the CFCM on whether or not wearing the headscarf is a religious obligation for Muslim women; it has asked the CFCM to organize the slaughter of sheep for Aïd el Kébir; and it has called on the CFCM to consider issues like Islamic militancy, inner-city violence, and the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

As an ostensibly representative body, the CFCM’s existence raises the thorny question of who counts as a Muslim. The CFCM is an attempt by the state to secularize Islam into a proper religion that can be recognized and included within the Republic. Yet it also gestures to the collapse of religion and race in the figure of the Muslim. After all, when government officials, academics, and the media refer to the five to six million Muslims in France, they are clearly invoking an ethno-racial community rather than a strictly religious one. One sees why Jewish Emancipation might be instructive to think with.

A few concluding comments are in order.

First, the entwinement of race and religion in the figure of the Muslim—remember that in colonial Algeria Arabs and Berbers were simply known as musulmans—means that the secularization of Muslims is set up to fail. As Naomi Davidson so ably argues in her book Only Muslim, secular French have long understood Muslimness as an innate, corporeal essence that combines race and religion and that, as a result, cannot be confined to the private sphere.[6] The term “secular Muslim”—and the non-existence of terms like “secular Catholic” or “secular Protestant”—makes this clear: secular Muslims remain intractably Muslim even when they are secular.

Second, we need to think of French secularism as an evolving project of government that did not begin, or end, with the 1905 law of separation. This is not to say that there are no differences between la laïcité nouvelle and la laïcité historique. As Joan Scott notes, citing legal scholars Stéphanie Hennette Vauchez and Vincent Valentin, the new secularism forbids signs of religion in schools, streets, shops, or workplaces. It makes neutrality incumbent upon individuals, not the state. But this should be unsurprising in our neoliberal age. The state increasingly farms out its regulatory powers to private enterprises and individual citizens, and when it does step in to manage its subjects, its power often takes punitive, carceral form. Perhaps, rather than a deviation of secularism, la laïcité nouvelle is part of a longer historical process of transformation, one that has entered the neoliberal age.


[1] Jean Baubérot and Micheline Milot, Laïcités sans frontières (Paris: Seuil, 2011).

[2] Jacob Taubes, From Cult to Culture (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010), 56.

[3] Esther Benbassa, The Jews of France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 124.

[4] Gil Anidjar, Semites (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007).

[5] Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003), 38. See also Anidjar’s “On the European Question,” Forum Bosnae 55: 13-27 (2012).

[6] Naomi Davidson, Only Muslim (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

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