LONDON: The opinion poll carried out jointly by Arab News and YouGov provides detailed data on the relationship of French people of Arab origin to secularism in France and reveals a generally benevolent view of the French model.
Indeed, 65 percent of the people questioned affirm that they would defend the French values of secularism in their country of origin. Among the over-45s 80 percent share this opinion. Less than half (46 percent) believe that the French model is not appropriate for Arab countries.
Secularism “the French way” is running up against a wall of incomprehension in the Arab-Muslim world, as strong tensions have demonstrated in recent weeks with some countries calling for a boycott of France.
The French model is mainly based on a triptych set out in the 1905 law on the separation of churches and state: the separation of politics and religion, state neutrality and respect for freedom of conscience. Even though the 1905 law was passed in an anti-clerical context, it is not fundamentally hostile to religion.
The French of Arab origin largely adhere to the 1905 definition of secularism but are reluctant to go beyond it. So 62 percent are opposed to the state restricting the wearing of religious clothing, with the proportion even higher among the younger generation (71 percent). However, responses varied according to the level of income. Of those questioned 34 percent of people with an income below €20,000 ($24,000) per year are in favor of more restrictive laws, compared to 49 percent of people with an income above €40,000.
Since the turn of the century, several laws have been adopted to limit the wearing of religious symbols, such as the 2004 law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in schools, and the 2010 law prohibiting the wearing of the burqa in public spaces.
“The French Muslims have generally accepted these new laws and respect them, but are worried about new regulations treating Muslims very differently from other believers,” said Haoues Seniguer, lecturer at Sciences Po Lyon University and a researcher at the Triangle laboratory (ENS/CNRS).
More and more politicians are calling for strong measures in a more radical secularism, in particular to limit the wearing of the veil in public spaces, for example at universities, or when the parents of pupils accompany school trips.
There are two visions of secularism in France. On one hand, there is the liberal legacy of the Third Republic embodied by the French statesman Aristide Briand — who served 11 terms as prime minister and introduced the law of 1905 — for which secularism does not have to interfere with the religiosity of individuals. On the other hand, there is a militant secularism, which considers secularism as a form of individual emancipation with regard to religion.
This second vision of secularism is on the rise today, and it is creating tensions among French Muslims, Seniguer said.
The polarization around the debate on Islam and secularism is not new. “Militant secularism was reinforced at the beginning of the 1990s, in a context of the growing visibility of Muslims in the public spaces and of identity claims, as illustrated by the affair of the scarf of Creil in 1989 (when three Muslim girls were suspended for wearing scarves in school),” Seniguer said.
Moreover, this period has also coincided with that of a globalized Islam and the advance of Islamists in several countries, such as the FIS in Algeria, which has sometimes manifested itself in violence.
The new law against separatism or “consolidating secularism and republican principles,” which has been toughened since the assassination of Samuel Paty, the teacher murdered in a Paris suburb in October, will be on the table of the Council of Ministers on December 9. Enough to further fuel lively new debates on the future of French secularism.