What are we talking about when we talk about “religion”? In liberal democracies, we’ve shied away from this question, mainly because our political order was constructed to artfully avoid addressing metaphysical questions of any and all kinds in the public sphere. But how can we legislate for or against religious liberty without understanding what religion is in the first place?
Undeterred by these uncertainties, and in the wake of the beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty — perpetrated by an Islamist on the streets of a Paris suburb — Emmanuel Macron recently announced his decision to impose a “charter of republican values” on the Muslim population of France. On Wednesday he issued an ultimatum to the French Council of the Muslim Faith, giving their members 15 days to sign on to it. Among the measures included are provisions to establish a National Council of Imams with the power of bestowing and revoking accreditation, restrictions on home-schooling, identification numbers for children (to make sure they’re attending school), and stricter punishments for those who threaten or intimidate public officials on religious grounds.
Viewed through the prism of American constitutional liberty, these restrictions would, of course, be considered draconian and illegal. France, however, has a more muscular and intolerant kind of constitutional secularism that permits actions like these to be taken.
But does that mean they should be taken? In the larger metaphysical sense, is it just to subject the religious conscience of the individual to state power in this way?
When we slot the neutralizing noun “liberty” into its place after the more contentious adjective “religious,” the noun does the job it was hired to do: It sidelines religion so we’re not obliged to think about it anymore. But the liberal order’s refusal to define religion before dismissing it from public life has had consequences. Individual religions exist, each with their own dictates and creeds. In political and legal contexts, the term “religion” elides their many differences, implying that it’s the features they share that are more important to how they function in a liberal democracy. This implication is wrong on every level.
For instance, Western liberal democracies take it for granted that religion can, at least theoretically, be detached from politics. But in very few religions is this kind of separation of the sacred and secular spheres regarded as possible, let alone desirable. Christianity, the dominant religion in the West since the fourth century, is rare among world religions in that it is without any body of divinely sanctioned legislation that its adherents are instructed to impose upon earthly polities by force. Indeed, the New Testament acknowledges the role of the state to be both legitimate and distinct from the role of the Church.
This ability to treat religion and politics as two conceptually distinct and discrete things is something of a historical oddity, and doing so is entirely contingent upon certain features of Christian theology. As scholars like Brian Tierney and Larry Siedentop have noted, political secularism is itself a Christian idea, midwifed into the world by Christian theological convictions about the nature of worldly power. Consequently, it’s somewhat myopic to think that all religions can be absorbed into the political mold that Christianity carved out for itself in secular liberal regimes — though, to be sure, other faiths have proven their ability to bob and weave with the liberal order.
But there also exist interpretations of various religions that are fundamentally irreconcilable with our traditions of freedom. For instance, it’s a sad but unavoidable fact that American Muslims who see their faith through a purely spiritual prism are a relative minority when compared with the vast majority of Muslims in the world who believe their faith to be prescriptive of a particular political order set out by Mohammed in late antiquity. Among this larger global majority are the Islamists in France with whom Macron is doing battle. It’s hard to come to terms with this in a society like ours that so highly prizes religious freedom and variety, but we can’t shrink from acknowledging the fact that in beheading Paty, the Islamist responsible was simply following what he sees as the lead of his faith. After all, Mohammed himself once had a slave-girl stoned for singing satirical songs about him.
According to a quote that Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, gave to Le Parisien, the main principle of the charter of republican values is “the rejection of political Islam.” But the French government, along with the rest of us, has to come to terms with the fact that for most of the world’s Muslims, the adjective “political” is redundant when it comes to describing their faith. And they’re right, of course: Islam is, in and of itself, political. No one could read the Koran or the Hadith and come away with the impression that Mohammed was anything other than a political leader atop a theocratic civilization-state.
Political correctness has prevented us from speaking the truth about this clearly, but the fact remains that violent Islamism is not at all contrary or inimical to the original spirit of Islam. As Graeme Wood wrote in an excellent long-form piece about ISIS for The Atlantic in 2015:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
There is very little reason to think of the most devout and originalist forms of Islam as “religious” in strict legal and constitutional terms. Political Islam has shown itself to be more akin to communism or to national socialism than to Christianity or Hinduism. It’s a political ideology made all the more intractable by legitimating appeals to the divine. What’s more, its acolytes have no scruples about exploiting the conscience rights affirmed in the West for their own ends.
Macron should be congratulated for seeing through the lie that all religions are politically identical and for taking surgical action against the particular theo-political pretensions of radical French Islamism.