Framing the West's Cultural War with Islam & A Way Forward

Recent government actions (including an Austrian law restricting German translations of the Qur'an, a German circumcision ban, a French headscarf ban, and a Swiss aminaret ban) are restricting Muslims' religious freedom in western Europe. Please join us on Cornerstone as diverse commentators explore the obstacles that European Muslim communities face and what these challenges mean for the future of religious freedom. 

By: Daniel Philpott

Part One: Framing the West's Cultural War with Islam

The horrific shootings on January 7 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris have already ignited the latest round of a culture war that has been roiling in Europe and in democracies elsewhere over the character of Islam. Especially in Europe, the culture war has much to do with the place of domestic Muslim minorities.

One side of the culture war insists on the intrinsic connection between Islamic beliefs and violence and intolerance. It recites a litany of episodes beginning with Iran’s edict against Salman Rushdie in the late 1980s and continuing through the attacks of September 11, 2001, subsequent bombings in London and Madrid, the murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh in 2004, a violent reaction among Muslims to Danish cartoons, and now this. (For an example of this view’s reaction to the Paris murders, see here.)

The other side insists on the diversity of Islam, allowing that it has an extremist minority but pointing out that other religions do, too. This view criticizes Westerners for being intolerant when they “essentialize” Islam as violent and illiberal. (For an example of this view on the murders, see this.)   

This debate does not fall neatly into right versus left. Yes, there are rightists who view Muslims as a threat and leftists who call for tolerance. But there are also leftists—many feminists, for instance—who insist that Islam threatens their values. And there are religious people who line up with conservatives on some key issues yet discern a repressive secularism behind portrayals of Islam as an enemy.   

Is there a principle that might garner consensus in this discussion? One of the innovative, boundary-crossing, and most widely discussed contributions to this debate is that of an American professor, Joan Wallach Scott, whose book The Politics of the Veil (2007) explores French public controversies over the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls in France. A historian of France and a pioneer of gender studies, Scott explores intensive public debates that took place in 1989, in 1994, and then in 2003-2004, when the French parliament passed a law against headscarves in public schools.   

Just before the law was passed, only 14 percent of Muslim girls were discovered to wear the religious garb, Scott points out. Why, then, the outcry? Scott makes a compelling case that the issue says more about the French than it does about Muslims. It is hard to deny that the public reaction to Muslim dress arose in part from the litany of violent incidents that one side of the culture war cites, particularly the attacks of September 11, which preceded the passage of France’s law. With the view that Islam is regressive, Belgium, Holland, Australia, and Bulgaria have proposed similar legislation, while Turkey has long prohibited headscarves in a wide variety of institutions. Scott, however, raises questions about this explanation, pointing out—as the other side of the culture war does—that Islamists and violent extremists are a tiny minority of Muslims.   

A far better explanation for the controversy, Scott believes, is the devotion of the French to their culture, most of all their republican ideology, which they believe to be universally valid. The hallmarks of this ideology are individualism and secularism, values that the French Revolution played a historically pivotal role in advancing. Many French view Islam as a threat to both values. Islam, they believe, is repressively communal, socializing schoolgirls into subordination. Furthermore, Islam is religious, contrary to the Enlightenment values of openness, self-definition, science, and rationality.   

Scott’s crucial move is to call France’s universalism into question; these values, she claims, are France’s, not everyone’s. When French ideology is touted as universal, it ends up excluding non-European residents of European countries, much in the spirit of colonialism. Secularism is central to the problem. As promoted in the wake of the French Revolution, France’s version of secularism—which came to be known as laïcité—was not one of religious openness but rather one of religious skepticism, whose proponents sought to render as France’s national philosophy. In the nineteenth century, France’s culture war was fought between the Catholic Church and allied monarchists on one side and the Republicans legatees of the Revolution on the other. The Republicans largely won, especially in the realm of education, which both sides viewed as the battleground for shaping souls. Through a series of legislative enactments beginning in 1879 with the “Ferry laws” and culminating in the 1905 Law on the Separation of Churches and the State, France vastly reduced the place of the Catholic Church in education, asserted sharp state control over the Church and its institutions (with complexities such as allowing the Church to choose its bishops), and even expelled priests from the country.   

To this day, the 1905 law—and its national project of incubating new French men and women as secular Republicans—defines France’s governance of religion. It is these institutions and these ideas that the French came to view as threatened by Muslim girls who wore headscarves inside public schools, the chief sites of secular incubation. 

Scott responds to these controversies by arguing for the toleration of headscarves in the name of a notion of democracy that protects differences rather than assimilates people. As the pages turned, I came to identify Scott as a member of a recently emergent school of scholars, including Talal Asad, William Connolly, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and Peter Danchin, who sharply criticize the exclusiveness of Enlightenment secularism from the standpoint of post-modern thought, which rejects universals and promotes respect for differences. Criticism of universalism is a leitmotif that runs through Scott’s book.   

Scott’s respect for religious differences is not as capacious as it might seem at first. She pointedly criticizes American evangelicals, for instance, for their patriarchy, their desire to impose creationism in the schools, and their threat to open democracy, rights of contraception and abortion, and the place of women in general. Consistent with Scott’s overall argument, she roots the problem with evangelicals not only in the character of their convictions but also in their belief in the universality and immutability of their convictions.                                     

Does Scott offer a way forward Europe’s (and the West’s) culture war over Islam? Her critique of France’s restriction of headscarves is incisive. France’s attempt to establish skeptical secularism as its national philosophy through managing and marginalizing religion contradicts its own commitments to openness and free thought. A nation cannot very well promote basic liberties of thought and expression and then curtail religious versions. In France, such an approach has elicited resentment and marginalization, not integration and equality.  

Scott’s critique crosses the boundaries of the culture wars insofar as it is both sympathetic to religion and skeptical of certain western pretentions  to universality. Does she point the way forward to a basis for inclusion of Muslims in Western societies and an alternative to the culture war over Islam that besets France and the West?  Here, her analysis proves far less promising.

Part Two: A Way Forward

In Part One of this blog series, I considered the widely read book of Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil, as a potential solution to the culture war over Islam now carried on in France and the West. Scott exposes the particularistic secularism that is masked by French universalism and promises an approach based on respect for differences. Does she succeed in building a better way forward?  

Scott’s own commitments, in fact, prevent her from grounding a promising alternative. As with all post-modernists, her logic refutes itself. Scott argues that differences, rather than any asserted commonality, ought to be the basis of democratic politics. If respecting differences is her defining principle, however, is it not a universal one? “Everyone’s differences ought to be respected” is a principle that she wants everyone to respect. But how can something that pertains to everyone be squared with Scott’s rejection of universalism and commonality? She alludes to the problem when she writes that “[p]aradoxically, it’s difference that is common to us all.”  Her paradox seems more like a contradiction.   

Scott’s insistence upon making the affirmation of difference and the rejection of universality the basis of democracy also leaves unanswered—and unanswerable—the question of why we should respect people’s differences. Apart from a principle that offers a basis for the value, or dignity, of the person, it is hard to fathom why people’s differences merit respect. Such a principle, though, if it is to ground the dignity of humans as such, must be a universal one and will thus be ruled out by Scott’s arguments.

Finally, Scott’s reasoning about American evangelicals calls into question her affirmation of the differences that are “common to us all.”  Whereas she envisions democracy in terms of negotiating differences, it seems that there are some differences with which she does not want to negotiate—namely, those that arise in people who hold immutable, universal commitments. Such commitments are most characteristically those of religious people. They are the kind of commitments held not only by American evangelicals but also by millions of Muslims. They are the kind of commitments held by many of the girls who wear headscarves in French schools. The people across the world who hold such commitments may well number in the billions. If Scott is going to reject this kind of difference, then does she not end up favoring her own version of laïcité?   

Aware of the problem, Scott seeks to distinguish the claims of French Muslim schoolgirls, to which she is sympathetic, and those of American evangelicals, to which she is not. American evangelicals, she argues, seek to impose their particularistic beliefs upon everyone else in American democracy, including in its schools. French schoolgirls, by contrast, claim the right not to be inhibited from learning what everyone else learns on account of their religious particularity. Schools, then, should be secular, which “rules out claims of religious truth in the public school curriculum,” but they can allow people to dress according to their religious beliefs.   

Scott’s distinction, though, does not save her from falling into her own laïcité. True, a secularism that involves a significant separation between religious and temporal roles and functions is essential to liberal democracy. In fact, virtually everyone in modern democracies endorses such a separation—including, it ought to be pointed out, American evangelicals as well as Catholics, whose Second Vatican Council spoke strongly about such a separation. Today, theocrats are manifestly rare. There is a big difference, however, between an open-ended version of this secularism that is friendly to religious participation—what scholar Ahmet Kuru, in his book Secularism and State Policies Towards Religion, calls “passive” secularism—and a version that seeks sharp state control of religion and the establishment of skepticism as a national philosophy, which Kuru calls “assertive secularism.”  When Scott writes, “[i]f Christian moralism, presented as revealed truth, is allowed to dictate standards of behavior for everyone, if as a result the right-to-life trumps the right-to-choose, they say, then democracy as we have known it is lost,” it sounds an awful lot like she is calling for the sidelining of religious arguments in public debate. It sounds as if Scott will allow religious people to express themselves publicly through their dress but not their doctrines, through their clothing but not their convictions. That position, though, is one of a strict secularist.   

While Scott’s criticisms of France’s laïcité are on the mark, then, her post-modern democracy of difference fails to yield sustainable norms of religious inclusion. Is there a principle that both preserves the core values of liberal democracy and allows religious people to participate and practice their faith robustly within liberal democracy? Coming back to Europe’s Muslims, is there a basis for the principled inclusion of Muslim minorities in European democracies?  A strong candidate for such a principle is religious freedom. Ensconced in the global human rights conventions as well as the European human rights architecture, religious freedom has a strong claim to universality. The beauty of this principle is that it both comports with the European heritage of liberal principles and allows Muslims wide latitude to express and practice their religion, including dressing consonantly with their religious beliefs. Religious freedom means the right of women to don a headscarf in France and to doff one in Iran. It also means that religious people may advocate political positions according to their convictions.  

In return, Muslims are asked to respect the religious freedom of others, as well as other rights like freedom of expression and freedom of the press. This principle, of course, will not eradicate terrorists. The assailants of Charlie Hebdo clearly prioritized their interpretation of Islam over freedom of the press, not to mention the right to life. If practiced robustly, however, religious freedom is likely to expand the sphere of European Muslims who are willing to play by the rules of liberal democracy and to contract the sphere of those who are not. The prohibition of headscarves promotes the opposite effect. Already, the vast majority of European Muslims are those who do abide by liberal democracy’s norms. The more they feel included in these liberal democracies, the more deeply they also will believe in, and thus strengthen, these norms. 

Daniel Philpott is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame (on leave fall 2015 and spring 2016). 

This piece was originally authored on January 22, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: