Volume 17 Number 3
State Laws' Private Initiatives
01 June 2004

The state does not interfere as long as law and order do not come under threat. However, this tends to create a situation where ‘communityism’ reigns, and ghettos can develop.

Many countries are experiencing tensions between their various faith communities, and between those communities and the authority of the state. This is no less true for my country, France, where such issues have been front-page news in recent months.

The waves of immigration of the past decades and the rise of fundamentalist elements within some of the largest religions have brought such tensions to the fore. This takes unexpected turns, like the realization that boys from France’s minuscule Sikh community may be acting illegally when they wear turbans to school.

Such concerns have led some countries—such as Sweden—to pass laws separating church and state. In most Anglo-Saxon countries, a strong tradition of tolerance and respect has led to the full acceptance of all kinds of religious practices. The state does not interfere as long as law and order do not come under threat. However, this tends to create a situation where ‘communityism’ (communautarisme as it is called in France) reigns, and ghettos can develop.

Each country is affected by its history. France, in particular, is deeply marked by its 1789 Revolution. The terrible clashes between the Catholic church and the radical leaders of the Revolution led, more than a hundred years later, to a political concept of secularism, laïcité. This led to religion being banned from all spheres of public life, and to a partial privatization of religion—which, paradoxically, does not exclude financial support by the state or local authorities for the maintenance of church properties. The idea is to protect religious practice, whilst ensuring that it does not interfere with state affairs.

The rise of Islam in France—now the second religious community in the country, ahead of Protestantism—has led to the law, passed in the National Assembly on 10 February, banning the scarf (or hijab) worn by some Muslim girls in French schools, because it is a ‘conspicuous religious sign’.

Even though the law was passed by an overwhelming majority, public opinion is very divided. Some in France see it as necessary in order to protect children from the control and domination of intolerant members of their family and community. Others see it is as distortion of the true concept of laïcité à la française. Still others see it as using a sledge hammer to kill a fly. School principals, they say, could well have dealt with individual cases. The problem is that they did not, and that each case had become a national affair under the glare of media attention and the pressure of a Muslim community wanting to assert its identity at a time when it feels threatened. Nobody can tell how things will evolve in France now, or whether the law is actually practicable.

While democratic governments will have to negotiate their way through this ethical minefield, there are practical actions that we can all take as individual citizens. For example, I recently took part in an occasion where some 50 Muslim men and women had ‘an honest conversation’ with an American couple from the State of Virginia. It took place in a suburb of Paris where the majority of the population are of African, including North African, descent. The Americans had come to discover the reality of French society today. The Muslim audience wanted to hear from citizens of the superpower that many of them consider as enemy number one.

As the scarf-wearing young woman who launched the evening said, ‘This is the first time in my life that I find myself face to face with two Americans!’ Despite the risks of such an evening, the atmosphere was harmonious, friendly, respectful. There was warmth, humour, reality. From both sides things were said that were true and hard to hear, about America or about the Arab world. But everybody left with the feeling that they had made new friends and learned new things. And for the joint organizers, French and North Africans, it was a good exercise in tolerance and honesty.

Dialogue is possible if some people are willing to listen with humility, and dialogue leads to change. Dialogue is possible and needed wherever groups are exposed to intolerance and confrontation, which can quickly become the cradle of violence and terrorism.

A generous idea, implemented in various circles around the world, including the network of Initiatives of Change, can help to defuse tensions and build understanding: to celebrate a day of ‘Open homes, open hearts’ in early June every year when each home, each family can open their door and their table to people of another culture, faith or community, and have a time of honest conversation.

In France, as in the rest of the world, we are confronted with a new reality with the cohabitation of various religious and ethnic groups, and this confrontation, or the answer to it, will be a hallmark of the 21st Century.

Philippe Lasserre is a writer and interpreter in Paris.