A mosque in the Bosquets district of Clichy-sous-Bois. Credit Pierre Terdjman for The New York Times
Laïcité, the concept of state secularism, is a defining principle of the French republic, right up there with the national motto of liberty, equality and fraternity. Developed in the French Revolution, which targeted the Roman Catholic Church as much as the monarchy, laïcité governs the public life of a nation that sharply delineates the realms of Caesar and God.
But laïcité, pronounced lie-EE-see-tay, is now under severe challenge from Islam, the vibrant, growing religion that arrived in France with post-colonialism. Islam does not easily accept the ban on the public exercise of religion, whether it is the full veil for women or gender-mixed swimming pools, Friday Prayer that overcrowds mosques or halal food in schools.
Now, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings and an attack on a Jewish supermarket by Islamist gunmen, there are new questions about laïcité and whether it is being fairly applied in a France with an estimated five million Muslims — close to 8 percent of the population and making up the largest number of regular worshipers…
…Pierre-Eric Nahon, a head teacher in Noisy-le-Grand, a nearby suburb, says he has an increasingly difficult job. Teaching laïcité was easy when his students were largely homogeneous and few were religious.
He estimates that more than a third of his students are now Muslim, and he says he is not aware of a single Jewish student in his school or any other public school in the larger governmental area of Seine-St.-Denis. After the government’s new orders to promote laïcité, he and his staff are debating how to teach it. Should it be redefined, he asked, to allow religious education, including about Islam?…
Voltaire wrote that religion was on a diminishing road, but it has returned with a vengeance, said Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist. “Laïcité has become the first religion of the Republic, and it requires obedience and belief,” Mr. Moïsi said. “But I care more for democracy than for the republic,” he said. “To play Voltaire in the 21st century is irresponsible.”