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August 10, 2021 55 min

First the banning of headscarves in France’s public schools. Then prohibitions against full face coverings and religious worship in public spaces, and most recently legislation that targets Islamic fundamentalism. And in Quebec, a former colony of France, the outlawing of religious symbols in government workplaces, including schools. These are some of the strong measures that France and Quebec have taken to enforce the separation of church and state that is characteristic of Western democracies. Proponents of secularism, or laïcité as it is called in France, say that secularism promotes healthy democracies by ensuring that competing religious loyalties do not undermine the full equality and free speech necessary to be good citizens. Furthermore, secularism protects religions by providing a framework where believers and non-believers alike can privately and peacefully co-habitate. What secularism cannot tolerate is politicized religion, which secularists say we are witnessing with the rise of Islamism. They argue that this politicized form of Islam threatens democratic ideals in exactly the same way that the Catholic church undermined the French Republic at the beginning of the last century, and must be opposed just as aggressively. The lengths to which France and Quebec are willing to go to promote their vision of a secular society has provoked an international outcry. Critics argue that modern day secularism is not a neutral policy, but a form of disguised colonialism that targets religious and racialized communities, in particular followers of Islam. They argue that the activist secularist policies we are witnessing right now are based on simplistic ideas about the Muslim faith, such as the assumption that oppression of women is an essential feature of Islam, and that Muslim communities do not adapt or integrate when they join new communities. Prohibiting religious expression is undemocratic and illiberal, a denial of fundamental rights that enrich societies. Rather than supporting peaceful and productive democracies, secularism is another form of fundamentalism that sows the seeds for extremism and terrorism.

Arguing for the motion is Caroline Fourest, a journalist, film maker, and expert on French secularism. She is the author of many best-selling books in France, including The Genius of Secularism.

Arguing against the motion is John Bowen, who is Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of numerous books about Islam including Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space.

Sources: AFP News Agency, France 24, CBC, Al Jazeera, TVO, Euronews, Wall Street Journal

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