Hard-Line Secularism Is a Bad Idea

What the U.S. can learn from French battles over mosque and state.
  • Transcript


Question: What lessons does France’s headscarf controversy hold for the U.S.?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Well I mean I guess that hard-line secularism is not a good idea, which is not to say that secularism is not a good idea.  I mean I certainly think that the attempt in the United States to by groups here to rewrite American history as a sort of Christian story and to portray the founding fathers as Christian fathers is something that really needs to be challenged and in the name of secular… in the name of history, of accurate history as well as everything else, but I think the kind of hard-nose secularism of France, that kind of unbending insistence on that secular means one thing and that violations of it will not be tolerated in any way is a bad idea and that if you’re accommodating different groups, different populations what you need to do is figure out ways of accommodating them.  The way the French did when the passed the 1905 law separating church and state, the way they did with the Catholic Church.  There was a day off for religious instruction for kids.  All the holidays in France still, some are state holidays, but most of them are Catholic, not even just Christian, Catholic holidays.  Parts of France are… Alsace and Lorraine, Alsace-Moselle, those departments which were under German control when the 1905 law was passed and then came back to France after the war those areas were never forced to adopt the secular practices that the rest of the country adopted, so still in those areas you can have religious teaching in the schools.  Children have to take a course in religious instruction and so on and so forth, so they’re not even consistent…  It’s not even a nationally consistent policy in relation to Catholicism, which was the dominate religion at the time the law was passed, so to act as if it is either secularism or nothing or that the secular and the religious are in eternal opposition to each other is to misrepresent French history and to create a situation in which there will only be a greater sense of felt discrimination and anger on the part of the populations whom these laws affect.  So it seems to me that that kind of hard line secularism, which is as fundamentalist in its way as the most extreme Islamist fundamentalism defeats its own purpose and really doesn’t end up producing a situation in which there can be a certain kind of pluralism, cultural pluralism and political assimilation and political citizenship.

Recorded April 26th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen