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…