We’ve had several news stories and blog posts about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to modify France’s policy of laïcité, that almost untranslatable term for secularism. The focus in the discussion here is usually on what that would mean for Muslims and Christians. But what about Sarkozy and France’s Jews? Before I got the chance to look into that, my former Reuters colleague Bernard Edinger produced a very informative piece on this for the Jerusalem Report . I’ll let him tell the story right here.
Karen Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.
Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?
A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.
Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?
France and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.
The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).
Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part of the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s serial taboo-breaking is getting him into hot water. Anybody following the news these days knows about his roller-coaster love life, which has hurt his popularity ratings in a country where Monsieur le Président is supposed to be more discreet. Now his challenge to France’s laïcité — a word signifying both the separation of church and state and the taboo against bringing religion into public affairs — is provoking a backlash. What especially seems to have got his critics going is the fact that he not only praised religion in a speech in Riyahd on Monday but also counted his Saudi hosts among those Muslims “who struggle against fanaticism and terrorism, those who appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.” The fact he was also trying to sell nuclear power plants and other big-ticket French export items to Muslim countries during the same trip did not go unnoticed in his detractors’ comments.
The issue came up during parliamentary questions in the National Assembly on Wednesday (click here and search for Glavany for the exchange in French). Now criticism is coming in from the left and the right of the political spectrum, as well as in editorials. Jean Bauberot, a professor of the history of laïcité, told the Catholic daily La Croix he was worried that Sarkozy was pursuing a “lay Catholic civil religion” that might define France as a Catholic nation rather than a secular one.
True to form, Sarkozy broke with the presidential tradition of staying above the fray and shot back at his critics in an aside during a speech on Thursday about economic policy: “I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion … I am not questioning the secular system.”
Nicolas Sarkozy does not do things by half. After being criticised for highlighting his country’s Christian roots during a speech in Rome last month, the French president went a step further in a speech in Riyadh on Monday. He praised “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the hearts of every person” and described Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.” Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Shura advisory council, he stressed he was speaking of “the one God of the people of the book … God who does not enslave man but frees him“.
“We have to watch Nicolas Sarkozy when he travels,” the outspoken left-wing magazine Marianne commented. “Outside our borders, our president can reveal himself to be a passionate missionary for Christ, as he did during his papal visit. Travelling in Arab lands, Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed himself into a fanatical zealot for Islam.”
In a more moderate tone, the Paris newspaper Le Monde commented that the “God who does not enslave man” quote was “surprising for a head of a secular state“. Laïcité, the legal separation of church and state imposed on the traditionally Catholic country in 1905, is a key concept of modern French democracy and presidents before Sarkozy never challenged it. Public attachment to laïcité has actually strengthened in recent years as religious demands by the growing Muslim minority upset the quiet consensus against allowing faith a role in public life.
Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of faith, hope and love. The French elected him in May in the hope of change, which he doesn’t just call le changement (“change”) but la rupture (a “break” with the past). Love? Just take a look at the latest Parisian soap opera starring “President Bling-Bling,” pouting ex-wife Cécilia and new flame Carla Bruni. As for faith, we’ve been reporting and blogging about his plans to remodel laïcité, France’s trademark separation of church and state, and expect more to come this year.
For anyone following issues of faith in France, the bilingual blogger Sébastien Fath is a must-read (along with this blog, of course!). A leading French specialist on evangelical Protestantism, he has been blogging for a while en français at Sébastien Fath, commenting on the news in France, the United States and elsewhere. I’ve just discovered he took a bold leap over the language barrier a few months ago and launched an English-language blog called French Windows. In his latest posts there, he discusses in religion and politics in France and the U.S. and asks whether Sarkozy understands laïcité at all.
Nicolas Sarkozy likes to talk about religion in public life, even though many French don’t think it has any role there. He never misses the opportunity to tell religious leaders how important faith is as a moral guide for modern societies. Every now and then, he goes public with it in a provocative way. He could not have been more provocative than he was on Thursday when he met Pope Benedict XVI and was inducted as the honorary canon of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (a centuries-old tradition for French heads of state). He delivered a long speech praising faith’s role in public life and urging believers in general and Catholics in particular to play a more active role in French public debates.
“There has probably never been a French president who defended his country’s Catholic heritage so vigorously,” the French Catholic daily La Croix wrote approvingly.
We’ve covered the visit and done a story on the reactions in France (which continued to roll in after our story ran). One typical reaction was Le Monde‘s front-page cartoon showing Sarkozy dressed as a bishop while George Bush, who has a cross and a U.S. flag with crosses instead of stars), tells Pope Benedict “I think this guy’s stealing my job.” The French almost instinctively contrast their reticence about bringing religion into politics to the way U.S. politicians display and debate their faith in public.
The Economist, which printed God’s obituary in its millennium issue, has produced a long and very interesting survey on religion and politics around the world in its latest issue. There’s also an editorial on the separation of church and state and an audio interview with the author John Micklethwait.
As the editor of one of the leading journals of the globalised world, it’s interesting to hear what he says about religion:
“Religion is a bulwark against globalisation for a lot of people. I think you see this particularly in the Islamic world,” he said. But there was also a positive side, which he said could be seen in the United States where so many people read Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. “They’re saying, look, here’s a lifestyle that helps you get the best out of globalisation. I think a long time ago, we made this sort of category mistake, which was to associate modernity with secularism. I think, really, modernity goes much better with pluralism.”
Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.