Thursday, 10 December 2009


Intriguingly, given the recent developments in Iran as reported in my last posting, there has recently been formed an International Bureau for Laicite. It has taken its name from the French concept that was built into the law of the French Republic on 9th December 1905 which is understood here to mean "the total disinvestment of the state regarding religions" as opposed to the English "secularism" thought to entail equal tolerance towards all religions.

Whilst in many respects it is a good sign that people are willing to form new bodies that identify fundamentalist religion as a current and important threat to open societies and to positively argue for a view of the state that does not involve incorporation of religion there are still elements of the founding statement of the Bureau that bother me. Firstly, the general acceptance of the French republic as a model as indicated in the use of the concept of laicity is itself problematic. In France this concept is far from employed evenly. The recent ban on head-scarfs for Muslim girls was not one that applied reciprocally to other religions. For example the parallel drew with it for Christians was a ban on wearing "large" crosses and there was also no attempt on the part of the French authorities to deal with the meaning of the head-scarf as a symbol of modesty that is, in any case, only partially religious in nature. President Sarkozy also recently apparently welcomed the recent Swiss vote banning the construction of minarets and argued that members of religions should be "modest" in their demeanour but didn't follow his welcoming of the ban on minarets with an argument for banning construction of Catholic cathedrals or some form or other of "large" Christian symbol.

The truth is that the French view of laicity has consistently contained a preference for Catholicism over other forms of Christianity and for Christianity over non-Christian religions so I don't regard reference to it in the setting up of a secularist campaign as a particularly good sign. Secondly, the statement founding the group includes a vigorous denunciation, in all too French style, of "neo-liberalism" blaming this fictive creature for all the present ills of the world. It would be useful instead to look more closely at a number of elements that perpetuate injustice in the world including French support for protectionist measures for agriculture, measures that ensure that French products are given preferential treatment over those from much poorer countries. It might also be too much to expect that a campaign so correctly focused on secular principles would do much to demonstrate against the contraventions of such principles in France, Switzerland, the US and the UK. But perhaps that will come out of future work of the group.

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