The French government does not have the moral authority or practical capacity to urge Islam to modernize. The Catholic Church does.
Pierre Manent began working on his slim book about Islam and French society in the aftermath of the January 2015 murder of 11 people in and near the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. “Situation de la France” was published on Oct. 1. Six weeks later, terrorists affiliated with Islamic State murdered 130 people and seriously injured nearly 100 more in a series of attacks in and around Paris. Terrorist attacks have become more brazen during the intervening months, both in Europe and America, and Mr. Manent’s thoughtful and provocative argument—now translated into English as “Beyond Radical Secularism”—deserves as much attention as the Anglophone world can give it.
“When some of our citizens take up arms against us in such a brazen and implacable way,” he writes, “this means that, not only the State, our government, our political body, but we ourselves have lost the capacity to gather and direct our powers, to give our common life form and force.” Mr. Manent contends that France’s intellectual elite spectacularly failed to diagnose the problem of France’s enormous, largely unassimilated population of Muslims. The hope that they would accept liberal values and embrace the virtues of a secular state, he insists, was based on little more than self-flattery and naiveté.
Muslims living in Europe are not changing, Mr. Manent argues. Their religious and cultural customs are not softening or “modernizing” in the temperate atmosphere of French laïcité or other forms of European secularism. Indeed, he writes, “we are witnessing the extension and the consolidation of the domain of Muslim practices rather than its shrinking or relaxation.” The response of France’s non-Muslim secularists has been to ignore the problem or to pretend it’s not a problem at all except insofar as white European racism has made it one. French Muslims have no reason to change because, in effect, they haven’t been asked to.
The trouble, Mr. Manent thinks, is that enlightened liberal Europeans have defined themselves out of existence. “Dominant opinion in Europe,” he writes, “tends to consider Europe as a ‘nothing,’ a space empty of anything common, or at most as a ‘culture.’ ” What defines a society, what makes it something an outsider can conform to or reject, is its habits and its morals. But modern liberalism, based as it is on the “unlimited sovereignty of the individual” (as Mr. Manent puts it), will not allow the individual to be defined by anything external to him. What, then, are French and other European policy makers and intellectuals asking Muslims to be part of, to belong to? Right-thinking sophisticated “European” humanity? It’s hard to blame European Muslims for wishing to remain precisely who they are.
Mr. Manent concludes from all this that France, and its government, has neither the moral authority nor the practical capacity to urge French Islam to modernize itself. He counsels defensive measures and warns that it may be too late for even those. The government, he says, has every right to interrupt French Muslim organizations’ dependence on foreign money, to preserve and enforce the ban on polygamy, to defend freedom of expression, and to outlaw the burqa. This last exhortation is bracing: “To present visibly one’s refusal to be seen is an ongoing aggression against human coexistence. Europeans have never concealed the face, except for the executioner’s.”
Beyond defensive measures, though, French society must find a way to incorporate the Muslim community—a robust, cohesive and increasingly self-confident community—into French public life. But if Muslims are to view themselves as French citizens rather than merely as sojourners seeking a measure of prosperity in the West, they must have a sense of what they’re being urged to join. And that will require the return of a strong French nation-state with a sense of its own identity. I don’t know if Mr. Manent foresaw Great Britain’s departure from the European Union—I know nobody who did—but it fits the logic of his startling proposal.
Not only, though, must the French begin again to understand themselves as citizens of the French Republic; they must also come to terms with what he calls the European continent’s “Christian mark.” Mr. Manent’s “perspective is not that of a pious person, nor that of a ‘believer,’ ” he writes. But he notes that liberal democratic nation-states developed in Europe rather than elsewhere for specific reasons.
Europe formed nation-states of free citizens, he argues, as a consequence of a profound and double-sided “indeterminacy”: On the one hand, the Christian revelation offered the concept of a “covenant” between man and a loving God but did not dictate exactly how governments should reproduce that covenant; on the other, the Christian gospel demanded a response that could take different forms in different places. Over centuries, geographically cohesive groupings established similar but separate forms of religious adherence along with distinctive forms of covenantal government—that is, government in which rulers ruled for the good of the governed, not merely for self-aggrandizement or territorial gain.
The only humane, enlightened way to deal with the Muslim presence in France, then, is to acknowledge France’s Catholic Christian character. France’s Catholic Church, he thinks, will need to assert itself as a “mediator” between Muslims and non-Muslims, with a view to admitting Muslims into a civic life defined by some common practices and a common good. Evidently some, at least, of the most radical Islamists already think of the Catholic Church as somehow representative of French society—the young militants Nabil Petitjean and Adel Kermiche, remember, did not choose a university professor or a journalist or even a politician to murder but an 85-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel.
It would be easy to dismiss these proposals as impractical and unrealistic. France is a post-Christian nation; the great majority of its intellectual and political leaders are either hostile or indifferent to Christian doctrines and practices. Arguments like Mr. Manent’s will not move them to rethink France’s position and their own worldview. But further bloodshed—God forbid it should come to that—just might.