The French secular model of laïcité—which aims to mark a formal separation of church and state—is a core republican value of the French state and some segments of French society. However, it is often poorly or only partially understood, both domestically and abroad. In its original formulation, laïcité was not designed to eliminate religion from areas outside the jurisdiction and purview of the state, nor to uphold a specific faith over another. Rather, it was supposed to dissipate religious practices from the operations of the secular French state. In public or private matters outside the functioning of the state, laïcité should be no threat to freedom of religion. But in practice, recent instrumentalizations of this model have attempted to contain people of minority religious faiths or coerce them into a closed secularism. Such rampant abuses of laïcité threaten and sometimes violate religious freedom, ultimately undermining pluralism and social stability.
In the last two posts, I have argued that Islam is not hardwired for violence, but even a casual consumer of contemporary news in the West is likely to ask: What about the shootings by an Islamist in the nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016? Or the violence that Islamists have perpetrated in Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin, Fort Hood, Ottawa, Boston, and so many other places? Or the Islamic State? Or the attacks of September 11, 2001? A more informed observer might add this: What about the many Muslims around the world who have been victims of Muslim terrorism? These phenomena did not appear motivated by the rationales of religious freedom or secular repression, the political theologies that I have argued govern other patterns of Muslim-majority states. No, this violence appears motivated by the Islamic faith.
Religious freedom and national security are closely intertwined. Far from being a boutique human rights issue, the advancement of religious freedom can play a major role in advancing national and international security. There is an increasing recognition of this link as evidenced in the development of language in the National Security Strategy, statements and activities led by high-level officials across the U.S. Government, and emerging academic research.
The secular repressive pattern in Islam follows the French Revolution and is a rival to the Iranian Revolution in its low levels of religious freedom. Most practitioners of the secular repressive pattern have been authoritarian rulers: Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria’s Assads. It is often through brutal force, including torture, that they restrict religion—and necessarily so because their populations are far more religious than they are.
From a satellite view, the Muslim world does not look religiously free. The picture seems to favor the view that I have called “Islamoskepticism.” Of 47 Muslim-majority states, 36, or almost three-quarters, have “high” or “very high” levels of religious repression according to the standards of the Pew Research Center.
When we zoom in closer, however, the picture is more diverse and does not so easily favor the Islamoskeptics.