Posted: January 31, 2017
he spectre haunting Europe these days is terrorism, but not merely terrorism; there is also the prospect that an ever-increasing proportion of its residents will be Muslims. Too many European Muslim communities are alienated from their social surroundings, skeptical of secularism, and illiberal in their social attitudes, especially concerning women and gays. A minority of Muslims desires the restoration of a caliphate.
In response, leftists typically argue in extenuation that Muslims are excluded from the mainstream by bigotry and lack of opportunity, not by their own distinctive mores. The Right commonly replies that Muslims fit poorly into liberal societies because a fundamentalist, politicized conception of their faith now prevails worldwide. Thanks to Saudi-financed proselytizing and social media’s malign influence, this conception shapes the outlook not only of recent and prospective immigrants, but of Muslims born in Europe, even ones whose parents and grandparents were born there. Some right-of-center observers, agreeing with Muslim fundamentalists that Sunni puritanism reflects Islam’s essence, conclude that Muslim immigration is necessarily problematic, especially given the decay of Western institutions that formerly bound citizens together with a shared outlook and identity.
Implicitly, both Left and Right require the same thing of Western Muslims: surrender binding religious scruples in order to join societies dedicated to expanding individual freedom and material well-being. Each camp is therefore guilty of self-contradiction. Despite their fascination with diversity and horror of homegrown religious politics, relativist progressives refuse to take Muslim piety seriously, assuming that no cultural grit, however coarse, can truly foul the gears of liberalism. Conservatives, for their part, require Muslim acceptance of the same, strict secularism that galls conservatives bitterly when it’s imposed on Christians, as in the battle over same-sex marriage.
The past two years’ terror attacks sharpened this debate and compounded its dissonances, especially in France. Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, and then Nice provoked an intellectual state of crisis to match the security emergency. Though the debate involves the rehearsal of old grievances and modern political considerations peculiar to France, the crux applies to Western democracies struggling with both violent and non-violent Islamic extremism. Even in the United States, where conditions are so different, the French case merits close scrutiny. Two books deserve special attention for thinking beyond familiar, shopworn positions.
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Pierre Manent’s Beyond Radical Secularism appeared in French in October 2015 under the title Situation de la France. It aroused controversy because Manent, a Catholic Straussian who teaches political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, recommends concessions to Muslim belief that few on the Right are willing to make, especially not in the wake of terror. But readers familiar with Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism (1995) and The City of Man (1998) will be less surprised. Beyond Radical Secularism accords with the skeptical account of modern liberalism Manent has provided in these and other works.
The book’s chief concern is the inability of French democracy to offer a national identity sufficiently clear and compelling to win the loyalty of Muslim immigrants who currently ground their identity in Islamic structures. Yet he also asserts, more optimistically, that France’s Muslims are—by virtue of their alienation from civic life—in a reactive or “passive” condition, their ultimate allegiance not yet wholly determined.
Manent’s central analytical concept is, then, the nation. He thinks it indispensable to political freedom because of the impossibility—at this point in history—to act meaningfully as a citizen within a supra-national structure lacking any shared sense of the good. The nation is the highest level at which the responsible citizenship born in the ancient polis can be experienced. This will be a difficult argument for many readers, one made more difficult by Manent’s depiction of the European nationstate as the means whereby diverse societies once accommodated the tension between Christian obligation and citizens’ temporal loyalties. We are more accustomed to thinking of nationalism as having torn Europe to pieces.
Manent counters that the continent’s slide into the abyss became possible only when the obligation to God was forgotten and secular duty was carried to an extreme by Germany, a state riven by a confessional divide. Auschwitz, in his view, disproves neither God nor the nation but underscores their interdependence. In France, Gaullism repaired the damage to that bond after 1945, but it was ruptured anew from another direction by 1968’s upheavals, which ushered in a “great withdrawal of loyalty from the community.” Subsequently, France steadily dismantled its collective identity in favor of an increasingly absolute individualism, gradually ending conscription and devaluing study of the French language, literature, and history in the schools. Manent, a strong Euroskeptic, laments that dilution of French identity coincided with the deliberate transfer of sovereignty and, hence, active citizenship to the European Union.
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Though one need not agree with each point of this analysis to arrive at a similar sense of the problem, Manent often describes the untenable status quo with real eloquence. It is plain enough that European governments have trouble explaining to their Muslim minorities just what it is they want them to “buy into.” In Britain, the Cameron government sought to cut state funding of Islamist-tainted charities by insisting upon support for “British values,” only to find it difficult to define them. In France, bland insistence upon the blessings of France’s hard secularism—laïcité—amounts to the same sort of failure. Laïcité is too often a buzzword that defies efforts to embellish the concept with shared “republican” values. People of real substance, Manent writes, cannot simply drop their convictions when elite opinion shifts:
The “Republic of values” is an indefinitely elastic human grouping, in which we do not know with whom or with what one might ask us…to “identify” ourselves tomorrow.
This is not the kind of society in which Muslims will find their place. Citizenship cannot mean detachment, much less tearing away, from the religious community, either for them or for the other members of the civic body.
So…what to do? Manent writes sympathetically of Islam much of the time. He nevertheless regrets that Muslim immigration to France has taken place without conditions—without a promise of loyalty. Yet he sees a way forward in compromise. France’s Muslims must disavow foreign funding of their mosques and associations, slackening the tie with the umma, the worldwide Muslim community. Also, they must accept a ban on the burka and polygamy, each an affront to individual dignity that France cannot tolerate. Finally, they must concede that they have chosen to live in a society that even today bears a distinctively Christian stamp, one in which a Jewish minority plays a vital role. In exchange, Muslims would be welcomed in France and encouraged to develop—in a communitarian spirit—a distinctively French Islamic life. Manent does not propose specific policies for these ends, and it is not easy to see how a government bound by strict secularism can readily enact them. Instead, the book closes with an overtly Christian conceptualization of the task’s broader, civilizational importance.
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In Terreur dans l’Hexagone (“hexagon” refers to the geographic outline of metropolitan France), Gilles Kepel, in contrast to Manent’s philosophical approach, situates the development of French Islamic extremism in both its global and domestic contexts. Two stories are told in tandem: the failure of successive French governments to deal with a growing Arab minority’s social isolation, and the development of jihadist ideology in the direction of the decentralized terrorism Abu Musab al-Suri advocated in his 2004 treatise, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance. Kepel touches upon the watershed of 1983, when demonstrations by disaffected Arabs and French supporters—the so-called “March of the Beurs”—revealed for the first time that Arab exclusion would have political consequences for France, but he concentrates on the period between the Clichy riots of 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015. As in his prior scholarship, including Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2002) and The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (2004), Kepel, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and member of the Institut Universitaire de France, offers a fluid, authoritative analysis of the interdependent domestic and international scenes, insisting upon the full complexity of France’s difficulties. He reveals the history of French Salafism and the sad lives of France’s most notorious and despicable jihadist killers. None was a “lone wolf.” Many were radicalized in prison, others abroad, in mosques, or on social media—an accelerant of radicalism perfectly suited to al-Suri’s vision. All, however, are representative of the times.
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Since France controls neither the Middle East nor the internet, Kepel’s analysis stresses France’s domestic errors. For one thing, no government has dealt effectively with Arab social and economic isolation. The problem, kicked down the road when it might have been managed, is now a crisis, particularly where education and high unemployment are concerned. Furthermore, France’s parties, insular and locked in rusted ideological armor, cannot understand the problem on its own terms. Conservatives—he draws special attention to former prime minister Nicholas Sarkozy—pander to voters attracted to the National Front, taking an ever-harder line that actually serves jihadist ends by increasing Muslim alienation. Leftist parties cast Muslims anachronistically as the new proletariat.
Kepel’s own call to action in his epilogue responds directly to Manent. Refusing to share Manent’s disappointment with post-national France, he thinks French society resilient. He allows that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists are influential but criticizes Manent for inferring that French Muslims are broadly anti-secular. Kepel nevertheless commends Manent for breaking with other conservatives to insist that Islam is now a part of France’s future, and he agrees that mindless calls for laïcité from an exhausted leadership accomplish nothing. His doubts about religious communitarianism lead to the opinion that religion cannot be a secular government’s primary response, and the fear that Manent’s project could reinforce Salafi separatism. Instead, Kepel calls for the reinvention of French public education, but disappointingly, he leaves this agenda unexplained.
Superficially, some new data seem to favor Kepel’s more hopeful view. A recent study by Hakim El Karoui of the independent Institut Montaigne maintains that France’s Muslims, at 5.6% of the population, are less numerous than previously thought. They do not constitute a political bloc, and are more devout than the French generally but not overwhelmingly. Moreover, they form social strata like those of the mainstream, and some are upwardly mobile. Many are still concentrated in the working class, however, where unemployment is high. A substantial fraction—28%, mostly young and undereducated—embrace an atavistic notion of Islam that sets them in opposition to the rest of French society. A further 25% are religiously conservative but not alienated from French society.
El Karoui’s proposals are more similar than dissimilar to Manent’s. He favors the development of an Islam suited to French society, and calls for an end to foreign support for Islamic institutions and the development of homegrown Muslim civic and religious leadership. He wants the government to discourage fundamentalism officially while altering laws to account for Muslims’ sensibilities—permitting gender-segregated bathing in public pools, for example.
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Ultimately, Kepel’s focus on better education looks thin—like a renewed wager on the attractive force of secularism. His close analysis of the relevant history is less persuasive than Manent’s philosophical argument that today’s secular France has too little to offer to Muslims. Though many Europeans, left and right, will object, there may be no better option for countries that already have large Muslim minorities than to grant them wider scope for the exercise of their faith in hopes of gaining their loyal citizenship and preserving the most central liberal commitments. But this wager, too, can go badly by legitimizing and fortifying Islamists. And even its success would mean that Islam puts its stamp on postmodern, post-Christian European culture. The constraint of blasphemy is no remote prospect: an active Muslim citizenry will certainly challenge the permissive mores Europeans have come to prize as the new hallmark of their freedom.
While the experiments play out, European countries that wish to preserve the cultural status quo will need to think hard about immigration policy as they face new waves of migration that no one seems able to arrest. Inevitably, this will entail a defense of democratic principle at the national level, and reassertion of the sovereignty surrendered to the European Union. In this sense, too, Manent’s analysis seems trenchant and—in the wake of the Brexit referendum—prescient.