[This is the first of three responses to Muriam Haleh Davis’ review essay of books by Joan W. Scott, Naomi Davidson, and Mayanthi Fernando. For Naomi Davidson`s response, "The Vagaries of Laïcité," click here.]
I find Muriam Haleh Davis’ commentary on Charlie Hebdo and French secularism (by way of a review of three books, one of which is mine) to be clear and to the point. Davis insists on the importance of placing in historical context the paradoxical claim that laïcité is a universal principle peculiar to the French republic, and she does it well. In this brief contribution I want simply to add some more context to the one she has so ably set forth.
My first point is that the word “secularism” was, in its earliest usage, polemical and remains so to this day. It made its appearance in the mid-nineteenth century in the writings of the British social reformer George Jacob Holyoake. In a climate rife with attacks on religion and the clergy, Holyoake sought to distance himself from accusations of atheism and infidelity. The point was not to renounce Christianity, he argued, but to insist on the separation of belief from practical knowledge in order to address issues in and of “this world.” The French term for secularism (laïcité) appeared first in the 1870s, according to several historical dictionaries—a moment of intense anti-clerical agitation, as supporters of the Third Republic sought to capture popular support from the parties of throne and altar. Le Grand Robert cites 1871 for the first usage of laïcité, which it defines as “a political conception implying the separation of civil society from religious society, [in which] the state exercises no religious power and the church no political power.” In fact, of course, this was not a separation of equals, but a subordination of church authority to state regulation. According to Article 1 of the 1905 law, “The Republic assures liberty of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion except when restricted by rulings in the interest of public order.”
The second point is that secularism is specific to Christianity. The conception of the secular as having to do with worldly matters long antedates the coining of the word “secularism,” with its connotations of a system of belief upon which social and political movements would be based. In the Encyclopédie the first use of séculaire is tied to things that happen at the end of a century (siècle), suggesting its roots in earthly temporalities. The OED finds allusions to “secular” as early as the thirteenth century, referring to “secular priests,” that is to members of the clergy who left the cloister for a life in the world. A second usage distinguished the world and its affairs from the church and religion. The term, we are told, was largely negative: non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, non-sacred. The negative connotations of secular, in its earliest usages, testify to its placement within religiously centered discourses—the religious defined (positively) against the secular.
The sociologist of religion, Jose Casanova, locates the notion of the secular squarely within Western European Christiandom’s “double dualist system of classification.” The double dualism refers first to the distinction between the City of Man and the City of God, this world and the next. In addition, within the world of man, there was a secular and a religious sphere. “Both dualisms were mediated…by the sacramental nature of the church…simultaneously belonging to both worlds.” Casanova notes that the particularity of the Christian conception distinguishes it from those other religions (Eastern ones in particular), which endorse no such dualisms and have no ecclesiastical organization. The historical study of secularization—“the transfer of persons, things, meanings, etc. from ecclesiastical or religious to civil or lay use”—is, then, not the study of a universal process, but of a process distinctively embedded in the history of western Christian societies. Laïcité is, from this perspective, a late nineteenth century concept articulated in the service of the consolidation of the modern French nation-state with undeniable roots in Christianity. So said the Conseil d’Etat in 2004: “The problems linked to the fact that French laïcité is a laïcité which is Christian at the bottom [sur fond de christianisme] cannot be over-estimated.” And in 2009, then President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Muslims to refrain from “provocation” and to respect French national identity which had deep roots in “Christian civilization.”
My third point is that there is a cultural dimension to the term that exceeds its legal expression in the law of 1905 separating church and state. The historian Jean Baubérot insists that the intention of that law was simply to separate religion and politics, guarantee freedom of individual conscience, and declare the neutrality of the state in relation to religions. He wants to separate the juridical and political understanding of laïcité from the socio-cultural aspect it has acquired as a primary identity for all citizens. But historically, that separation has been difficult to maintain; the socio-cultural dimensions of the concept are entangled with the juridical dimensions. The political theorist Eoin Daly argues that when laïcité is conceptualized as “an instrument of stability, which denies religions public recognition and thus affirms a republican ideal of citizenship by checking the force of infra-state identities….[it] tends to be deployed as a form of tacit ethno-nationalism.” In this sense, laïcité is an aspect of the requirement for cultural assimilation as a pre-requisite for membership in the community of the nation. As Baubérot warns and history has demonstrated, the confusion of juridical and socio-cultural aspects “is particularly troubling in regard to Muslims.”
The fourth point is that the secularist animus against Muslims is not a recent development, but extends back several centuries. Edward Said often cited Ernest Renan, philologist and philosopher, as an illustration of Orientalism. Here is Renan in a lecture to the Collège de France in 1862:
Islam can only exist as an official religion; it perishes when it is reduced to a free and individual religion. Islam is not only a state religion, the way Catholicism was in the France of Louise XIV, and as it is still in Spain; it is a religion that excludes the state….Islam is the most complete negation of Europe; Islam is a fanaticism much worse than what was known in Spain at the time of Philip II and Italy at the time of Pius V.
The French colonial “civilizing mission” was defined as an effort to tame this fanaticism. Historian of religion Tomoko Masuzawa puts Renan’s comment in a larger framework: “In the course of the nineteenth century, Islam…came to acquire a new alienness. Instead of being begrudged as the luxuriantly overbearing dominion of Eastern infidelity, the rule of Islam was now condescendingly viewed as narrow, rigid, and stunted, and its essential attributes were said to be defined by the national racial, and ethnic character of the Arabs, the most bellicose and adversarial of the Semites.” This legacy is now being drawn on in the current secularism discourse to define any adhesion to Islam as a demonstration of the impossibility of assimilating Muslims into French culture and society.
The fifth and final point is that all of these threads have come together in what Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) politician François Baroin called “La Nouvelle Laïcité” in 2003. Law professors Stéphanie Hennette Vauchez and Vincent Valentin argue that this new secularism changes the very meaning of neutrality. In the 1905 law, it was the state that was meant to be neutral in relation to religion. Now, it is individuals who must display “neutrality” (that is, the absence of religious identificatIon) in public spaces. Religion as a right of individual conscience has to be not only private, but publicly invisible; religious neutrality is now expected to characterize the deportment (dress, family practices, values) of individuals in whatever public space they enter (schools, streets, shops, work places, transport, city halls). This is the latest version of secularism as a polemical instrument, and it has been deployed especially against women.
The recent campaigns against headscarves and niqabs recall the anti-clerical campaigns of the nineteenth century, which defined women as more susceptible to Catholic teaching and so as potential, if not actual, enemies of the Republic. Now it is Muslim women whose public display of religious belief is said to threaten the “tranquility” of the secular state. Their lack of neutrality has been not only criminalized, but offered as a justification for the economic, social, and political discrimination experienced in France by “immigrants” and their descendants from former colonies in North and West Africa.
As the cry for the defense of the secular Republic was raised many times in the days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I thought of how much work this polemical term was doing to place the blame not only on individual killers and their political masters, but on an entire religion and its mostly lawful practitioners. How could France ever reconcile itself with its Muslim citizens if the Nouvelle Laïcité defined them as second-class citizens, lacking in the very qualities that would make them full members of that nation? How could they not read the cartoons as further attempts to humiliate them, as more proof that they are not welcome in the land of their birth?
 George Holyoake, Principles of Secularism (London, 1871), 17.
 Le Grand Robert, Vol V (Paris 1987).
 Journal officiel du 11 décembre 1905, “Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des églises et de l’état.”
 Jose Casanova, “Secularization,” International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (New York, 2001), 13787.
 Conseil d’Etat, Un Siècle de laïcité (La Documentation française, 2004), 392.
 Nicolas Sarkozy, “Respecter ceux qui arrivent, respecter ceux qui accueillent,” Le Monde (9 décembre 2009).
 Eoin Daly, “Public Funding of Religions in French Law: The Role of the Council of State in the Politics of Constitutional Secularism,” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion (2013), 24. See also Daly, “Laïcité, Gender Equality, and the Politics of Non-Domination,” European Journal of Political Theory 11.3 (2012).
 Jean Baubérot and Micheline Milot, Laïcités sans frontières (Paris, 2011), 307.
 Ernest Renan, Discours au Collège de France, 1862.
 Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago, 2005), 20 and 179.
 Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez and Vincent Valentin, L’affaire Baby Loup, ou La Nouvelle laïcité (Paris, 2014).