The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has announced his intention to fight “Islamic fascism” and prevent massacres similar to the Charlie Hebdo affair through a massive injection of Islamic studies into French universities, a project that the Archbishop of Paris says is doomed to fail.
Valls says it is necessary to establish a kind of home-grown Islam in France that respects “the principles of laïcité.” We must “mobilize society around secularism,” he said.
France has had more experience than most in trying to integrate an ever increasing Muslim population into a Judeo-Christian culture. Unfortunately, its fallback method for doing this is the stale Enlightenment program of banishing all religion to the private sphere in an attempt to create a faith-free public square where radical secularism can effectively function as the unofficial state religion.
Valls has proposed that in the fight against “Islamic fascism,” national unity is key. “We need a break in the leadership of French Islam. And all the imams should be trained in France,” he said, adding that the Ministers of Interior and Education are already working on the issue.
Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, finds Valls’ plan puzzling. “You can’t manufacture a religion bureaucratically,” he said in a recent interview. Making university students pore over the history of Islam, in short, won’t make the burqa disappear from the shop windows around Saint-Denis, a neighborhood built around the basilica where the Christian kings and French miracle workers were buried, which is now a Muslim enclave.
It is not the business of the state, added the Cardinal, to try to build religious models, especially if the guiding principle is to make these models compatible with secularism. “It is a dangerous utopia to think that customs can be transformed by offering mandatory courses on secularism. It cannot be taught like French or the natural sciences. It is not a philosophical theory, but a practice of common life built on mutual respect,” he said.
No one, Vingt-Trois added, “will make people renounce their beliefs on the pretext that the republic is secular.”
The cardinal also objected to the idea of stifling religious convictions as a means to social harmony. “Achieving peace by preventing people from expressing themselves,” he said, “is not how we live better together while respecting our differences.”
Vingt-Trois seemed to suggest that Valls doesn’t have a clear understanding of how Islam is structured. “Policy makers have in mind the model of the Catholic Church, which is hierarchical and centralized. Islam is another thing,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome