Charlie Hebdo and Laïcité – secularism.
“Je suis le véritable Père Duchesne, foutre!”
The original hard-line anti-clerical, Jacques-René Hébert. 1790.
Hostility to Charlie Hebdo is widespread on the Anglophone left, liberal and socialist. While deploring the Paris murders a series of “buts” keeps cropping up. But…Charlie was provocative (a pretty redundant remark), but they insulted people’s deeply held beliefs, (see previous comment), but (and this is a brazen distortion) they attacked the faith of the banlieues, the poor, the marginalised. They have “disproportionately targeted Muslims by lampooning their prophet and besmirching their religion” (Counterpunch) They have “abused” the tradition of satire. Their “malicious purpose” is to “denigrate” Islam. Peter Mason in the Weekly Worker notes some on the British ‘left’ not only confused – claiming like the SWP that Charlie reinforced, even legitimised, the wave of Islamophobia” – but back religious censorship.
These claims reached fever pitch in the Saturday Guardian column of Gilles Fraser. He detects a red thread from the “totalitarianism” of Dechristianisation in the French revolution – “murderous state sponsored suppression” – to today’s French secularism. The link is the creation of an “external religious threat against which to frame itself.” Far from being “neutral’ France’s secularism shows its true colours in Charlie, which singles out, “a beleaguered, economically fragile Muslim community that has received a great many knocks at the hands of the French state and its colonial past”.
Tendance Coatesy has covered Fraser’s wilfully distorted portrait of the two phases of Dechristianisation, the short-lived Age of Reason (1793-4, the time of Père Duchesne and Hébert), and the worship of the Supreme Being (Robespierre) during the French Revolution. Nigel Aston gives a fuller picture. (Religion and Revolution in France. 1780 – 1804. 2000) Aston describes how both periods were marked by Anti-Christian ideas. At the same time the Constitutional Church, in which one of the first anti-slavery campaigners, Abbé Grégoire (and close colleague of the British Quaker Thomas Clarkson), which they tried to impose over the Catholic Church, with limited success, a patriotic Christianity.
The French Revolution may have been hostile to France’s existing institutionalised religion. But was it ‘secular’? Aston notes, that it began with efforts to create its “own symbols and its mystic character drawn from masonry, sentimental literature (notably Rousseau) and classical antiquity.”(Page 262) That is, it was not concerned with creating a neutral public sphere, a separation of religion and the state, but with the formation of its own civic cult.
The Real Origins of Secularism.
Secularism, in the form of laïcité, was the product of the 19th, not the 18th century. As Georges Weill explained (Histoire de l’idée laïque en France au XXe siècle. 1929, new edition, 2004) it was during the 1840s that the idea that administration and government of the country should be free from any religious power, emerged. Edgar Quinet ( 1803 – 1875) was one of the first to advocate a “une séparation complète radicale” of religious institutions from the State (Page 147 – 149)
Quinet’s emphasis on the idea of secular education, “l’école laïque ” was to be at the centre of all the subsequent fights for laïcité. Jules Ferry, who created the basis for a republican education system liberated from the –Catholic Church –, was only able to begin to realise this ideal after the Second Empire, under clerical domination, had fallen. The Third Republic (founded 1875) was rocked by divisions on the issue. It was only in 1905 that France saw a real separation of Church and State (with numerous exceptions, notably concerning private Catholic education, which continued, with subsidies).
Weill indicates that far from being the result of a violent hostility to religion French secularism originates in four sources. The first came from ‘Galician’ Catholics who opposed the ultramontagne power of the Pope over their own affairs, and, as the century progressed from Catholics who became attached to republican ideals. The second was amongst liberal Protestants, who had obvious (and blood-stained) reasons to distrust the power of the official Church. A third were desists, who wanted religion, illuminated by science, to be free from the doctrinal control of Papal Curia.
Only in the fourth category, the “libres penseurs”, can we find those with some debt to Hébert. The early workers’ movement owed a debt to Christian belief, particularly to Lamenais’ Paroles d’un croyant (1834), which rooted Christianity in democracy and social causes (in many respects more advanced than British ‘Christian socialism’ and still worth reading). But as the century progressed anti-clericalism spread amongst the socialists as well as amongst those who would become the so-called ‘Radical Socialist’ party (the word ‘radical’ comes from the British ‘radicals’ like John Stuart Mill). Many of the popular classes simply abandoned religion.
The importance within these streams of thought of one wing of the Freemasons, best known in the Grand Orient Lodge, is well known. They straddled deism and freethinking. Their political influence can be judged in many ways, yet clearly their principled defence of free thought and hostility to clerical privilege, remain a positive legacy.
Secularism comes into Practice.
By the end of the 19th century these forces converged in the shape of republican cabinets. Jules Ferry, equally the defender of France’s ‘civilising mission’ through its colonial ambitions, was the figure best known for putting some of these policies into practice. His belief in the “devoir d’hommes de race supérieure” is clearly a case of a ‘particularism masking as universalism’. It was strongly contested by socialists at the time – Jules Guesde called these colonial policies “une des pire formes de l’exploitation capitaliste” (Page 183 Historie de l’anticolonialisme en France. Claude Liauzu. 2007) But in the sphere of education Ferry’s Lettre aux instituteurs (1883) recommended a more modest yet fundamental principle: that teachers should be neutral about the ideas they deal with and respect the autonomy of their students.
To reduce these people’s efforts to open up education to free debate, to pour scorn on their attempts to remove the power of religious authorities over public life is contemptible. This was the practice of those who fought against the campaign to pardon Dreyfus and the views of what became the French far right – Action Française.
French secularism and French society have evolved considerably since the 19th century. But we might consider that some of the principles they developed are still have the utmost importance. As a universal ideal the axiom that public life should be free from the interference of religious authority remains preferable to the domination of religious authority. We have multi-faith societies – making it even more imperative that conflicting beliefs should not compete over who is to rule. Secularism is the gguarantorof the rights of religious and cultural minorities – by its very natrue an attempt to be as neutral as possible between communities. As Henri Pena- Ruiz of the Parti de Gauche has put it, faced with the “resurgences de irrationalisme et de l’obscurantisme, comme celles du fanatisme religieux et des ‘identiés collectives’ de nature exclusive” (Page 269. Qu’est-ce que la laïcité? 2003).
There is not the slightest reason to idealise the existing French state. Possibilities are not actualities, ideals are not real institutions – though those supporting them try to make them so. The last people who tried to create islands of liberty around ideas in the tradition of Père Duchesne were the situationists, whose impact was negligible. We have to confront the reality: the French state is based on the domination of the bourgeoisie and capitalism – forces that undercut egalité and fraternité and regularly threaten liberté. The left aims to bring these principles into this political life, against powerful forces.
But secularism continues as a political force, in the projects and policies of people trying to grapple with the issues raised by multi-faith societies and by belief itself. Is it better to have a public education system free from the dogma of faith or to permit religious bodies to impose their doctrines on students? Recent events in the UK suggest that this is a response that stifles free thought and encourages a communal division of society. Is it better to remain liberated from the chains of religious censorship – blasphemy laws by any other name – or permit people to insult not people, not ethnic groups, but religion? If France has not resolved its difficulties it would be a very stupid or a very disingenuous individual to advocate the British model as an alternative.
Charlie Hebdo is a magazine of caricatures. Le Monde reminds us that the word caricature comes from an Italian one, meaning to charge, to load (La caricature, art brûlant. Philippe Dagen, 17.1.15). Its designers specialise in loading charges against the enemies of freedom – those who would wish that their authority – religious or political – is obeyed. They are determined not to submit. They will not submit. Charlie is loved. With the laughter of the peoples of the world directed against them the oppressors feel unease. They have every right to be uneasy.
For a very fine article on Charlie see: A week inside Charlie Hebdo: how the ‘survival issue’ was made. Ed Vulliamy.
A sad addendum:
Former revolutionary and more recently prominent Liberal Democrat Tariq Ali states,
Ali shows not the slightest sadness at the brutal Paris murders.
This is a sample of the senescent stentorian style we know all too well,
“How should the idea of secularism in France be seen? Is mocking religious beliefs of others a key element of it?
It is, but it’s concentrated on Islam, a tiny bit on Catholicism, while Judaism is usually left well alone. Why not show Moses regularly gang-raping Palestinian men and women? Just as an idea.”
Ha, bloody ha.
This is what our poor old todger eventually comes out with:
“In fact, French secularism means anything but Islam. And when satirical magazines taunt them, they react. It’s as simple as that.”
Charlie had it coming to them….
To think I was once in the same organisation as this reactionary.