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Guardian Writer, Giles Fraser, Attacks Secularism and Charlie – Again.

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Guardian’s Fraser Thinks Secularism is Bound to Terror.

“Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a great Being that watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is altogether popular.”

Maximilien Robespierre

Somebody should keep a list of all the people commenting on Charlie Hebdo who (1) Know little of the magazine, (2) Know little of France. (3) Know little of the history of  French secularism (laïcité).

Giles Fraser manages the, not exactly rare, feat of embodying all three features.

In the Guardian today he writes,

The glorious triumph of atheistic rationality over the dangerous totalitarian obscurantism of the Catholic church is one of the great foundation myths of republican France. And coded within this mythology is the message that liberty, equality, fraternity can flourish only when religion is suppressed from the public sphere. It is worth remembering what this ideological space-clearing involved.

At the end of the 18th century, France’s war against the Catholic church reached its bloody conclusion. By Easter 1794, the same revolution that once proclaimed freedom of conscience had forcedly closed down the vast majority of France’s 40,000 churches. What began with the confiscation of church property and the smashing of crosses and chalices, ended with forced conversions and the slaughter of priests and nuns at the guillotine.

It is in this period, the so-called Reign of Terror, that the modern English word terrorism – deriving from the French terrorisme – has its origins. “Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue,” argued Robespierre, in what now sounds like a sick press release from Islamic State. Over in the Vendée, those who remained loyal to their centuries-old faith were massacred in what historian Mark Levene has called “an archetype of modern genocide”. The systematic de-Christianisation of France was not the natural and inevitable collapse of sclerotic religion and the natural and inevitable rise of Enlightenment rationality. It was murderous, state-sponsored suppression.

Giles – perhaps one day you might care to read a history of the French Revolution.

In its stand on religion there were two distinct phases.

The first was very short lived: the period of the Cult of Reason.

The phenomenon of Dechristianisation was characterised, principally, by being short-lived, and also not a government organisation. The Public Safety Authority and the Convention were hostile to, at least suspicious of, the phenomenon.

The first closure of churches was in the provinces, under the aegis of Deputies (représentants en mission) or Surveillance Committees. But Paris was soon to follow suit.

Dechristianisation varied in intensity from one region to another. The campaign was two-fold. First, all institutionalised religions had to be eradicated and then a new civil Religion of Reason was established (Celebration of Reason : 10th November 1793).

The Convention moved from a Christian, to a revolutionary era. Fabre d’Eglantine succeeded in totally changing the calendar, which by abolishing Sunday, and through the terminology adopted, emphasised the anti-Christian ideal.

From Dechristianisation under the reign of Terror.

The second, the most violent phase of the Revolution, which happened under the reign of terror with Robespierre and Saint Just  in complete control, began after the radical dechristianisation had been suppressed. The radical atheist Jacques René Hébert publisher of the anti-Christian, Le Père Duchesne was guillotined (at the same time as Danton).

This is what followed,

On 7th May 1794, Robespierre stopped Dechristianisation. The Convention ruled that the French people recognised the existence of a Supreme Being and immortality of the soul. The existence of the Supreme Being and immortality of the soul did not seem to contradict the beliefs of Protestants in the 18th century.

The initial de-Christianisation was certainly violent. But was it the Enlightenment at fault? One of the most famous of all Enlightenment thinkers, Condorcet (Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain) died in prison  – in 1793.

From this we conclude that on one point, and one point only Gilles is right: state suppression (paranoid naitonalism in fact), not the Enlightenment, drove the Terror’s approach to rival ideologies.

The bloody suppression that Gilles cites, notably in the Vendée (1793 – 96), was not principally religiously inspired.

It was part of the defence of the Revolution against the armed Counter-Revolution exaggerated by nationalism – hardly without foundation since France was now being circled by its military enemies.

It is hardly surprising that after the – failed – effort to get to grips with the history of the Revolution Fraser does not bother to deal with the long democratic struggle to achieve the separation of Church and State in France which culminated in the founding document of  modern French laïcité in 1905 (loi de séparation des Églises et de l’État). 

He todgers along to make this point instead.

But these days, the Catholic church is no longer any political challenge to the French state. And the reason publications such as Charlie Hebdo persist with their crass anti-clerical cliches (where the joke is usually a variation on bishops buggering each other) is that a powerful strain of French self-understanding actually requires a sense of external religious threat against which to frame itself. But as the Catholic church is no longer planning to sponsor a coup against the state, Republican identity requires something new to define itself against – something just like radical Islam. As Voltaire put it: “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”

Thus France picked a fight with Islam by banning the headscarf from schools in 2004 and the niqab from all public life back in 2010 – bans which closely echo the hostility of earlier generations to the veiling of nuns.

So secularism is all about ‘external threats’ – not about creating a free and equal public sphere. It’s all about ‘picking fights’ – the presence of Salafists determined to impose their own ‘mini- states’ and repression on ‘their’ people – well, it’s not a presence. 

Charlie attacks the powerful – from Sarkozy to Hollande – and the reactionary. It defends  the weak.

The Islamists have power, they have money, and they are part of the reaction.

No, for the Guardian religious affairs columnist  it’s all about the fear of the ‘Other’ , something which ‘it’ ‘defines itself against – one of the tiredest conceptual tricks  out of the post-colonial studies bumper book of of clichés, that many would wish would simply go away and expire.

Perhaps even Fraser had noticed that the rise of violent Islamism, the Algerian civil war (begun in 1992) had happened. That there has been a growth in every European country of reactionary Islamism. That some young people have joined the genociders to kill, main and oppress in the Middle East……

Apparently  not.

Secularism and Charlie are  all about “bullying and goading” poor ‘Muslims’.

Fraser does not bother to distinguish between the vast variety of different ‘Muslims’ in France, or even admit that there are – many – secularists of a North African background.

Note to Fraser: Charlie is not going to stop criticising religion.

It is not going to give up.

It is not going to go away.

The precious principle of laïcité– freedom of thought and equality of belief – is not going to vanish.

Your ‘radical’ pretensions – from Occupy onwards – will again and again be put to the test.

So you have plenty of time to read up on the subject and write something showing at least a minimum acquaintance with the  subject.

You could start here: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française. Jean Jaurès.

“On the religious question Hebertism was nothing but vain and superficial violence, incoherence and contradiction.

From August to December 1793 a lively dechristianization movement was outlined. A portion of the revolutionary people rose up not only against non-juring priests and the church, but against Christianity itself. And they attempted to tear the very idea from men’s spirits by destroying the symbols and emblems that allowed it to enter thought through people’s eyes. It was a war on religion as a means of war on belief. It was priests that fanaticized the Vendée; it was the priests who were accomplices of the selfish rich in Lyon. The Revolution would only be assured; human liberty would only be definitive when the power controlled souls and forced them submit to all the tyrannies of the earth and heavens disappeared. And let us not distinguish between juring and non-juring priests, between constitutional priests and refractory ones. What did the constitutional priests do? What did they do in the Vendée, in Lyon, in Toulon, in Marseille, in Lozère? Either they were secret accomplices of the enemy through their inertia and timidity or they were powerless. Their semi-fanaticism had less of a hold on the ignorant than the wholehearted fanaticism of the others. If the constitutional priests didn’t serve as an expected diversion, if they didn’t serve as a caution useful to the Revolution among the believers and the simple, what was their role? And why would the revolution lend itself any longer to a compromise that was nothing but a dupery? For in order to handle the constitutional priests with care, in order not to offend their faith, they were forced to be gentle with the refractory priests. It wasn’t possible to get to the heart of questions and lay bare the roots of the falsehood that supports the entire church, both the constitutional and the refractory. Let us thus have done with this, and since fanaticism forms a thick layer covering intelligence impenetrable to reason, since it is pointless to talk to men who believe through machine-like habit, it is that machine-like habit that must be broken. It must be proved to these fools that the God they adore is nothing but impotence and nothingness, and in order to do this the instruments of his religion must be wrested from him. The sacred vases must be taken from him, they must be profaned in the sight of the heavens in order to prove to the simplest of fanatics the nullity of a God who doesn’t even know how to defend himself. Philosophy required centuries to liberate the spirit through the spirit; it is by force that the chains that were forged by ignorance, a form of slavery. There are the chalices and the monstrances, and a donkey wearing a stole, a miter on his head, beating his flanks with a host attached to his tail, showing off the ridiculousness of the old religion and forever disgusting the believers in a faith that lends itself to such degrading parodies.”

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7 Responses

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  1. I have just been reading the round-up of the French left press website (in translation). Although they all genuflect in the direction of ‘mustn’t let this increase islamophobia’, I don’t recall any one arguing that the jouranlists had ti coming and that Charlie Hebdo was/is a racist magazine. Perhaps the British left or rather New Left should trust their comrades on this. The other broader point is that all this talk about ‘religion and freedom of speech’ is very ahistorical. Why were the French so anti-clerical? Because they discovered quantum physics? No, because of the corruption of the Catholic Church. Admittedly, I am not familiar with French history but I do know English and I know how the country was drained of lots of money pre-Reformation by the Catholic Church. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ describes the corruption of the Church and, indeed, the Englilsh monarchs resented paying lots of money to the Church for centuries before Henry VIII actually took the plunge and disestablished it.I suppose it is unfair to expect people who are not Marxists to take a materialist/Marxist view of things, ie analyse concrete reality, but I find such articles as the one quaoted as actually inflammatory.

    The other point is when is it permissible to criticise religion. Poor Raif Bedawi has been entenced to 1000 lashes for raising very moderate demands for the reform of Saudi Arabia (I can’t imagine he is a revolutionary or even socialist), and yet there is no furore from the Left press on that. Or, the Christain couple who were burnet to death in their own brickmaking kiln in Pakistan the other week. I assume that the far left think these re bad things. And, yet, if a white person made exactly the same criticisms then it would be a bad thing. I don’t think Raif Bedawi made religious points just milksop political points, but to Islam that is blashphemy because it is not sanctified by the Koran, the Hadith or the Sunna.

    Sue R

    January 17, 2015 at 3:10 pm

  2. Giles Fraser is, appropriately like a caricature himself: Private Eye’s the Rev JC Flannel (“We are all to blame”) springs to mind.

    Jim Denham

    January 17, 2015 at 3:31 pm

  3. Be fair, Andrew. CH is an anti-clerical journal. GF is a cleric. It is only fit and proper that he shouldn’t like it. The fact that a) he is against it, and b) his arguments are flimsy and ill-informed means that everything is as it should be. I find that reassuring.


    January 17, 2015 at 4:04 pm

  4. Numerous BTL commenters nail Mad Gilesy. One of them sums him up to perfection: “he should be made patron saint of idiots.” The Guardian boasts all manner of horrible, hopeless or dishonest (or a combination thereof) ‘journalists’, but Fraser has a tone of stupidity that is all his own.


    January 17, 2015 at 4:20 pm

  5. Flannel he is, flannel is his métier.

    God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world, until those nasty French imperialist secularists and their attempts to crush the Other, came along.

    Gilesy, Lamina, makes J. L. Talmon’s assertions in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952) , tracing Rousseau to Stalin, look nuanced.

    Andrew Coates

    January 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm

  6. Sue a lot of this is clearer if we remember that some of the British left is simply reflecting a long-standing British prejudice against the French.

    Andrew Coates

    January 17, 2015 at 5:16 pm

  7. I read the Rev Fraser’s piece with some astonishment. I presume he would have gone on to repeat the old Falangist lies about Spanish Republicans raping nuns, if the editors hadn’t stopped him mid-rant

    R P Dutt

    January 19, 2015 at 11:22 pm

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