Liberte, Egalite, Laicite? Understanding the Paris Attacks

By: Cynthia Soliman

Since the attacks in Paris on Friday, I have been following the news and analysis of the situation quite closely. Certainly, some valid points have surfaced regarding ISIS, the fight against terrorism, and the military and political implications of the attacks. One aspect I have not seen discussed but that deserves more consideration is how religious freedom factors into this situation. 

In an earlier post, I argued that groups like ISIS thrive when there is a lack of religious freedom. I returned to that argument as I thought about why ISIS chose Paris as the location for these attacks. On a very basic level, one could argue that ISIS picked France to show the West that they could carry out their campaign of terror on our territory. But what is it about France, as opposed to another Western European nation, that specifically drew the ire of these attackers? To find at least one answer to this question, we need to go back to the French Revolution.   

In late eighteenth century France, the Catholic Church was all powerful. There was no separation between church and state. In effect, the Church was the state. The French Revolution of 1789 changed that, and began the process of what is known in France as laicite. This is often translated as secularism, but in fact, it is much more than that. The French Revolution did not just result in separation of church and state; it had a distinctly anti-clerical aspect to it, which, in turn, influenced what laicite means in France today. The separation of church and state became official in France in 1905. However, between 1789 and 1905, there was an attempt to completely “dechristianize” France.  As a result, laicite doesn’t just mean a secular government, which does not privilege a specific religion. It has come to mean an almost anti-religious state, that shuns any public display of religion, particularly, but not limited to Islam. It is an environment where public manifestation of religious belief is frowned upon, if not outright banned. For example, one can point to the notorious ban on the niqab, or full face covering veil, which has been portrayed by the French government as a security measure.   

Religious freedom can only go so far before it interferes with the much more revered French concept of laicite. Indeed, the concept of laicite is intertwined with what it means to be French. Essentially, laicite creates a dichotomy between being religious and being French. This has the effect of making many French Muslims feel that somehow they have to choose between being good Muslims or being good French citizens. In fact, there are two divisive results of this: anti-Muslim sentiment and (self-) alienation of Muslims from society. In other words they choose to be “good Muslims” instead of being good French citizens, because under the French concept of laicite, one cannot be both. Either way, to ISIS, this is the kind of division they prey upon.   

Leaving aside ISIS aspirations to establish a caliphate or even to implement Sharia law, in the short term, what ISIS wants is what all terrorists want: to cause fear in order to draw attention to some message. In France this kind of terror, which occurred in France before ISIS existed, has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy of “us versus them.” Terrorism is about sowing fear, which ISIS has successfully done, in Paris and elsewhere. Terrorists create divisions where there are none or exacerbate tensions where they do exist and take advantage of the vulnerabilities in society left by those divisions. That is what ISIS did in France, and what they will continue to do on an ideological level wherever they find opportunity. ISIS wants to drive a wedge between French Muslims and the rest of French society. It wants Muslims in France to feel alienated and blame France for alienating them. The way laicite is currently interpreted in France allows ISIS to prey upon the self-created division in French society.     

To be clear, I am not blaming laicite for what happened in France, but I am suggesting that it is part of the equation in determining why ISIS picked Paris as a target. If France wants to prevent future attacks, it cannot simply bomb ISIS into oblivion; it has to address the ideological aspect of this fight. Nor will doubling down on the concept of laicite help. This has not worked in the past and will not work now. Instead, it will require a recognition that religious freedom in France is not entirely free for some people. While it is no Saudi Arabia, France is not the bastion of religious freedom it might have been had events occurred differently after the Revolution. There are government restrictions and social hostilities that disproportionately affect Muslims. That said, religious freedom is a two-way street. Even if France begins to address the divisions laicite can lead to for religious adherents, if religious adherents cannot accept some version of the secular state, the ideological struggle will continue, and will eventually explode into violence as it did on Friday. The attacks in France were a tragic and heartbreaking reminder of the pernicious forces fighting to take away human rights, as well as the subtle forces, resulting from policies like laicite, that are eroding the fundamental right of religious freedom. 

Cynthia Soliman is a 2015 graduate from Georgetown's Master of Science in Foreign Service program, with a concentration in global politics and security.

This piece was originally authored on November 19, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/19/liberte-egalite-laicite-understanding-the-paris-attacks