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In this blog-posting I will take the opportunity to share some thoughts from a article that I am currently working on. In the article I discuss the rise of what I call the discourse on good and bad ‘secularism’ in France.

In a recent book the eminent scholar of French ‘‘secularism’’ (laïcité), Jean Baubérot, expresses concern for what he considers to be a falsified ‘secularism’ (La laïcité falsifiée, Paris, La Découverte, 2012). Baubérot’s concern is similar to that of Western political leaders who portray Islam as a ‘religion’ that can be hijacked and used by fundamentalists for political and mischievous purposes, which has been analyzed by authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Rapahël Liogier.

However, to Baubérot it is not Islamic fundamentalists that are the perpetrators. Instead, as Baubérot suggests, the perpetrators are the French conservatives and the far-right; like the former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) and the new far right icon Marine Le Pen’s Front nationale (FN). ‘Secularism’ has been UMPLepinized, as Baubérot has it (a neologism of UMP and Le Pen). Baubérot informs us how these parties have managed to twist ‘secularism’ into something hostile towards Islam and Muslims, which would be contrary to its original meaning.

These falsifications have occurred during the many ‘Islamic Affairs’ that have been occupying the media and the political center in France the last 25 years or so; e.g. the 1989 Islamic Veil Affair, the 2004 law banning the Islamic veil in public schools, the 2010 law banning the full face veil in public space, and Le Pen’s statement that France is suffering under an Islamic occupation in 2011. Baubérot is far from alone in this analysis and I do agree on the matter that the conservatives and far-right has appropriated ‘secularism’ in a seemingly new manner. But what I find curious is that this supposed falsification is portrayed as a rupture in an otherwise liberating historical unfolding of ‘secularism’.

Just to explain the logic in play let us consider a similar case. In the 2014 European Parliament Election special by the leftist daily La Libération the journalists Jonathan Bouchet-Petersen and Antoine Guiral analyze the success of Marine Le Pen. They state: “Pour la France, pays des droits de l’homme, le symbole d’un FN en tête fait tache. (To France, country of human rights, the symbol of FN in the lead is a blot)”. As if France, the country of the colonial civilizing mission par excellence, the Dreyfus Affair, the Vichy Régime, the recent illiberal laws against Muslims, the extra-legal detention centers for third country nationals, the violent Roma expulsions, and so on, only finally, betrayed the imagined and glorified heritage of human rights?

Now, to put ‘secularism’ back on tracks, to stop its falsification, Baubérot urges us to go back to its roots and fully apply the famous Law of 1905 separating church and state; or, as I understand it from Baubérot’s writings, the foundational Law of ‘Secularism’. However, as Baubérot himself has pointed out, as has many other scholars, the Law of 1905 separating the church from the state was unequally applied in the French colonial empire. In French Algeria its non application on the Muslim population led to a state-gallican model, or, a tutelage role of the state in relation to Muslims and practiced Islam, meaning that the state could keep Algerian mosques on a tight leash. Moreover, Muslims were not given the status of full citizens and were deemed incapable of being ‘secular’. Not only did this contribute to making ‘Muslim’ into an ethnic marker, it also rendered ‘secular’ into a marker for Christian Europeans.

Thus, if ‘secularism’ has a proper history as a particular phenomena (as I understand Baubérot’s writings), I wonder what the differences are between contemporary and historical ‘secularism’? For sure, in metropolitan France the Law of 1905 targeted the Catholic Church’s influence on the French Republic, however, Muslim Algeria was also a part of France. This makes me wonder, if a historical continuity can be ascribed to ‘secularism’, does not ‘secularism’ from its very birth have to have been a marker of identity for the ‘secular’, the non-‘secular’, and the potentially ‘secular’ as well as a political technique to police and govern the borders in-between?

I will develop these arguments in the text, but here I want to point to a potential problem of ideology. The desire to find an untainted historical ‘secularism’ leads to an idealized and normative analysis blind to power and ideology. Instead of properly understanding how ‘secularism’ functions and what power relations it is part in creating and sustaining, one easily slips into an anachronistic discussion on the should-and-should-nots of ‘secularism’; i.e. into a discourse on good and bad ‘secularism’ all too reminiscent of the discourse on good and bad ‘religion’. The category of ‘secularism’ becomes an a-historical and an a-political truth and the battle of who is the most ‘secular’ or the mostly correct ‘secular’ casts a shadow over the exercise of violence it legitimates.