Today's date:
Spring 2004

Monolithic Secularism Is Not Suited to Today’s Europe

John Gray is professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.

NPQ | As Europe ages and needs more immigrants from Muslim countries, what will be the proper “modus vivendi” that will keep the civil peace and avoid a series of localized clashes of civilization such as we are already beginning to see with the headscarf ban in France and the expulsion of mostly Muslim asylum seekers in the Netherlands?

Gray | The controversy over Islamic headscarves in French schools is unnecessary and harmful. It flows from the rigid secularism (laicite) of French republicanism—a tradition of citizenship that has many achievements to its credit, but which makes the absorption of immigrants with different religious traditions from the host society more difficult than it need be.

In Britain, as in a number of other European countries, church and state are not separated in the same way, and there is public funding for schools operated by a variety of faith communities (Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others). This sort of religious pluralism is a more promising path to modus vivendi between different communities than an attempt to cling to monolithic secularism, which is inconsistent with the multicultural societies that exist throughout most of Europe today.

As I have said before in NPQ, a “modus vivendi” approach would not seek to erect everywhere an impermeable wall between church and state. But it is not always wrong to do so. It might be the right thing to do, for example, in Turkey where there is a contest for state power between political Islamists and the very idea of a secular state. There might be arguments for having that wall if the consequences for knocking holes in it would be destabilization.

NPQ | Isn’t there a genuine fear behind the protestations of the so-called “postmodern populists” that the illiberal practices of socially conservative immigrants is a threat to the tolerant European culture? Mustn’t they be “integrated” according to the tolerant norms of the mainstream, not allowed to self-segregate according to their own norms?

Gray | Postmodern populists like the late Pim Fortuyn did tap into a widespread anxiety, but it wasn’t essentially about immigration. The issues facing Europe have to do not with antiquated conceptions of secularism but rather with the scope and content of their basic values.

Certain values have come to be foundational in late modern Europe and cannot be treated as negotiable. As an example, take free speech. The fatwa that was issued against Salman Rushdie put his life at risk, but it did so as a by-product of an attempt to curb his freedom of expression. Immigrants cannot reasonably claim that the values of their particular tradition or culture override those of the host society. The British state had an obligation to protect Rushdie, and to its credit it did so. Anyone who wishes to live as a citizen of the British state must support its basic values—and thereby its defense of Salman Rushdie.

Yet in having an obligation to respect these values, immigrants are not being discriminated against, since the same obligation applies to indigenous groups. Christian fundamentalists who seek to murder doctors who perform abortions are in precisely the same position. In both cases the force of law must be invoked to protect core freedoms. For a number of historical reasons, immigration has come to be the central issue of controversy in the politics of all European countries, but the real questions facing European societies today are not at bottom about immigration. They have to do with which of their values are negotiable and which are not.